A Review of The Lucifer Effect

A review of Dr. Phillip Zimbardo’s book The Lucifer Effect.

            Zimbardo’s (2008) detailed account of the Stanford Prison Experiment and comparison to the Abu Ghraib incident in the deserts of Iraq serves as a chilling reminder of how humanity is susceptible to confines of its environment. The author directs the reader’s attention to some of the findings of the Stanford Prison Experiment that would have typically been viewed as insignificant as being of great importance and as telling signs of the psychological changes that occurred. Turning from events in Palo Alto, he provides some of the graphic details of the atrocities of Abu Ghraib to demonstrate how they parallel the events of his controlled experiment. These two examples along with various supporting Social Psychology research demonstrate how that a situation will often control the people in it as opposed to the people controlling the situation.

            Dr. Zimbardo took several steps in preparing the Stanford Prison Experiment to ensure that the experiment was as realistic as could be for the participants. The experiment was originally designed to study the effects of a prison environment on normal individuals so realism was greatly desire for the integrity of the experiment. Prior to the morning that the experiment began, Dr. Zimbardo arranged for the local police to aid in engulfing the participants in the mindset of being incarcerated by staging mock arrests of the participants who were chosen to be prisoners. One by one, the participants were arrested, booked, and taken to the mock prison. They were stripped, deloused, and given prison uniforms to wear. The initiation process served to disorient the prisoners and symbolically clean them of their past identities that existed prior to entering the prison environment.

            The first set of guards introduced themselves to the prisoners during the first count of the prisoners. The role call served as a primary means of humiliating the prisoners. The role was used to remind the prisoners of their status of being a number as opposed to an individual with a name. The numbering system dehumanized the prisoners by objectifying each of them as a symbol, which was their individual identification number. The counts were used to psychologically torment the prisoners.The guards wore sunglasses while in the prison to create a sense of anonymity of who the guards were. The guards could assume their role without a feeling of being responsible for their actions as a result of this anonymity. The guards began to push the prisoners first day by degrading them through ritualistic abuses of the prisoners.

            Many of the prisoners felt that they would gain an insight into surviving in a prison setting that could be used later in life, as many prisoners were anti-war protestors. The prisoners also quickly assumed their roles. The indoctrination into prison had physically and psychologically tired the prisoners. Some of the prisoners attempted to rebel, but the guards took control back from the prisoners.  Many of the prisoners were subject to spending time in solitary confinement as a punishment. Doug, an outspoken prisoner, was the first to have to be removed from the experiment because he experienced a mental breakdown as a result of the stress to which he was exposed. Several other prisoners were later released as a result of the psychological stresses prior to the termination of the experiment in addition to Doug.

            The prisoners and guards assumed their roles so well that they forgot that were only playing roles throughout the experiment, but they were not alone. Many other individuals assumed roles in the experiment and began to act as if the experiment were real. Several highly trained and educated professionals including Dr. Zimbardo, his colleagues, and the participants’ families and friends acted as individuals would in similar roles in a real prison throughout the experiment just as the guards and prisoners did. As a result, the abuse by the guards was overlooked just as it would in a real prison. The experiment began to spiral out of control over the course of the week. The guards subjected the prisoners to humiliation, turned the prisoners against each other, detained prisoners in solitary confinement for excessive periods of time, and even caused sexual and homophobic humiliation.

The prison environment extended its influence to affect those overseeing the experiment and outsiders. Dr. Zimbardo began to look at the prisoners the same way at times throughout the experiment. Dr. Zimbardo was so lost in his role as a prison superintendent that he took precautionary steps to avoid a perceived assault on his prison that he believed ex-prisoner Doug was going to attempt. The assault never happened, but the preparation that Dr. Zimbardo took to protect his prison against such an assault demonstrated how lost he was in his role in the experiment. Parole hearings were played out close to the end of the experiment. During the hearings, guests played the roles of the parole board members and many of the members began to rationalize and justify the treatment of the prisoners.

The one individual who stepped forth to say that the guards’ behaviors were cruel and torturous was Christina Maslach. Christina was Dr. Zimbardo’s girlfriend and had recently graduated from a Ph.D. program to accept a teaching position at UC-Berkley. She served on the parole board and was asked to view the activities inside the prison so that she could give an opinion on the effects of the experiment. She was outraged at the treatment of the prisoners by the guards. She found it surprisingly shocking that she had met a kind young man who was one of the guards a few moments before walking into the prison to discover that he was the most ruthless of the guards. Christina heroically confronted Dr. Zimbardo to tell him that the things that were going on were inhumane. Her confrontation served as the catalyst to led Dr. Zimbardo to end the experiment the next morning. The experiment was terminated eight days earlier than the two weeks it was designed to run.

Once the experiment was over, Dr. Zimbardo used several of the findings of the experiment to advocate change in real life prisons. The findings were used in hearings following riots at San Quinton Prison and Attica Prison. Numerous researchers have duplicated the experiment to find similar effects with few questionable exceptions. The participants and researchers of the original experiment went on to have successful careers with some working with prison systems and continuing to advocate change and improvements. Recently, the experiment has been brought to the attention of the public in light of the tortures that have occurred at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq at the hands of American soldiers.  

Parallels to Abu Ghraib

            The author compares the effects of the experiment upon the guards, administration, and outsiders of the Stanford Prison to the real-life effects that were found to exist in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. There are several logical parallels between the two events that can explain how prisoner mistreatment can escalate to the levels that were seen. These parallels include concepts such as the life-encompassing effect of the roles that were assumed by the guards, the dehumanization of the prisoners, and the ambiguity of directions and rules that were provided to the guards. The leap from experiment to real-life scenario appears to be well within the confines of an acceptable association of similarities. One can clearly note that the author does this in a manner that is easily understood to the general public even those without a developed understanding of social psychology principles and concepts.

            The many of guards at Abu Ghraib were normal individuals prior to enter Abu Ghraib just as the guards in the Stanford prison were average, good, and healthy individuals. Neighbors of the individuals responsible for such torture reported shock as they claimed that the individual was such a nice person or that they could have never imagined the person doing such things. The individuals who committed such acts of torture were, in some ways, not the same person as the one who had existed before he or she had entered that prison. Just as a prison will change an individual, war tends to change an individual. As the prisoners were symbolically clean of their past identities when being indoctrinated into the Stanford prison, the trip from America to Iraq symbolically separated the guards of Abu Ghraib from their past identities. This disconnect from past self is a clear parallel that allowed the guards of Abu Ghraib to assume their new roles as guard of a prison in the midst of a war zone without feeling guilt at the time of the acts they committed. Once the guards assumed the roles, the role took over their lives. They were in the prison environment twenty-four hours per day. They were never afforded the chance to step out of their role for any degree of time so that they could reconnect to their prior sense of humanity or evaluate the behavior of their new role that was engulfing their lives.

            The act of dehumanization was also a clear connection between the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Abu Ghraib Prison. Many of the guards at Abu Ghraib viewed the prisoners as animals as opposed to humans. The process of dehumanization had only begun at Stanford. The Abu Ghraib guards were exposed to the process for a much longer period of time. As the prisoners were further removed from being viewed as humans by the guards, the act of torture became easier for the guards because they no longer viewed the prisoners as humans but animals or objects instead. The process of dehumanization could be seen at the Stanford Prison as the guards began to use the prisoners for their own amusement and manipulate them like toys. The dehumanization process in Abu Ghraib was also fuel by anti-Islam sentiment as the prison was in a war torn area. The prisoners were then more easily associated with the abstract concept of enemy as opposed to person as a result of the situation going on outside the prison. The war outside of the prison could be paralleled to the threat of an assault on the Stanford Prison by former-prisoner Doug. Such a parallel shows how the guards and administrations of both prisons redefined the prisoners as threats that made the abuse easier to overlook.

            Another clear parallel between the two prisons was the ambiguity of guidance provided to the guards. In the Stanford Prison, the guards were given a very brief set of rules to guide them in their running of the prison. The rest was up to them to come up with based on how they imagined their roles to be. Similarly, the Abu Ghraib guards lacked a set of clear guidelines to follow in their predicament. When an individual is told to accomplish a task without clear expectations of what accomplishment means, the individual is capable of developing an obscured view of what is acceptable in doing so. This was what happened in both cases. The guards at both prisons created their own definitions in their mind of what was expected of them in their roles. They developed a perspective of accomplishing their task and were able to modify the path of getting to their end goal as much as possible without being redirected into a sound perspective of what was right and wrong because no one gave them guidance on the difference between right and wrong. 

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