In reading The Lucifer Effect, I felt sympathy for mankind as a whole, for his plight as a subject to the ravages of situational manipulation in everyday life. At the same time, I felt anger towards those who would cave in to low levels of internal and external pressure (including greed, temptation, and peer pressure) and perform acts of cruelty or dishonesty. I also felt skepticism about the ethics and scientific validity of Zimbardo’s prison experiment.
Zimbardo’s Prison Study was designed in order to establish scientific evidence based on personality that could help account for prison violence. Zimbardo felt that qualities inherent to human nature would cause prisoners and guards to “internalize” their roles, and further either take full advantage of their power (in the case of the guards) or eventually submit to their lack of power (in the case of the prisoners).
The central findings of the Prison study, according to Zimbardo, were a confirmation of his hypotheis. Even he was surprised by how little time it took for the prisoners and guards to accept their roles, and he was even more surprised by the extent to which they did so. The findings supposedly reinforced the idea that such behavior stems from situations which support or encourage it, not from individuals, and that people will in fact alter their behavior dramatically when given power from an authority. These concepts combined are also said to be a classic manifestation of cognitive dissonance theory.
The “prisoners” in the Prison Study felt emotions such as fear (of what punishments or negative treatment mechanisms could come next), embarrassment (some of the time escalating into sheer humiliation), loneliness (as a result of being cut off from other prisoners and the rest of the world), and depression (stemming from a lack of true positive interaction with anyone else). The “guards” experienced feelings such as greed (as a function of the power given to them by Zimbardo), egocentricity (another function of their power, manifested as giving punishments involving serving themselves or other guards), and, most predominantly and significantly, sadism.
All of us experience most of these feelings at some point in our lives, and although I disagree with Zimbardo’s methods, I do understand how our behaviors can change depending on which of these feelings we feel. We all fear what the future may bring, and such feelings are heightened in times of severe stress. We are all embarrassed by our own failures and shortcomings, and no one can escape an occasional feeling of loneliness or depression, most notably when things are bad. In terms of the guards’ feelings, I should hope that, while we are still all prone to them at times, they do not come up in us very often in everyday life. We may all fall prey to the urge to take advantage of power at some point, but it is my hope that a sense of morality is what will eventually save us from ourselves as a species.
Although Zimbardo does say that personality characteristics may play a role in how violent or submissive tendencies are manifested, his overall argument is that they are a negligible force compared to those inherent in human nature. The guard nicknamed “John Wayne,” for example, proved to exhibit the most sadistic behavior throughout the study. However, it was later shown that he was not a sadistic person, but that he was merely mimicking behaviors he saw in a movie, including a false accent. While this helps support Zimbardo’s claim against the power of personality traits in prison violence, it also supports some criticism of the study’s validity, since “John Wayne” was acting partially out of his stereotype of the role he was supposed to adopt.
Most of the prisoners involved in the Prison Study underwent severe emotional distress throughout their six days of “imprisonment.” For several of these individuals, their participation caused them to experience long-term emotional damage.
In the book, Zimbardo argues that the study was “ethical and unethical.” While I do understand where he’s coming from, I do not feel that he or any of his associates intervened enough when things got out of hand. The only way that I could consider an experiment like this to be ethical is if strict regulations and constant supervision were imposed; Zimbardo had the capacity for both and did not do enough to ensure that they were carried out. Based on this opinion, I do think that a version of the study could be carried out today; however, it seems unlikely that such a study would be approved by present-day committees.
Zimbardo’s message is that “good” and “evil” cannot define us as people. We, as humans, have the capacity for both; which one is manifested in our behavior depends on the situation at hand.
By the process of “deindividuation,” individuals lose any defining characteristics and conform to a standard or group mentality. Their personalities become irrelevant, and their actions are performed without conscience or any conscious relationship to their own responsibility. Zimbardo likens the effect of deindividuation to that of wearing a mask in tribal cultures; he facilitated the effect in the Prison Study by giving the guards reflective sunglasses to wear. He cites the deindividuation of the guards as a major contributor to their violence.
At Abu Graib, the guards wear reflective sunglasses, which, while not a major influence in real-world situations, Zimbardo argues is still a significant indicator. A significant factor contributing to violence and unethical acts toward prisoners, he says, is the mentality with which guards are instilled. The role-assignment that took place in his prison study also takes place in the real world, and combined with the factors of lax supervision, prevalent racism and negative cultural stereotypes, and even authority encouragement in some situations, the guards were given an enormous capacity to commit acts of “evil.”
The most surprising thing to me was the extent to which the “guards” abused their positions of power. Personally, I am skeptical that their violent and unethical behavior arose primarily as a result of their internalization of their assigned roles. I am inclined to believe that, although the subjects did not seem to exhibit sadistic behaviors outside of the study, they could have been merely taking advantage of a situation in which they did not think they would be penalized for such behavior. Additionally, I also think that the case of “John Wayne” is a good example of the capacity of stereotypes to contribute to role adoption. Regardless of my own criticism, I did think that the book was an essential read. Anyone might disagree with the methodology or conclusions of the specific study, or even with the analyses of Abu Graib and other political and historical topics, but the psychological – and philosophical – explorations throughout the book proved both highly interesting and painfully relevant to certain aspects of today’s society. From this book, I will take with me a very detailed account of the Prison Study, as well as a better understanding of Abu Graib. I do not feel as though this book has altered my beliefs about “good” and “evil,” but I do agree somewhat with Zimbardo’s stance. I believe that any good or evil is only as positive or negative as we are willing to deem them, and that such behavior – and, more importantly, any analysis of it – can be both highly situational and, ultimately, subjective.