Everyday Evil

I recently finished The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo (Random House, 2007).cover of The Lucifer Effect

This book was extremely hard to read.

So hard, in fact, that I actually used up all twenty renewals on the library copy I had, and had to return it and get a new copy.   (That means it took me over a year to read the whole thing.)  I would read a chapter or two, and then need to put it down.  The descriptions of real-life evil acts conducted by ordinary people were just too intense to bear for long.  Sometimes it was weeks before I could pick the book up again.

Zimbardo is best known as the head of the Stanford Prison Experiment, a seminal experiment in social psychology in which middle-class 1970s college students played the roles of prisoners and guards while researchers explored the powerful effects of situation in shaping behavior.  The experiment was shut down prematurely when the situation drew out dehumanizing tendencies not only in guards, but in the researchers themselves, who played administrators in the false prison.  Rattled by the personal and professional effects of the experiment, Zimbardo has made it his life’s work to pursue an understanding of how situational factors influence human behavior.  In this book, he describes the experiment in sometimes painful detail and connects its lessons with other atrocities of aggression and omission, from the abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib to the murder of Kitty Genovese.

We Americans, in particular, tend to think of ourselves as unique individuals, deciding our own fates, but research shows that we all have “situated identities” – that is, we behave in different ways in different situations, and those ways are shockingly easy to predict.  In fact, Zimbardo argues that it’s easy to predict your behavior based on your ethnicity, social class, education, religion, and where you live – with no knowledge of your social class at all.

If our identities are largely socially constructed, then it make sense that good people often fall prey to situational logic, where our involvement in a group may encourage us redefine our behavior as something better than it is, lose our sense of personal responsibility, or dehumanize others because the group demands it.  Anyone who has experienced middle school knows that this is so – what disturbs me most is that the evidence shows that we don’t necessarily grow out of it.

We can’t be hermits, so we have to maintain our critical facilities at all times.  Zimbardo says this best: “We must regularly assess the worth of our social involvements.  The challenge for each of us is how best to oscillate between two poles, immersing fully and distancing appropriately.”

As fiction writers, we need to be keenly aware of the pull of situational factors on our characters.  It’s not enough to know that a character is spunky, or passive, or riddled with self-doubt, or charismatic.  Even more important to his or her behavior is the setting, the social expectations, the groups of which the character is a member.

Though The Lucifer Effect was a difficult read, I am glad I made it through.  The book maintains unflinching allegiance to the truth, to the underlying belief that shines through even the darkest descriptions that, while evil is frighteningly banal, so is heroism.  Because in the end, Zimbardo illuminates the fact that “we are all heroes in waiting”.


This entry was posted in On Life, On Writing, Recommended Reading. Bookmark the permalink.

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