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Wednesday, 11 April 2012

This a review of the The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil which gives an account of how normal people end up commiting evil deeds. It was written by Philip G. Zimbardo, who was behind the famous Stanford Prison Experiment. He created a fake prison and divided groups of students into guards and prisoners. Most of the book details what happened in the experiment, which was a descent into sadism by the guards in just a few weeks. The experiment was terminated after a week rather than the two it was meant to run. A lot of time is spent describing how the guards reacted, depriving prisonners of food and sleep and calling them names, locking them in solitary confinement and verbally abusing them. How on a day by day basis the abuse and mental anguish of the guards steadily grew worse.  Also the long term impacts of the experiment on all those involved are considered as he has followed them up on the participants over the decades, it seems that it was overwhelmingly a benign experience.

The prisoners are not really as closely analysed. Some rebel against the system, but this attracts more abuse from the guards. But the point is made that they were free to leave at any time, yet didn't do so. They seemed to genuinely believe that they couldn't leave and even plotted to escape.

The book then moves on to consider atrocities as Abu Ghraib in Iraq. His analysis of the behaviour of the guards is interesting and sympathetic towards them. For example the prison was under intermittant mortar attack, the Iraq guards smuggled in guards, civilians did the interrogation, guards were told to "soften up" prisonners, the prison was overcrowded, senior officers never patrolled the night shift and some of the abuses photographed were in retribuation for attacks by the criminals. One of the guards who received a long sentence had worked for 40 twelve hours on/twelve hours off shifts in a row and his time off was spent sleep in a prison cell.

Next he attempts to put the military and civil leadership of the US army on trial for the abuses. Interesting stuff, but it seems that there isn't really enough evidence to convict anyone or even to hold them morally if not legally responsible. It is not clear who is responsible, but on the other hand as an Iraqi who had been abused I would want someone punished. I was pretty critical of the prison guards a few years ago, but I now see that in their position it would be hard to say for sure I wouldn't have acted in the same way.

The book then examines the Stanley Milligram experiments and others of their ilk testing the way people comply to authority and will happily harm others if an authority figure instructs them to do so. These experiments consist of an authority figure request a subject inflicts pain on a confederate. Overwhelmingly people do. Interestingly of those that refused they tended to just walk out of the experiment rather than attecting to stop the experiment, something I had never really thought about. As these experiments are carried out usually in universities asking for volunteers merely walking away wouldn't have stopped any real abusive experiments. In the Stanford Prison Experiment a priest, parents and a lawyer were allowed visiting rights and despite some protest no-one really acted to stop it.

The book then looks at another risk factor which is groupthink, the tendency of people to suspend critical judgement and go with the rest of the group - it looks at the Bay of Pigs invasion as the classic example. I might have liked to have seen this section expanded.

The theme of the book is very much that people are driven towards evil as a result of the situation or system they are in rather than an intrinsic evil within them. However the book does argue that some are more susceptible to evil by virtue of their personality - conformist and shy people especially.

The book does allow some room for individual agency and next considers how to resist being lead down the path towards evil. The 10 points are:-
1. Admit mistakes. Be prepared to cut losses as bad choices or actions.
2. Be mindful. Don't live in autopilot.
3. Take responsibility for your own actions.
4. Protect your individuality. Don't hide behind an identity.
5. Respect just authority, rebel against unjust authority.
6. Seel group authority but value independence
7. Be frame vigiliant, be aware of how issues and situations are presented to you.
8. Balance time perspectives. Think how the future you will look back on your actions and look back at past commitments. Avoid what the author calls an extended present, where proper consideration of consequences can be avoided.
9. Don't sacrifice freedom for security
10. Be aware you can make a difference to systems and situations.

The book then enters what is, in my opinion, its weakest section which looks at heroism. Much of the book is well researched, but there is less scientific rigour in this part, probably because their isn't much research into heroism.

At times the book considers other atrocities and evils such as those in Vietnam, Rwanda and Nazi Germany. Although these are not analysed to the same extend of Abu Ghraib, probably because the author was an expert witness in the trial that followed.

This is a very good book, although I feel it is overlong and the author allows his political stance to colour the book somewhat. The chapter on heroism could have waited for another book really, and I am not sure it really fitted with the tone of the  book.

The overal theme is that evil is something that is normal for all of us and that situations can cause or encourage us to act in certain ways and we ought to be careful of this.