The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

by Philip Zimbardo
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The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo

The definitive firsthand account of the groundbreaking research of Philip Zimbardo—the basis for the award-winning film The Stanford Prison Experiment

Renowned social psychologist and creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment Philip Zimbardo explores the mechanisms that make good people do bad things, how moral people can be seduced into acting immorally, and what this says about the line separating good from evil.

The Lucifer Effect explains how—and the myriad reasons why—we are all susceptible to the lure of “the dark side.” Drawing on examples from history as well as his own trailblazing research, Zimbardo details how situational forces and group dynamics can work in concert to make monsters out of decent men and women. 

Here, for the first time and in detail, Zimbardo tells the full story of the Stanford Prison Experiment, the landmark study in which a group of college-student volunteers was randomly divided into “guards” and “inmates” and then placed in a mock prison environment. Within a week the study was abandoned, as ordinary college students were transformed into either brutal, sadistic guards or emotionally broken prisoners.

By illuminating the psychological causes behind such disturbing metamorphoses, Zimbardo enables us to better understand a variety of harrowing phenomena, from corporate malfeasance to organized genocide to how once upstanding American soldiers came to abuse and torture Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib. He replaces the long-held notion of the “bad apple” with that of the “bad barrel”—the idea that the social setting and the system contaminate the individual, rather than the other way around.

This is a book that dares to hold a mirror up to mankind, showing us that we might not be who we think we are. While forcing us to reexamine what we are capable of doing when caught up in the crucible of behavioral dynamics, though, Zimbardo also offers hope. We are capable of resisting evil, he argues, and can even teach ourselves to act heroically. Like Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, The Lucifer Effect is a shocking, engrossing study that will change the way we view human behavior.

Praise for The Lucifer Effect

The Lucifer Effect will change forever the way you think about why we behave the way we do—and, in particular, about the human potential for evil. This is a disturbing book, but one that has never been more necessary.”—Malcolm Gladwell

“An important book . . . All politicians and social commentators . . . should read this.”The Times (London)

“Powerful . . . an extraordinarily valuable addition to the literature of the psychology of violence or ‘evil.’”The American Prospect

“Penetrating . . . Combining a dense but readable and often engrossing exposition of social psychology research with an impassioned moral seriousness, Zimbardo challenges readers to look beyond glib denunciations of evil-doers and ponder our collective responsibility for the world’s ills.”Publishers Weekly

“A sprawling discussion . . . Zimbardo couples a thorough narrative of the Stanford Prison Experiment with an analysis of the social dynamics of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.”Booklist

“Zimbardo bottled evil in a laboratory. The lessons he learned show us our dark nature but also fill us with hope if we heed their counsel. The Lucifer Effect reads like a novel.”—Anthony Pratkanis, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology, University of California

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812974447
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/22/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 576
Sales rank: 38,178
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Philip Zimbardo is professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University and has also taught at Yale University, New York University, and Columbia University. He is the co-author of Psychology and Life and author of Shyness, which together have sold more than 2.5 million copies. Zimbardo has been president of the American Psychological Association and is now director of the Stanford Center on Interdisciplinary Policy, Education, and Research on Terrorism. He also narrated the award-winning PBS series Discovering Psychology, which he helped create. In 2004, he acted as an expert witness in the court-martial hearings of one of the American army reservists accused of criminal behavior in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. His informative website, is visited by millions every year. Visit the author’s personal website at

From the Hardcover edition.

Read an Excerpt

The Psychology of Evil: Situated Character Transformations
The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
—John Milton, Paradise Lost
Look at this remarkable image for a moment. Now close your eyes and conjure it in your memory.
Does your mind’s eye see the many white angels dancing about the dark heavens? Or do you see the many black demons, horned devils inhabiting the bright white space of Hell? In this illusion by the artist M. C. Escher, both perspectives are equally possible. Once aware of the congruence between good and evil, you cannot see only one and not the other. In what follows, l will not allow you to drift back to the comfortable separation of Your Good and Faultless Side from Their Evil and Wicked Side. “Am I capable of evil?” is the question that I want you to consider over and over again as we journey together to alien environments.
Three psychological truths emerge from Escher’s image. First, the world is filled with both good and evil—was, is, will always be. Second, the barrier between good and evil is permeable and nebulous. And third, it is possible for angels to become devils and, perhaps more difficult to conceive, for devils to become angels.
Perhaps this image reminds you of the ultimate transformation of good into evil, the metamorphosis of Lucifer into Satan. Lucifer, the “light bearer,” was God’s favorite angel until he challenged God’s authority and was cast into Hell along with his band of fallen angels. “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” boasts Satan, the “adversary of God” in Milton’s Paradise Lost. In Hell, Lucifer-Satan becomes a liar, an empty imposter who uses boasts, spears, trumpets, and banners, as some national leaders do today. At the Demonic Conference in Hell of all the major demons, Satan is assured that he cannot regain Heaven in any direct confrontation.1 However, Satan’s statesman, Beelzebub, comes up with the most evil of solutions in proposing to avenge themselves against God by corrupting God’s greatest creation, humankind. Though Satan succeeds in tempting Adam and Eve to disobey God and be led into evil, God decrees that they will in time be saved. However, for the rest of time, Satan will be allowed to slither around that injunction, enlisting witches to tempt people to evil. Satan’s intermediaries would thereafter become the target of zealous inquisitors who want to rid the world of evil, but their horrific methods would breed a new form of systemic evil the world had never before known.
Lucifer’s sin is what thinkers in the Middle Ages called “cupiditas.”*1 For Dante, the sins that spring from that root are the most extreme “sins of the wolf,” the spiritual condition of having an inner black hole so deep within oneself that no amount of power or money can ever fill it. For those suffering the mortal malady called cupiditas, whatever exists outside of one’s self has worth only as it can be exploited by, or taken into one’s self. In Dante’s Hell those guilty of that sin are in the ninth circle, frozen in the Lake of Ice. Having cared for nothing but self in life, they are encased in icy Self for eternity. By making people focus only on oneself in this way, Satan and his followers turn their eyes away from the harmony of love that unites all living creatures.
The sins of the wolf cause a human being to turn away from grace and to make self his only good—and also his prison. In the ninth circle of the Inferno, the sinners, possessed of the spirit of the insatiable wolf, are frozen in a self-imposed prison where prisoner and guard are fused in an egocentric reality.
In her scholarly search for the origins of Satan, the historian Elaine Pagels offers a provocative thesis on the psychological significance of Satan as humanity’s mirror:
What fascinates us about Satan is the way he expresses qualities that go beyond what we ordinarily recognize as human. Satan evokes more than the greed, envy, lust, and anger we identify with our own worst impulses, and more than what we call brutality, which imputes to human beings a resemblance to animals (“brutes”) . . . . Evil, then, at its worst, seems to involve the supernatural—what we recognize, with a shudder, as the diabolic inverse of Martin Buber’s characterization of God as “wholly other.”
We fear evil, but are fascinated by it. We create myths of evil conspiracies and come to believe them enough to mobilize forces against them. We reject the “Other” as different and dangerous because it’s unknown, yet we are thrilled by contemplating sexual excess and violations of moral codes by those who are not our kind. Professor of religious studies David Frankfurter concludes his search for Evil Incarnate by focusing on the social construction of this evil other.
[T]he construction of the social Other as cannibal-savage, demon, sorcerer, vampire, or an amalgam of them all, draws upon a consistent repertoire of symbols of inversion. The stories we tell about people out on the periphery play with their savagery, libertine customs, and monstrosity. At the same time, the combined horror and pleasure we derive from contemplating this Otherness—sentiments that influenced the brutality of colonists, missionaries, and armies entering the lands of those Others—certainly affect us at the level of individual fantasy, as well.
The Lucifer Effect is my attempt to understand the processes of transformation at work when good or ordinary people do bad or evil things. We will deal with the fundamental question “What makes people go wrong?” But instead of resorting to a traditional religious dualism of good versus evil, of wholesome nature versus corrupting nurture, we will look at real people engaged in life’s daily tasks, enmeshed in doing their jobs, surviving within an often turbulent crucible of human nature. We will seek to understand the nature of their character transformations when they are faced with powerful situational forces.
Let’s begin with a definition of evil. Mine is a simple, psychologically based one: Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others—or using one’s authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf. In short, it is “knowing better but doing worse.”
What makes human behavior work? What determines human thought and action? What makes some of us lead moral, righteous lives, while others seem to slip easily into immorality and crime? Is what we think about human nature based on the assumption that inner determinants guide us up the good paths or down the bad ones? Do we give insufficient attention to the outer determinants of our thoughts, feelings, and actions? To what extent are we creatures of the situation, of the moment, of the mob? And is there anything that anyone has ever done that you are absolutely certain you could never be compelled to do?
Most of us hide behind egocentric biases that generate the illusion that we are special. These self-serving protective shields allow us to believe that each of us is above average on any test of self-integrity. Too often we look to the stars through the thick lens of personal invulnerability when we should also look down to the slippery slope beneath our feet. Such egocentric biases are more commonly found in societies that foster independent orientations, such as Euro-American cultures, and less so in collectivist-oriented societies, such as in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
In the course of our voyage through good and evil, I will ask you to reflect upon three issues: How well do you really know yourself, your strengths and weaknesses? Does your self-knowledge come from reviewing your behavior in familiar situations or from being exposed to totally new settings where your old habits are challenged? In the same vein, how well do you really know the people with whom you interact daily: your family, friends, co-workers, and lover? One thesis of this book is that most of us know ourselves only from our limited experiences in familiar situations that involve rules, laws, policies, and pressures that constrain us. We go to school, to work, on vacation, to parties; we pay the bills and the taxes, day in and year out. But what happens when we are exposed to totally new and unfamiliar settings where our habits don’t suffice? You start a new job, go on your first computer-matched date, join a fraternity, get arrested, enlist in the military, join a cult, or volunteer for an experiment. The old you might not work as expected when the ground rules change.
Throughout our journey I would like you to continually ask the “Me also?” question as we encounter various forms of evil. We will examine genocide in Rwanda, the mass suicide and murder of Peoples Temple followers in the jungles of Guyana, the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, the torture by military and civilian police around the world, and the sexual abuse of parishioners by Catholic priests, and search for lines of continuity between the scandalous, fraudulent behavior of executives at Enron and WorldCom corporations. Finally, we will see how some common threads in all these evils run through the recently uncovered abuses of civilian prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. One especially significant thread tying these atrocities together will come out of a body of research in experimental social psychology, particularly a study that has come to be known as the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Table of Contents

Preface     ix
Acknowledgments     xv
List of Illustrations     xxi
The Psychology of Evil: Situated Character Transformations     3
Sunday's Surprise Arrests     23
Let Sunday's Degradation Rituals Begin     40
Monday's Prisoner Rebellion     57
Tuesday's Double Trouble: Visitors and Rioters     80
Wednesday Is Spiraling Out of Control     100
The Power to Parole     130
Thursday's Reality Confrontations     154
Friday's Fade to Black     174
The SPE's Meaning and Messages: The Alchemy of Character Transformations     195
The SPE: Ethics and Extensions     229
Investigating Social Dynamics: Power, Conformity, and Obedience     258
Investigating Social Dynamics: Deindividuation, Dehumanization, and the Evil of Inaction     297
Abu Ghraib's Abuses and Tortures: Understanding and Personalizing Its Horrors     324
Putting the System on Trial: Command Complicity     380
Resisting Situational Influences and Celebrating Heroism     444
Notes     491
Index     535

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Lucifer Effect 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 35 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a great read for those who are wondering how a person could become one of the violent people in the newspaper. The thorough review of the Stanford Prison Study and its relation to everyday situations is very informative. The review of the events occurring in prisons today helps one consider whether prisons are useful. It will not provide the answer, but it will lead one to decisions on its own. It is not a read for the casual reader, but more professional or with a background in psychology.
LUNCHLE More than 1 year ago
The LUCIFER EFFECT is a very informative book well understandable and a good read for anyone who wants to know how good people turn evil.I enjoyed the part about the experiment when Philip Zimbardo put together the jail and made ordinary young men into prisoners and guards,some parts I found to be humorous and serious and at the same time educational in the way how some of the guys fell into thier roles especially the guards.I found this book to be some of what I thought about how people change and more.What i also found fascinating is the change in people is not really a change per say it's actually allready thier the change is the the outside environment that you may find yourself into an in an environment that you've never experienced and this brings out what you never thought you would be capable of doing or not doing.
Unit38 More than 1 year ago
Zimbardo describes his Stanford prison experiment and then compares it with real life situations. The theories and methods used are discussed as well as similar experiments. The book was very helpful for my research paper.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A page-turner, ¿can¿t put it down¿ book -- ¿The Lucifer Effect¿ HAS IT ALL! Dr. Philip Zimbardo, Psychology Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, identifies what can lead otherwise normal individuals to act in a cruel, evil manner. He gives you ¿behind the scenes,¿ running commentary and analysis of his famous Stanford Prison Experiment, along with what occurred at Abu Ghraib prison ¿ and the parallels are both frightening and captivating. Zimbardo satisfies any type of reader ¿ one who wants an in-depth analysis, as well as one who is curious how humanity can sink to such a low ¿ and he demonstrates how the situations in which we find ourselves can often impact our behavior and attitudes. All in an extremely and enjoyable style ¿ it¿s as if he¿s at your side, offering his ¿take¿ on these horrendous events and life itself. Fascinating stuff. And, miraculously, while these are real events, the book has all the SUSPENSE that one would desire from a novel, leading the reader to think -- a great read indeed. Adding to this, Dr. Zimbardo offers us hope in his assessment of how heroes can emerge by breaking free and resisting situational forces. A treat after visiting the dark side of humankind. A highly enjoyable and thought-provoking book, a journey with the advantage of Zimbardo¿s brilliant mind at its helm. Strongly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I think that “The Lucifer Effect” by Philip Zimbardo is a must read for anyone who wants and insight into how people can change from a respectable person to someone who is evil or bordering evil. This may be a question you have asked yourself or not, but this book asks you to ask yourself if you are “capable of evil” [3 Zimbardo]. This can be a scary question but one worth asking. This question is one that we may not have asked ourselves if not for this book. I don’t think whoever wrote “ Zimbardo's 'Lucifer' is a Winner” could have said it better when he/she mentioned “ He gives you ¿behind the scenes,¿ running commentary and analysis of his famous Stanford Prison Experiment, along with what occurred at Abu Ghraib prison ¿ and the parallels are both frightening and captivating.”  [Anonymous] because this book gives you this amazing unique insight to what the real prisoners might have been feeling and what was actually documented in a “similar” environment.  This book is also great because of the amount of information Dr. Zimbardo gives in the preface and also in the footnotes that have corresponding info about journal entries and ect. While the commentary that goes along with the experiment really gives the reader a sense of perspective change that can change your thinking and how you interpret the book and experiment. For example I found myself sympathizing with the prisoners but being able to also hear about the guards really made not sympathize any less but it the guards more human. They became people and not just guards which you need to realize if you want to keep an open mind throughout the experiment especially during counts. One of the best parts of this book is how it makes you see yourself and your everyday actions in a new light.   I find that in this whole book one quote the Dr. Zimbardo didn’t even write himself stood out to me the most and I hope that it will have a lasting effect on my life because it changes the way you think of each of your daily actions.  “Evil is knowing better but doing worse.”  [Irving Sarnoff]
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book when i was sixteen, it opened my eyes that the world isn't a totally innocent thing like i thought, it delves deeply into the psyche of being "evil". The study with the students is what caught my eye, i would definately tell someone interested to read this book. Although there is plenty graphic descriptions of death and other things that might make your stomach twist.
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erinrcline More than 1 year ago
While the concept and the experiment itself are extremely interesting, Zimbardo's manifesto of the course of the experiment is dense, repetitive and clearly not meant to be marketed to readers outside the academic reading field. If you can stick through the chapter long explanations of what the next four chapters will be about, the content is worth struggling through. As someone who often reads academic papers and almost exclusively reads dense nonfiction, even I found it difficult to make the trek all the way until the end. Though, in the end, I was happy I read it I wish it hadn't been such a trial to make it there.
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Charles Hottinger More than 1 year ago
an intellectual and intriguing look at the causes of evil deeds and the circumstances that provoke them. I love this book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
That word would be shocking. I sat through the first 200 pages amazed at the way that what should be normal decent people can degenerate into people that even they wouldn't recognize. This marks the second book that I have read that has amazed me by reflecting the possibility of the human character. The other book is "When God Stopped Keeping Score." Take a moment to check it out for yourself.
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