Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Lucifer Effect

Cambodia has a lot of fertile farm land, hot weather, and plenty of fresh water in its rivers, lakes, and rain.  The land produces rice, vegetables, fruits, fish and farm animals easily.  So why is it so poor these days?  Much of the misery is, of course, man-made.  The Khmer Rouge years in the 1970s were exceptionally brutal, said to have killed 2 million out of the then 8 million population.  The country is still suffering from the madness and its corrupting influences decades later.  How can people be so cruel to each other, even their own people? 

Philip Zimbardo, in his book “The Lucifer Effect - How good people turn evil”, argues that the sadistic jail guards and butchers of the killing fields were not necessarily evil by nature.  But “normal” people, even good people, can turn evil when they are put into situations in which they are given unchecked power over dehumanized “enemies”.  Further, they will almost certainly turn evil if they are pressured to conform to an evil “in” group.

In 1971, Zimbardo conducted a famous experiment - the “Stanford Prison Experiment” - with a group of “normal” students from Stanford University.  He assigned them randomly into the roles of “prisoners” and “prison guards” in a simulated prison.  In just a few days, the prisoners turned submissive and passive.  The guards turned sadistic, performing many abusive, sexual, humiliating, torturous acts towards the “prisoners” that are disturbingly prescient of those subsequently reported in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq exposed in 2004.

Zimbardo’s conclusion was that these sadistic “guards” in the simulated prison turned evil not because of some inherent faults in their character, but because of the influence of the “situation” that they were put under - as guards in the simulated prison.  He argued that almost all of us, when put under such situations, will conform to the assigned role and turn evil. 

I agree with Zimbardo that practically all of us will turn evil when we are put under such pressurizing situations.  But I disagree partially with his explanations.  We will turn evil, not because we are inherently good, who are only pressured to turn evil.   We will turn evil because we have the potential, in fact, tendencies to be evil, in us inherently.  These evil tendencies will rear it head when they are given a chance, as in “the situation”.  We can only prevent it by being vigilant - recognizing and staying away from such situations as much as possible.  And when we cannot avoid being put under such situations, draw on the courage and power of God to overcome the evil. 


W said...

There is an interesting follow-up of the SPE in the Standford Magazine, 40 years later:

StephenC said...

Thank you for the link. Some of the material on the web page were already in the book. But there are also some there were not there. Thanks. It really was a fascinating experiment, wasn't it.

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