the Lucifer Effect – Updated

What this says about what make us behave in ways counter to our expectations, or, how to turn good people evil.

the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) has become notorious for how quickly it spun out of its designers’ control. It was a shocking lesson in how particular situations can set people against their better natures. There is a lot written about it,  – the Lucifer Effect is the first thorough presentation of the experiment and its conclusions.

the Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo

Life is the art of being well-deceived; and in order that the deception may succeed it must be habitual and uninterrupted.
–William Hazlitt, “On Pedantry,” The Round Table. 1817

Our sense of power is more vivid when we break a man’s spirit than when we win his heart.
–Eric hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind (1954)

“Power is a concern when people either have a lot of it and need to maintain it or when they have not much power and want to get more. However, power itself becomes a goal for many because of all the resources a the disposal of the powerful.”

Wherever anyone is against his will, that is to him a prison.
–Epictetus, Discourses, second century AD

“Good people can be induced, seduced, adn initiated into behaving in evil ways. They can also be led to act in irrational, stupid, self-destructive, antisocial, and mindless ways when they are immersed in ‘total situations’ that impact human nature in ways that challenge our sense of the stability and consistency of individual personality, of character, and of morality.”

also covered in Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power

“The SPE…reveals a message we do not want to accept: that most of us can undergo significant character transformations when we are caught up in the curcible of social forces. What we imagine we would do when we are outside that crucile may bear littel resemblance to who webece and what we are capable of doing oncce we are inside its network. The SPE is a clarion call to abandon simplisticotions of the Good Self dominating Bad Situations. We are best able to avoid, prevent, challenge, and change such negative situational forces only by recognizing their potential power to ‘infect us,’ as it has others who were similarly situated.”

“Any deed that any human being has ever committed, however horrible, is possible for any of us – under the right or wrong situational circumstances. That knowledge does not excuse evil; rather, it democratizes it, sharing its blame among ordinary actors rather than declaring it the province only of deviants and despots – of Them but not Us.”

“The primary simple lesson the Sandford Prison Experiment teaches is that situations matter. Social situations can have more profound effects on the behavior and mental functioning of individuals, groups, and national leaders than we might believe possible. Some situations can exert such powerful influence over us that we can be led to behave in ways we would not, could not, predict was possible in advance.”

“Situational power is most salient in novel settings, those in which people cannot call on previous guidelines for their new behavioral options. In such situations the usual reward structures are different an expectations are violated. Under such circumstances, personality variables have little predictive utility because they depend on estimations of imagined future actions based on characteristic past reactions in familiar situations – but rarely in the kind of new situation currently being encountered…”

“Therefore, whenever we are trying to understand the cause of any puzzling, unusual behavior, our own or that of others, we should start out with a situational analysis. We should yield to dispositional analyses (genes, personality traits, personal pathologies, and so on) only when the situationally based detective work fails to make sense of the puzzle. … That means we start not by blaming the actor for the deed but rather, being charitable, we first investigate the scene for situational determinants to act.”

“However, attributional charity is easier said than practiced because most of us have a powerful mental bias – the “fundamental attribution error” – that prevents such reasonable thinking. Societies that promote individualism, such as the United States and many other Western nations, have come to believe that dispositions matter more than situations. We overemphasize personality in explaining any behavior 2hle concurrently underemphasizing situational influences.”

Time Perspective

People on the outside tend to live looking toward the future. The future for a convict is vague and sketchy. His past is gone; people stop writing after a while. The present becomes magnified.
–Ken Whalen,e x-convict and playwright

“In the SPE, time sense became distorted in many ways. For the prisoners, their sleep cycle was disrupted by forced awakening for the counts; they were always tired, and that exhaustion was amplified by the tedious exercises and menial work regimes assigned to them. Their sense of time was also affected by the absence of external signs of day and night and lack of clocks. …the prisoners magnified their focus on the awful present by talking about the immediate situation and rarely about their past or future lives. interestingly, after each of he prisoners who was released early was gone, the remaining prisoners made virtually no reference to them. They were gone and forgotten, pushed out of immediate memory focus.”

“The Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory (ZTPI) is being used by researchers around the world to study a host of important phenomena, such as decision-making biases, health issues, stress, addiction, problem solving, environmental sustainability, and many more “time-tagged” phenomena.”

See the Time Paradox

“Most people’s lives are controlled by heir overuse of one time frame – past, present, or future – and underreliance on the other frames, which they should be using in a more flexible, balanced fashion depending on the demands of any given situation. When there s work to be done, the discipline associated with future orientations needed. When we need to connect to family and friends, the rooted positive past should be called upon. When we want to enjoy life’s sensual pleasures and seek new adventures, a present orientation best enables us to do so. Many factors contribute to biasing people toward being excessively present-oriented – either hedonistic or fatalistic – excessively future-oriented, or excessively past-oriented – in either positive or negative focus. Among those factors are cultural influences, education, religion, social class, family modeling, and personal experiences. The SPE made it obvious that time perspective was not merely a personal trait or an outcome measure but could be altered by experiences in situations that expanded or contracted it.

“When studying institutions, it also becomes apparent that time perspective plays a powerful, hidden role in shaping the minds of those who became “institutionalized,” whether in prisons, homes for the aged, or chronic care hospitals Endless routines and undifferentiated daily activities create a seeming circularity of time – it just flows on, undivided into meaningful linear units but creeping onward as if it were an ant’s journey on a Mobius strip of life. Among his insights into the meaning of imprisonment in Soledad Brother, George Jackson reflects on time and its distortion:

The Time slips away from me. … There is no rest from it even at night. … The days, even the weeks lapse one into the other, endlessly into one another. Each day that comes and goes is exactly like the one that went before.

I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside … 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.
–CS Lewis, “The Inner Ring” (1944)

“If we think of social power as arrayed in a set of concentric circles from he most powerful central or inner ring moving outward to the least socially significant outer ring, we can appreciate his focus on the centripetal pull of that central circle. Lewis’s “Inner Ring” is the elusive Camelot of acceptance into some special group, some privileged association, that confers instant status and enhanced identity.”

“The vocal minority was most influential when it had four qualities: it persisted in affirming a consistent position, appeared confident, avoided seeming rigid and dogmatic, and was skilled in social influence.”

“In society, the majority tends to be the defender of the status quo, while the force for innovation and change comes from the minority members or individuals either dissatisfied with the current system or able to visualize new and creative alternative ways of dealing with current problems. According to the French social theorist Serge Moscovici, the conflict between the entrenched majority view and the dissident minority perspective is an essential precondition of innovation and revolution that can lead to positive social change.”

Ten Lessons from the Milgram Studies: Creating Evil Traps for Good People

“5. Creating opportunities for the diffusion of responsibility or abdication of responsibility for negative outcomes: others will be responsible, or the actor won’t be held liable.
6. Starting the path toward the ultimate evil act with a small, seemingly insignificant first step, the seas “foot in the door” that swings open subsequent greater compliance pressures, and leads down a slippery slope.
8. Gradually changing the nature of the authority figure…from initially “just” and reasonable to “unjust” and demanding, even irrational. This tactic elicits initial compliance and later confusion, since we expect consistency from authorities and friends. Not acknowledging that this transformation has occurred leads to mindless obedience (and it is part of many “date rape” scenarios and a reason why women stay with their abusing spouses).
10. Offering an ideology, or a big lie, to justify the use of any means to achieve the seemingly desirable, essential goal.”

“From his attempt to understand the roots of evil in genocide and mass violence around the world, [psychologist Ervin] Staub has come to believe that ‘Evil that arises out of ordinary thinking and is committed by ordinary people is the norm, not the exception. … Great evil arises out of ordinary psychological processes that evolve, usually with a progression along the continuum of destruction.’ He highlights the significance of ordinary people being caught up in situations where they can learn to practice evil acts that are demanded by higher-level authority systems: ‘Being part of a system shapes views, rewards adherence to dominant views, and makes deviation psychologically demanding and difficult.'”

“…torturers and death squad executioners were not unusual or deviant in any way prior to practicing their new roles, nor were there any persisting deviant tendencies or pathologies among any of them in the years following their work as torturers and executioners.”

“Who adopts this fatalistic role [of suicide bomber]? Is it poor desperate, socially isolated, illiterate young people with no career and no future? Not at all. According to the results of a recent study of four hundred al-Queda members, three quarters of that sample came from the upper or middle class. This study by the forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman also found other evidence f the normality and even superiority of these youths turned suicide bombers.”

“…the more people who witness an emergency, the less likely any of them will intervene to help. Being part of a passively observing group means that each individual assumes that others are available who could or will help, so there is less pressure to initiate action than there is when people are alone or with only one other observer. The mere presence of others diffuses the sense of personal responsibility of any individual to get involved.”

“Our personal identities are socially situated. We are where we live, eat, work, and make love. It is possible to predict a wide range of your attitudes and behavior from knowing any combination of ‘status’ factors – your ethnicity, social class, eduction, and religion and where you live – more accurately than by knowing your personality traits.”


For a long time – at least six decades – photographs have laid down the tracks of how important conflicts are judged and remembered he Western memory museum is now mostly a visual one. Photographs have an insuperable power to determine what we recall of events, and it now seems probable that the defining association of people everywhere with the war that the United States launched pre-emptively in Iraq last year will be photographs of the torture of Iraqui prisoners by Americans in the most infamous of Saddam Hussein’s prisons, Abu Ghraib.
–Susan Sontag, Regarding the Torture of Others

“Sontag went on to highlight the content of those images as indicative of  the worst excesses of a culture grown shameless as its citizens are exposed daily to TV shows like Jerry Springer’s and others where participants are vying to humiliate themselves publicly. She indicts American culture as one that admires unrestrained power and dominance.”

the Taguba Report
the Schlesinger Report

“…’administrative evil’…constitutes the foundation of complicity of the chain of political and military command in these abuses and tortures.”

(notes to above):
“‘Administrative evil’ functions by having agency operatives focus on developing the correct procedures, the right steps in a process that is the most efficient means to an end. These administrators do so without recognizing that the means to that end are immoral, illegal, and unethical. They are conveniently blinded from the realities of the substance of the abuses – and the horrendous consequences – that are generated by their policies and practices. Those guilty of administrative evil may be corporations, police and corrections departments, or military and government centers, as well as radical revolutionary groups.

“As we saw some forty years ago in the calculated approach of Robert McNamara to the war in Vietnam, reliance on a scientific-analytic mind-set along with a technical-rational-legalistic approach to social and political problems enables an organization and its members to engage in evil that is masked and ethically hidden. In one of its manifestations, the State sanctions its agents’ engagement in actions ordinarily considered immoral, illegal, and evil by recasting them as necessary for the defense of national security. Just as the Holocaust and the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II were examples of administrative evil, so too, I argue, is the torture program of the Bush administration as part of its ‘war on terror.’

“This profound concept of ‘administrative evil’ has been developed by Guy B. Adams and Danny L. Balfour in their provocative book Unmasking Administrative Evil, re. ed.. (New York: ME Sharpe, 2004)”

“[Seymour] Hersh’s New Yorker magazine article, which broke open the scandal, concluded about the Ryder report that ‘His investigation was at best a failure, at worst a coverup.”

see Human Rights Watch; Getting Away with Torture


If cruelty is no longer declared unlawful, but instead is applied as a matter of policy, it alters the fundamental relationship of man to government. It destroys the whole notion of individual rights. The Constitution recognizes that man has an inherent right, not bestowed by the state or laws, to personal dignity, including the right to be free of cruelty. It applies to all human beings, not just in America – even those designated as ‘unlawful enemy combatants.’ If you make this exception, the whole Constitution crumbles. It’s a transformative issue.
–Navy General Counsel Alerto Mora

“In line with previous presidential failures – in their ‘War on Nouns’  on Poverty and Drugs – the Bush administration declared a War on Terror’ following the attacks of September 11, 2001.”

“French existentialist author Albert Camus has pointed out that fear is a method; terror makes fear, and fear stops people from thinking rationally. It makes people think in abstractions about the enemy, the terrorists, the insurgents who threaten us, who thus must be destroyed. Once we begin thinking of people as a class of entities, as abstractions, then they meld into ‘faces of the enemy,’ and primitive impulses to kill and torture them surface even among ordinarily peaceful people.”


The memos read like the advice of a mob lawyer to a mafia don on how to skirt the law and stay out of prison. Avoiding prosecution is literally a theme of the memoranda. … Another theme in the memoranda, an even more deeply disturbing one, is that the President can order the torture of prisoners even though it is forbidden by a federal statue and by the international Convention Against Torture, to which the United States is a signatory.
–legal scholar Anthony Lewis

“In a remarkable 1,249-page volume, The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib, edited by Karen Greenberg and Joshua Dratel, the full paper trail of memoranda is laid out, exposing the perversion of legal skills by government lawyers.”

While the proverbial road to hell is paved with good intentions, the internal government memos collected in this publication demonstrate that the path to the purgatory that is Guantanamo Bay, or Abu Ghraib, has been paved with decidedly bad intentions.
–Karen Greenberg and Joshua Dratel

A Ten-step Program to Resist Unwanted Influences

1) “Let’s start out by encouraging admission of our mistakes, first to ourselves, then to others. … Doing so openly reduces the need to justify or rationalize our mistakes and thereby to continue to give support to bad or immoral actions. Confession of error undercuts the motivation to reduce cognitive dissonance; dissonance evaporate when a reality check occurs.”

2) “In many settings smart people do dumb things because they fail to attend to key features in the words or actions of influence agents and fail to notice obvious situational clues. Too often we function on automatic pilot, using outworn scripts that have worked for us in the past, never stopping to evaluate whether they are appropriate in the here and now.”

3) “Taking responsibility for one’s decisions and actions put the actor in he driver’s seat, for better or for worse. Allowing others to compromise their own responsibility, to diffuse it, makes them powerful backseat drivers and makes the car move recklessly ahead without a responsible driver.”

4) “Do not allow others to deindividuate you, to put you into a category, a box, a slot, to turn you into an object. Assert your individuality; politely state your name and your credentials, loud and clear. Insist on the same behavior in others.”

5) “In every situation, work to distinguish between those in authority who, because of their expertise, wisdom, seniority, or special status, deserve respect, and the unjust authority figures who demand our obedience without having any substance.”

6) “The lure of acceptance into a desired social group is…powerful…”

7) “Who makes the frame becomes the artist, or the con artist. The way issues are framed is often more influential than the persuasive arguments within their boundaries.”

8) We can be led to do things that are not really what we believe in when we allow ourselves to become trapped in an expanded present moment. When we stop relying on our sense of past commitments and our sense of future liabilities, we open ourselves to situational temptations to engage in Lord of the Flies excesses.”

9) “Never sacrifice basic personal freedoms for the promise of security because the sacrifices are real and immediate and the security is a distant illusion.”

10)”I can oppose unjust systems.”

Resisting Influence Guide

“Emanating from the analyses of human virtues by positive psychologists is a set of six major categories of virtuous behavior that enjoy almost universal recognition across cultures. The classification includes: wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Of these, courage, justice, and transcendence are the central characteristics of heroism. Transcendence includes beliefs and actions that go beyond the limits of self.”

“Heroism can be defined as having four key features: (a) it must be engaged in voluntarily; (b) it must involve a risk or potential sacrifice, such as the threat of death, an immediate threat to physical integrity, a long-term threat to health, or the potential for serious degradation of one’s quality of life; (c) it must be conducted in service to one or more other people or the community as a whole; and (d) it must be without secondary, extrinsic gain anticipated at the time of the act.”


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