Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Book Review Of The Month: "The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil" By: Philip Zimbardo

Sinister title aside, this book is not written from a sinister perspective. It is methodical in its analysis of how easy it is for the average person to transform from a caring individual into a tyrant.

Written and published in 2007, the author starts the tome chronicling an experiment that he personally conducted in the 1970s. The famous psychological and sociological experiment called “The Stanford Prison Experiment” took college students of similar backgrounds and psychological make-ups, divided them into two groups- that of prisoner and guard, and housed them in a make-shift prison. The author observed how quickly the students who were assigned to the role of guard turned into sadistic authority figures. The students who were cast as prisoners also quickly adapted to their roles and became complacent victims. The author/experiment conductor, who is a well-heeled psychologist, also got sucked into the real-life fantasy. He failed to recognize how cruel and damaging his experiment had become while it was being played out. The lesson learned from the experiment was how easy it was for people to take advantage of their power, or fall into a role where they failed to use their power to right an obvious wrong. The famous experiment also shows the hypocrisy of prison being touted as a place for rehabilitation. Prison system officials, judges, attorneys, politicians, incarceration advocates, and law enforcement members should deeply explore the lessons brought forth by this experiment. It would truly be world changing if the wisdom gained from the Stanford Prison Experiment was studied and applied.

“The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil,” wasn’t strictly about the Stanford Prison Experiment. The author also explores other scenarios where people transform into abusers of their power. He dissects the environment of military prisons, discusses in detail the abuses at Abu Ghraib, and explores the danger of “group think” and “learned helplessness.”

This book was well balanced, because in the author’s own words in the 14th chapter of the book: “I will try to balance some of the negativity with which we have been dealing in our long journey by offering two encouraging perspectives on learning ways to resist unwanted influences and on celebrating heroes and heroism.” He does just that. I like the fact that Philip Zimbardo analyzed the issue that he was addressing in this book from several angles, gave striking examples, and then provided solutions.

In one part of the book Mr. Zimbardo gives a list of ten 10 methods that are often employed to covertly suck unsuspecting people into doing negative things that they wouldn’t normally do. By pointing out where the landmines are, the reader can hopefully recognize them and not step on them in their everyday life. [SIDEBAR: CLICK HERE and CLICK HERE for book excerpts that list these 10 methods.]

Overall, I thought that the book was a great read. It is important to understand the psychology behind behaviors. This is the only way that negative behaviors and cycles can be broken and improved.

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