Neurontic

This week I think we could all use a brief reprieve from me and my opinions, so I’m running a review of Phillip Zimbardo’s book The Lucifer Effect, written by the wickedly smart (and just plain wicked) writer Carey Bertolet.

Bio

Kid-friendly version: Carey Bertolet is an avid reader because she enjoys challenging concepts and sitting on her caboose. When not at work, Carey is the host of her own imaginary cooking show as well as the co-producer of “the Boo Radley Show,” her miniature pinscher’s imaginary late night talk show. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband who is recapturing his youth by wearing edgy t-shirts.

Adult version: Carey Bertolet is the Founding Managing Director of BCG Attorney Search, a legal recruitment agency dedicated to placing attorneys in private law firms. A graduate of Vanderbilt University and Emory Law School, Carey is a frequent speaker and writes often about hiring trends, the New York marketplace, and the life and work styles of private practice attorneys.

*Note: I can personally attest to the fact that both are equally true.

Almost Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Evil and a Whole Lot More
By Carey Bertolet

In the 2006 book The Lucifer Effect, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, designer and “master of ceremonies,” of the Stanford Prison Experiment, finally takes pen to paper and describes the ins and outs of his landmark study, which took a group of ostensibly sane Stanford undergraduates, consigned them to a mock prison as inmates and guards, and watched their psyches unravel over the course of their short stay.

Having spent the better part of the last 35 years contemplating the debacle he almost single-handedly engineered, Zimbardo has not shortage of thoughts on the subject. What results is a long-winded, seemingly unedited book that is less a treatise than a jumble of absolutely fascinating stuff. I was resolute in learning everything I could from The Lucifer Effect, but my experience of reading the book was mixed: At the end of the day, it felt a little like eating cheese fries in the middle of a dodge ball tournament. I loved everything I could internalize, but I was too over-stimulated to concentrate.

For the uninitiated, I’ll do my best to sum up the purpose and eventual fallout of the Stanford Prison Experiment. The SPE was designed to study the social psychology of individuals in a prison environment. Zimbardo, a Stanford University psychologist, recruited a group of college students to participate in what he and his team hoped would be a 2-week paid experiment. As Zimbardo points out at every opportunity, these students were intelligent, law-abiding young men, who were carefully screened and chosen because they were deemed well-adjusted citizens. After passing their psych evaluations, half of the participants were randomly assigned the role of prisoners; the other half were made guards.

Once plunked down in the prison, the students quickly started exhibiting–well–let’s just say “troubling” behavior. Without being given any direction to speak of, those assigned to the guard role became authoritarian, abusive, and in some instances, extremely creative in their cruelty. The prisoners, in contrast, fell relatively easily into submissive roles, allowing their individual identities to completely disappear into the prisoner “stereotype.” (The researchers also got a little too enthusiastic about their roles as administrators and insisted on keeping the prison open even after the behavior inside it qualified as dangerously unhealthy.)

Zimbardo is quick to point out that the subjects were typical, healthy students before entering the SPE. And, in what seems an overly defensive postscript, he points out that these subjects returned to ‘normal’ once the study was over. (We get it, Dr. Zimbardo, no undergraduates were harmed in the making of the SPE.) But regardless of how transient the moral turpitude was, the SPE got ugly in a hurry. Some of the subjects assigned to the guard role decided on their own in less than a week to run a prison where sleep deprivation, verbal abuse, and solitary confinement were de rigeur. And while some of the guards were uncomfortable with the environment of escalating abuse, no one tried to stop it.

Here’s the thing: Sometimes an author just doesn’t have the knack for subtlety. Sometimes an author puts on an orange safety vest and jumps up and down until you are forced to acknowledge him. Yes, Dr. Zimbardo? You have something to say?

It’s abundantly clear that Zimbardo wants us to be reminded of Nazi Germany and the human race’s capacity to sit by silently while atrocities are committed. You know how I know? Because he told me–a lot. This is just like Nazis! he says. And Abu Ghraib! It’s eerily like the pictures from Abu Ghraib. These aren’t bad apples, Zimardo tells us, they’re good apples in bad barrels.

To be clear, Zimbardo isn’t linking bad apples and oranges. He argues that the environment created in his mock prison caused otherwise good people to go bad. And he makes a compelling case that the behavior of the SPE participants is not unlike the transgressions of the Abu Ghraib soldiers who have been universally condemned. Zimbardo makes clear that the road to perdition is shorter than we’d like to think. We all come pre-equipped with an EZ pass. Still, even after 500 pages (yeah–500 hundred), I couldn’t shake the feeling that there is something too simplistic about creating a laundry list of human atrocities and chalking them all up to “bad barrels.”

I picked up The Lucifer Effect because I’ve always wanted a definitive answer to the question: Can a human being be innately evil or is evil a byproduct of experience? Unfortunately, Zimbardo didn’t get me any closer to answering the question. (To be fair, that wasn’t his goal.) What he did do is convince me that even the best among us are corruptible given the right set of circumstances.

One of the biggest problems with The Lucifer Effect is that Zimbardo understands how important his work is. He’s fully aware that his musings are destined to become a part of the historical record. The result is that he tries to make too many important points too loudly and too often for the casual psychology enthusiast to enjoy the experience of reading his book.

I frankly wish Zimbardo had written several books. The SPE is a worthwhile topic on its own. (I would even buy tickets to a dramatization starring Henry Rollins as the tough talking prison warden, with me in a minor role as an unassuming inmate. But I digress.) And I would dutifully head over to Barnes and Noble to purchase his follow-up book on the parallels between his experiment and Nazi Germany and Abu Ghraib. What I don’t want is a book about all of the above and that’s what I got.

Still, even though Zimbardo gives us too much, too sloppily in The Lucifer Effect, the book is brimming with truly interesting material. I find myself talking about what I learned all the time. For all the criticism I have of the book, I wouldn’t have finished it if Zimbardo hadn’t convinced me that he knew something I needed to know.

I’m putting Philip Zimbardo on my list of people I’d invite to my house for dinner. I just hope he gets the hint when it’s time to leave.

Comments

  1. #1 Tree
    July 21, 2007

    I want to know why Zimbardo didn’t read Susan R. Matthews’ “An Exchange of Hostages” first. Same point, psychologically powerful narration.

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