A light-hearted look at the psychology of evil
Philip Zimbardo wrote a book entitled The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. The premise of this book is that certain kinds of social situations have the power to turn otherwise good people into evil-doers. He calls this phenomenon "the Lucifer effect", a name which I consider rather ironic for reasons that will become clear.
Zimbardo has long been an outspoken critic of "dispositionalist" explanations for behavior, which attribute a person’s actions and even their station in life to internal factors, such as their character traits, otherwise known as personality dispositions. In this naïve version of dispositionalism, good people do good things and bad people do bad things. Zimbardo disagrees with this view, and argues that situational factors external to the person are quite often much more important in explaining behavior than their personality. He argues that when it comes to evil-doing, most people want to blame the person without understanding the situational forces that have shaped their actions. He asserts that under certain circumstances:
People become transformed, just as the good angel, Lucifer, was transformed into the devil. Situations matter much more than most people realize or acknowledge.
He likes to uphold the (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiment as a demonstration of the power of an evil situation to corrupt otherwise nice, normal people into doing terrible things they otherwise would not do. He has also applied situational analyses to prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, arguing that contrary to what the Pentagon and the military said, the guards who tortured and abused prisoners were not a few “bad apples” but were actually good people corrupted by an “evil barrel”, that is, a horrible situation in which systemic factors helped to create a culture in which people had little choice but to become abusers.
It’s not the bad apples, it’s the bad barrels that corrupt good people. Understanding the abuses at this Iraqi prison starts with an analysis of both the situational and systematic forces operating on those soldiers working the night shift in that ‘little shop of horrors.’
'Little shop of horrors' indeed. Zimbardo might argue this woman was a good person turned evil by a corrupt situation. But what about her personal responsibility for her actions?
I have written elsewhere about why I think that Zimbardo has created a false dichotomy between dispositional and situational explanations and I believe that he greatly overstates his case. (See this post for an alternative explanation of the Stanford Prison Experiment, and a further critique of situationism here and here.) But what I want to briefly highlight here is the irony of using the mythological Lucifer as an exemplar of the power of situations to turn good people evil as an alternative to a dispositional account.
Zimbardo briefly recaps the story of Lucifer in Chapter One of his book:
... 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.
(He also provides a more detailed account of the traditional story of Lucifer on his web site.) Let’s consider the nature of this transformation. Why did Lucifer turn from good into evil? Was it because of external situational factors that put him under horrendous stress? Systematic forces over which he had no control that created a culture of abuse? No. According to the legend, Lucifer dwelt in Heaven with God. That is, he was in the purest, most perfect situation that can be conceived of, wanting for nothing in an eternally blissful place. His fall from grace is traditionally attributed to the sin of pride, of wanting to usurp the authority of God. A personality psychologist might describe him as narcissistic in the extreme. Therefore, his transformation was not due to external situational factors at all – unless one wants to accuse God of running a “little shop of horrors” – but due to his internal disposition towards pride. Therefore, the Lucifer Effect is ironically named after the most purely dispositional and non-situational account of evil that mythology can provide. For a situationist like Zimbardo, Lucifer is probably the worst example he could come up with of the effect that he is trying to illustrate. Perhaps a better name for the phenomenon of good people being turned into evil monsters by forces outside their control might be the "lycanthropy effect". There are popular legends of unfortunate people unlucky enough to be bitten or scratched by a werewolf who end up becoming werewolves themselves. Lucifer's transformation into Satan was self-willed, but in this version of the werewolf legend people who become werewolves are victims of circumstance rather than "bad apples" who make poor choices.
Perhaps the sequel could be called An American Werewolf in Abu Ghraib?
So a better explanation of the situationist view of evil might be explained thus:
People become transformed, just as innocent people bitten by a werewolf are turned into terrifying undead monsters, a process which has nothing to do with their personality dispositions or their personal choices.Admittedly, a more gruesome metaphor than the story of Lucifer, but hopefully one that is a better fit to an ideology of victimisation in which people are not to blame for their actions because the real causes lie outside themselves.