Led into temptation, but we can be delivered from evil

The Lucifer Effect
April 6, 2007

The potential for wickedness lurks within us all, concludes Mary Warnock.

Philip Zimbardo is a social psychologist and is therefore professionally concerned with the forces within a society that may mould the wrong-doing of members of that society. The driving force behind The Lucifer Effect is his need to find an explanation for the atrocities carried out on civilian prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq by US Army Reserve Military Police. For evil, in Zimbardo's definition, "consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanise or destroy innocent others - or using one's authority... to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf". The central question raised must be familiar to anyone who has contemplated atrocities, whether contemporary or historical: "Would I have behaved any better? Could not I, too, have led people to the gas chamber?" That, for me and many of my then teenage contemporaries, was a burning question when the existence of the concentration camps became generally known in the early 1940s. It is equally urgent today.

Zimbardo's involvement with such questions started in the early 1970s when, as a young research psychologist, he received funding to set up what was known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which he and his colleagues constructed a facsimile prison and found volunteer students to spend two weeks either as prisoners or as guards, with the roles assigned at random.

It was the time of the Vietnam War and the student revolt, and Stanford University was notorious for its riots and for the violent hostility between students and the "authorities", whether police or government. It was an explosive time to investigate the psychology of imprisonment. And to add plausibility to the experiment, the local police had been persuaded to arrest the students at the beginning of the first day.

Almost half of Zimbardo's book is devoted to a day-by-day account of the experiment and other similar research (including that of Stanley Milgram into blind obedience to authority, designed to find out how far people would go in, as they thought, exposing others to pain when commanded to do so). These chapters of straight narrative are detailed and absorbing. The emerging character of the prisoners and their guards is like nothing so much as Big Brother .

It is terrifying to see that the students acting as guards, even by the first night, are competing with each other in their pointless discipline and irrational punishments; the prisoners are beginning in small ways to become rebellious, even though they can still assure themselves "it is only an experiment".

Almost all the time, Zimbardo and his colleagues are observing what is happening through hidden peepholes; and they can hear everything that is said. Zimbardo keeps copious notes. At the outset, his main interest had been to observe what happened to the "prisoners" once they began to realise how totally powerless they had become, their freedom, their privacy, even their names taken away from them. The guards had been thought of merely as actors, necessary to create the illusion of imprisonment.

But increasingly, Zimbardo became preoccupied with the effect of the role-playing on the guards. He speculates in his notes about their fierce aggressiveness and wonders where it will end. It ends in tears. On the second day, the prisoners are mostly in open revolt and one of them is demanding to be let out, complaining that although he volunteered, and although he is being paid for being in prison, he had not been told how he would be treated. By the end of the day, he is showing signs of serious mental disturbance. Meanwhile, the guards are continuing to vie with one another in the inventiveness of the brutality. Another volunteer joins the prisoners and almost at once goes on hunger strike. At last, Zimbardo, who had initiated the experiment, calls it off after six days, realising how damaging it has been for all the students involved. These chapters make almost unbearable reading.

Zimbardo's analysis of the character changes he had witnessed in this experimental week and his application of what he learnt to cover later real-life situations is masterly and honest. (He admits that by most standards, the experiment itself was unethical.) At the head of his chapter on "Power, conformity and obedience", he quotes from C. S. Lewis ( The Inner Ring , 1944): "I believe that in all men's lives at certain periods and at many men's lives at all periods... one of the most dominant elements is the passion to be inside the local Ring... Of all the passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skilful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things." It is in this context that Zimbardo discusses what he calls Milgram's "shocking research"; and he considers Hannah Arendt's famous verdict on Adolf Eichmann ( Eichmann in Jerusalem , 1963): "He was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us - the lesson of the fearsome word-and-thought defying banality of evil."

There is obvious relevance here to the atrocities committed by the military at Abu Ghraib and also to the conversion of often well-educated, middle-class Muslims into suicide bombers.

Zimbardo has written not just another book of applied moral philosophy. On the contrary, he has thrown light on the nature of morality itself, and on the nature of human beings who, alone among animals, are also moral beings.

He rejects the complaisant view that people can be divided into the good and the bad, and that outrages such as that perpetrated at Abu Ghraib can be ascribed to a few "bad apples" in the otherwise impeccable basket of the military. We are all potentially "bad apples", and in certain situations we may, through our longing to conform or to join the inner circle of the powerful, do outrageously bad things.

As the title of his book suggests, the mythology of the Fall most aptly illustrates his view, as does the theological doctrine of original sin. For Zimbardo does not believe that if we hold that people are led into evil by the situations they are in, this exonerates them from blame. They are still moral beings and have done wrong, for which they are responsible. And if we hold them responsible, then we believe that they could have done otherwise.

They are capable of holding out against evil and becoming, albeit unostentatiously, heroes.

I believe he is right. The concept of temptation is central to morality.

His "guards" in the Stanford Experiment were tempted and fell; we can understand how it came about that they did, but they could have resisted.

That is the optimism we may still feel. We may be led into temptation, but we are capable of being delivered from evil.

Mary Warnock DBE was formerly Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge.

An interview with Philip Zimbardo will appear in the May 11 issue.

The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil

Author - Philip Zimbardo
Publisher - Random House
Pages - 553
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 1 84413 577 2

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