Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Lucifer Effect

Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo has a new book out: The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. He has been promoting his book through interviews and articles (links below).

While we wait for the book to arrive in India (at a reasonable price), we can read some of the ideas presented in the book, thanks to the wonderful blog The Situationist, which has Zimbardo as one of the contributors. So far, he has two series of posts: The Situational Sources of Evil (Parts I, II, and III), and From Heavens to Hell to Heroes (Parts I and II).

He also has an article on Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment (will probably become gated, so get it immediately), in which he describes the situational forces that made him forget his own responsibility towards the 'prisoners':

About halfway through the study, I had invited some psychologists who knew little about the experiment to interview the staff and participants, to get an outsiders' evaluation of how it was going. A former doctoral student of mine, Christina Maslach, a new assistant professor at the University of California at Berkeley, came down late Thursday night to have dinner with me. We had started dating recently and were becoming romantically involved. When she saw the prisoners lined up with bags over their heads, their legs chained, and guards shouting abuses at them while herding them to the toilet, she got upset and refused my suggestion to observe what was happening in this "crucible of human nature." Instead she ran out of the basement, and I followed, berating her for being overly sensitive and not realizing the important lessons taking place here.

"It is terrible what YOU are doing to those boys!" she yelled at me. Christina made evident in that one statement that human beings were suffering, not prisoners, not experimental subjects, not paid volunteers. And further, I was the one who was personally responsible for the horrors she had witnessed (and which she assumed were even worse when no outsider was looking). She also made clear that if this person I had become — the heartless superintendent of the Stanford prison — was the real me, not the caring, generous person she had come to like, she wanted nothing more to do with me.

That powerful jolt of reality snapped me back to my senses. I agreed that we had gone too far, that whatever was to be learned about situational power was already indelibly etched on our videos, data logs, and minds; there was no need to continue. I too had been transformed by my role in that situation to become a person that under any other circumstances I detest — an uncaring, authoritarian boss man. In retrospect, I believe that the main reason I did not end the study sooner resulted from the conflict created in me by my dual roles as principal investigator, and thus guardian of the research ethics of the experiment, and as the prison superintendent, eager to maintain the stability of my prison at all costs. I now realize that there should have been someone with authority above mine, someone in charge of oversight of the experiment, who surely would have blown the whistle earlier.

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The NYTimes carried an interview with Zimbardo (here's the accompanying video -- about 8 minutes). You probably want to skip all of this and see the video of the interview of Zimbardo by the Daily Show's John Stewart.