THE KILLER THAT LURKS WITHIN ALL OF US
by Elizabeth Simon
The Courier Mail (Australia)
September 15, 2007 Saturday
First with the news Edition
The Lucifer Effect
Random House $55
ACCORDING to Philip Zimbardo, emeritus professor of psychology at
Stanford University in the US, the 20th century was the "mass-murder
century", a claim he backs up with appallingly substantial statistics.
In 1915, Ottoman Turks slaughtered 1.5 million Armenians.
The mid-20th century witnessed the liquidation by the Nazis of 6
million Jews, 3 million Soviet prisoners of war and 2 million Poles.
Stalin’s Soviet empire murdered 20 million Russians, and 30 million
Chinese were killed under Mao Zedong’s rule.
The Communist Khmer Rouge regime massacred 1.7 million Cambodians.
Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party murdered 100,000 Kurds in Iraq.
A United Nations report estimates that between 800,000 and 1 million
Rwandans were killed in a three-month period, making the massacre
the most ferocious in recorded history.
In 2006, genocide has erupted in Sudan’s Darfur region "which most
of the world has conveniently ignored".
In the safety of middle-class Australian beds, we find it difficult
if not impossible to comprehend the enormity of these acts.
In The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo argues that the capacity to perpetrate
such evil exists in every one of us if the "right stimulus" is applied.
While history and literature offer us many examples of the human
capacity to become abusers (often, ironically, after liberating the
abused), Zimbardo updates the theme so succinctly dealt with in Brave
New World, Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies.
In 1971, Bronx-born Zimbardo had a contract to write a book about his
famous and widely reported Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) in which
10 university students with no known tendencies for cruelty took the
roles of prison guards and prisoners for two weeks. The author cut
the experiment short after six days because of the emotional and
physical abuses that erupted while the participants played their
Now, 36 years later, he details the process that rapidly turned a
group of "normal" college students into either sadistic brutes or
emotionally bankrupted slaves.
He does not resile from his responsibility in acting the role of
prison superintendent. He freely admits that it was the intervention
of a colleague (later to become his wife) Christina Maslach, that
induced him to stop the experiment.
In 2004, parallels between SPE and the tortures and sadistic cruelties
in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison led Zimbardo to appear — unsuccessfully —
as a defence witness at the trial of Staff Sergeant Chip Frederick,
one of the American military’s seven so-called "bad apples" at that
Because of his own experience and that of other researchers, Zimbardo
argues the case that the "scapegoating" of individuals is ineffectual.
He believes it is more the situation that corrupts rather than the
human disposition. "Bad systems" create "bad situations" that in turn
create "bad behaviours", even in "good people".
Inevitably the book journeys relentlessly into the heart of darkness.
Less convincingly, in the book’s final chapter, Zimbardo offers some
scope for remedy by citing resistance to situational influences and
celebrating a spirit of heroism.
He offers a 10-step program, which we can only hope helps prevent
such atrocities in the future.
While The Lucifer Effect is a serious academic treatise, with 42 pages
of footnotes and 16-page index, its conversational style renders it
readable, though perhaps not enjoyable.