Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Lucifer Effect: Should be required reading everywhere

(Originally posted by Pat on 3/16/10)

You should read Philip Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect. I don't care who you are, you should read it. If you are (as I am) especially interested in psychology and ethics, then you have particular reason to read it. But no matter who you are, this book could change your life.
Before I get into the many things I admire about this book, I'd like to mention, the few things I don't like about it:
First, I'm not thrilled about the religious overtones in the title, which also tend to suggest some sort of supernatural agency or magical “free will” that is precisely not what the book is about. I would have instead called it the The Nuremberg Effect, because the greatest demonstration of its principles came twice in Nuremberg: The first time, when Adolf Hitler rallied the crowds to his service, and the second time, when the response to accusations of war crimes was almost invariably “I was just following orders”. Unlike Lucifer in Hell, an imaginary being in an imaginary place, the Nazis at Nuremberg were entirely real human beings in an entirely real human city, and their biological and psychological similarity to the rest of us is as chilling as it is undeniable.
Second, Zimbardo's discussion of absolute versus relative ethics is philosophically na├»ve; it equates universal moral norms with deontological absolutism, and describes utilitarianism as a form of “relative ethics” when in fact a nuanced utilitarianism based on rules and preferences is one of the best candidates for a viable theory of universal, non-relativistic ethics. He makes a worthwhile distinction between absolutism and non-absolutism, but he doesn't seem to realize that absolutism is not considered credible by any mainstream philosopher, nor is it workable in real life.
Third, the writing style doesn't seem particularly polished, and the diction is rather strange in places. I often found myself jarred by the way a sentence was worded, or by the way two sentences were strung together. It's not bad writing exactly; it just doesn't seem as good as it could be.
But in general, this is a great book, great not in the slang sense of “very cool”, but indeed great in the sense of a work that will (or ought to be) forever remembered as ground-breaking. The Lucifer Effect (along with the Stanford Prison Experiment which it describes and reflects upon) forces us to rethink much of what we thought we knew about human behavior.
I remember all throughout reading this book, my strongest feeling was invariably “Not me”; Not me, never me, I could never do any of these things. But let us consider for a moment the demographics of the experiment: psychologically normal 18-25 year-old male psychology students from prestigious American universities, all with no criminal record, mostly White, mostly middle-class. I am that demographic. It was chosen specifically because it was thought to be the least likely group of young males to engage in wanton evil (they wanted to use young males since young males perpetrate nearly all violence in the world; but an experiment involving actual felons wouldn't have convinced anyone of anything). It would have been me. I can't be sure which one I would have been: the kind-hearted but passive guard Geoff, or the sadistic tyrant Hellmann? 416, who risked a hunger strike to protest the conditions, 8612, who became immediately distressed and uncontrollable, or 2093, who rigorously obeyed orders without question or resistance? We should all reflect upon these questions, for a complete measure of a man's character must surely include what he would do in any situation, not merely those which are safe and familiar.
On the other hand, part of the point Zimbardo is making is that character isn't nearly as powerful as we ordinarily suppose. He is arguing precisely that the greatest atrocities in history were perpetrated not by incorrigibly evil monsters, but by perfectly ordinary men in terrible circumstances. His evidence for this claim is substantial, and I am convinced it must be correct; but still my mind reels to suppose it. Who would I have been at Nuremberg? Who would I have been under apartheid?
Yet there is hope, for Zimbardo is careful to point out that certain personality traits really do offer protection against systemic forces. He calls this constellation of traits “heroism”, and says that it rests in the minds of people who are not only good under ordinary circumstances, but continue to be good even under extraordinary circumstances. He isn't sure whether it's possible to detect a hero ex ante, but he does think that these skills are trainable. If this is right, then heroism training should be among our highest priorities as a civilization. We should be training people to resist persuasion, to challenge authorities, to reflect upon their own individual moral values.
Indeed, perhaps the most important step in this process is to read The Lucifer Effect. If this is the case, it should be required reading for military commanders, police commissioners, political candidates, high school teachers, college professors—ah, why not, everyone. This is something we all need to understand and cope with.
The reward could well be the end of human atrocity!

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