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Book Reviews

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil


BY PHILIP ZIMBARDO New York: Random House, 2007

Are you capable of great evil? We all like to believe that we are special, that we couldnt possibly do some of the horrible things humans do to each other. However, in The Lucifer Effect, Philip Zimbardo does his best to shatter this comforting fiction. Zimbardo is the man who conducted the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment three decades ago. What he discovered about the powerful effects of situational forces in this experiment caused him to dedicate his career to the study of evil. This book is thus a grand tour of several decades of research by Zimbardo and others into what it is that makes good people do bad things. One of the biggest obstacles to thinking clearly about why we do what we do is known as the fundamental attribution error. That is, we all have a strong tendency to overemphasize the influence of internal, dispositional forces on our behavior. We prefer to think of human behavior as mostly motivated by strength of will, character, or sense of morality. Indeed, the Western worldview is to a great extent based on the assumption that culpability for an action is typically to be found within the perpetrator of the action. Social psychologists like Zimbardo argue for

an alternative take on behavior: It is often best explained, not so much by the kind of person who does the deed, but by the situation in which the person is placed. The analogy Zimbardo uses over and over sums this up nicely: Evil actions are not so much about bad apples as about bad barrels. The Lucifer Effect is ultimately an extended argument for the situational outlook on human behavior, especially when used to explain why people do things that seem truly evil and immoral. When it comes to instances where the worst possible angels of human nature take over, it maintains, the dispositional account simply does not do justice to the complexities of what is actually happening. We tend to cling to dispositional ideas in part because they are the most intuitive way to hold agents responsible for their actions and thus discourage evil behavior. Ironically, refusing to accept the power of situational forces leads to the very real danger of actually making it more likely that we will behave badly because it blinds us to what really explains such behavior. Thus illusions can be dangerous. After a brief overview, the book jumps right into an extremely finegrained account of the Stanford Prison
Public Integrity, Summer 2008, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 287295. 2008 ASPA. All rights reserved. ISSN 1099-9922/2008 $9.50 + 0.00. DOI 10.2753/PIN1099-9922100306

Book Reviews

Experiment (SPE). In August 1971, twelve young male participants were arrested by the Palo Alto police department and brought to a makeshift jail in the basement of a building on the campus of Stanford University. Another twelve young men were selected to act as guards for these prisoners for a two-week study on the psychological effects of imprisonment. Both guards and prisoners were selected only after a series of psychological tests showed them to be perfectly normal in all respects. They were told simply to try to make the experiment as realistic as possible but to avoid any physical violence. According to the dispositional view, there was little danger of things getting out of hand. After all, why should a set of perfectly normal young men randomly assigned their roles in a clearly artificial situation do anything they would be ashamed to tell their mothers? What nobody fully appreciated, including Zimbardo himself, was the power of the situation created by the experiment. Things began innocently enough, but on only the second day, a prisoner riot broke out and had to be suppressed by the guards. Then events took an ugly turn as the guards struggled to keep the prisoners in line with a series of increasingly sadistic acts, including humiliation, sleep deprivation, and solitary confinement. Only thirty-six hours into the experiment, concerns for the mental stability of one prisoner required his early release. Another prisoner broke down on day 4, quickly followed by two more on day 5. At that point, the experiment had to be terminated. One of the most moving aspects of this discussion is Zimbardos reflection on his own complicity in what occurred. He unwittingly compromised his role as scientific investigator by
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casting himself as the prison superintendent. Although the experiment was designed to investigate the power of situational forces on the actors involved, it never occurred to him that his involvement might compromise his professional detachment. In fact, however, he quickly began to act just like a real prison superintendent and thus became part of the problem. For example, he colluded with the guards in covering up the problems in the prison so that visiting family members would not be overly alarmed, even actively downplaying complaints by prisoners about their ability to bear up under the pressure. At one point, he went so far as to move the entire prison and concocted elaborate defensive measures to keep his prisoners under lock and key when rumors of a prison break surfaced. Even after a third of his original prisoners had to be released due to the pressure, it was not until a colleague expressed revulsion at the situation that he was finally able to see how far out of control things had gotten. The discussion of the events of the SPE takes up five chapters of the book. Not only is it a fascinating examination of a pivotal scientific experiment, but the detail is a crucial first step for the analysis of lessons learned and their application to real-world situations that takes up the remainder of the book. The next two chapters discuss a series of other classic experiments in social psychology that bolster and extend the SPEs findings. The result is a veritable how to of evil. We are led ineluctably to the uncomfortable conclusion that if you want to get people to do horrible things, there is a science describing exactly how it can be done. Even worse, it is not all that difficult. This is deeply disturbing to those of us who sleep most soundly believing evil is something they do, not us.

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The next two chapters turn the situational lens on the infamous Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq. Zimbardo served as an expert witness for one of the defendants and uses his intimate knowledge of the tragedy to great effect. The parallels between what happened in the SPE and what happened in Abu Ghraib thirty years later are chilling. Despite the Bush administrations claims, it is difficult for anyone who has made it this far in the book to conclude that the problem was really just a few bad apples. Rather, it seems that otherwise perfectly normal soldiers were placed in a situation where bad things were going to happenit was only a question of when and where. The blame for what happened, Zimbardo argues, is thus best placed on the system that produced the situation and the leaders who ran the system, not the actors caught up in it. He spends an entire chapter on this theme, putting the system on trial and investigating what the various players in the Bush administration did and did not do, what they knew and what they should have known, and how all this created a situation where something like Abu Ghraib was almost a foregone conclusion. In the final chapter, Zimbardo tries to lighten the mood a bit by turning to positive questions. First, he develops a ten-step plan for helping people resist unwanted situational influences. This discussion leads naturally into an analysis of his current area of interest the nature of courage. Here there is a preliminary look at Zimbardos current research into courage and the different ways someone could be said to be heroic. While the last chapter certainly sounds a welcome note of optimism, it reads more as an afterthought, and the ideas are not as well developed as those treated earlier. Make no mistake, this book is not

a comfortable read. For one thing, no extended exploration of human cruelty should leave the reader unscarred, and Zimbardo discusses all sorts of things we would prefer not to think about overmuch, including abuse by Catholic priests, high school shootings, the horrors of the Holocaust and the Spanish Inquisition, the Rwandan genocide, abusive fathers, mob psychology, suicidal religious cults, and suicide bombers. The message is relentless: Situation matters. It matters so much that good people routinely do great evil. We each harbor the secret belief that we are not the sort of person who could ever do anything truly evil, but chances are very high that we are simply wrong in this belief. Fortunately, of course, most people will never be in a position to discover how far they can be pushed, but understanding what we are capable of is enormously significant when thinking about ethics. Probably most important, it shocks us out of a false sense of complacency. If you realize that you too would probably kill your neighbor under the right (wrong) circumstances, you will be far more careful to avoid those circumstances. It also tends to shift the focus of an ethical analysis in an important way for those interested in public policy. If the idea that situations matter is taken seriously, then efforts aimed at preventing immoral behavior are best directed at the system, not the individual:
The system includes the situation, but it is more enduring, more widespread, involving extensive networks of people, their expectations, norms, policies, and, perhaps, laws. Over time, systems come to have a historical foundation and sometimes also a political and economic power structure that governs and directs the behavior of many people within its

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sphere of influence. Systems are the engines that run situations that create behavioral contexts that influence the human action of those under their control. (p. 179)

Rather than trying to select good apples and cull bad ones, an organization should take the time to investigate the barrel to find out how it turns apples bad. Moreover, the situational outlook leads to the belief that in many ways the default is for people to slide ethically. That is, people naturally, without intending anything explicitly immoral, do whatever they can to cut corners and get ahead, to please their bosses, to get the job done. If an organization truly wishes to avoid the moral problems that arise from this tendency, it must develop exceptionally strong moral leadershipgood enough is not. The character of the leadership matters enormously as well. For example, it is clearly not enough to inform employees of an official policy that illegal behavior will not be tolerated. For one thing, the law is a minimal standard for ethical behavior, not necessarily a desirable one. If people aim only to comply with the law, they will often do things that are morally reprehensible. Then there is the important point that people learn far more from the actual behavior of those around them than from explicit instructions. All respectable organizations have formal policies against wrongdoing, after all, yet wrongdoing remains distressingly common, often to the surprise of those at the top. Why? Part of the reason is a mismatch between what organizations say and what they do. Thus, a money manager who brings in millions of dollars in profits to a firm will likely be admitted to the inner circle of power and influence, even if there are whispers of misdeeds. Certainly someone in this position should not be considered
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guilty without a hearing, but how often does an organization fully investigate the whispers before promotion, and what lessons will employees draw from this oversight? If there is one annoying fly in the ointment here, it is the nagging question of responsibility. Zimbardo is clearly a bit sensitive on this point and repeatedly argues that understanding an act is not the same as condoning it:
However, let me make clear one critical point: understanding the why of what has been done does not excuse what was done. Psychological analysis is not excusiology. Individuals and groups who behave immorally or illegally must still be held responsible and legally accountable for their complicity and crimes. However, in determining the severity of their sentence, the situational and systematic factors that caused the behavior must be taken into account. (p. 230)

The problem is that it is difficult to see how the extenuating circumstances of situational forces will not often be so mitigating as to render serious punishment inappropriate. Consider this: Suppose that in a particular case there is a horrible act. Following a socialpsychological analysis, all agree that there were no deviant dispositional factors causing the agent to act immorally. Further, all admit that almost anyone else in the same situation would have acted in the same way. If we then impose punishment, are we not, in effect, holding the agent liable for the sin of not being morally exceptional? Perhaps this is less of an issue when talking about the leader of an organization, since it is arguably not unfair to expect leaders to be exceptional by virtue of the high position they occupywith great power comes great responsibility. However, it

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is much harder to see this expectation as fair when we are talking about, say, an average American soldier caught up in the confusion of the Iraqi war. Thus there is a version of the philosophical question of moral luck: To what extent is it morally defensible to punish someone for being, in essence, unlucky? We might wish to sidestep the question of the agents moral culpability and argue instead that punishment is justified primarily by its deterrent effects. However, the situational argument causes problems here as well. After all, to the extent that situational explanations are widespread, the effectiveness of punishment as a deterrent will be reduced, since

in such circumstances the primary problem does not lie with the personal proclivities of the agent for whom we are supposedly setting an example. Thus, the problem of responsibility simply cannot be handled as easily as Zimbardo sometimes seems to imply. On the other hand, it would certainly be unfair to expect Zimbardo, a social psychologist, to solve a philosophical puzzle that philosophers themselves have not resolved. In any event, even if the findings of social psychology exacerbate some philosophical problems, this in no way detracts from the truth of their insights.
Kelly C. Smith Clemson University

The Values of Presidential Leadership


BY teRRY L. PRIce AnD J. tHOMAs WRen New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007

This anthology by Terry L. Price and J. Thomas Wren is a collection of essays investigating the role that values play in presidential politics. Operating on the basis that the background beliefs of a leader lend themselves to analysis, the volume focuses its attention on how a presidents values are packaged, how they are conveyed, how they are interpreted, and how they are acted upon. Where Price and Wrens work differs from earlier research, however, is in their choice to not be limited to the fields of public administration and political science. Instead, the book includes essays by scholars from a variety of fields including communication, history, law, philosophy, and psychology.

For the public administrator, Price and Wren have included essays that have a practical application. The collection begins by defining leadership as a mutual influence process among leaders and followers (p. 1). The definition of leadership is the easy part, but to accomplish a balanced approach to values, the book is then divided into broad topics. These topics (God and Country, Communicating Values, Collective Leadership, and Presidential Wrongdoing) are illustrated by a series of essays demonstrating the relationship between presidential values and policy agents. In the most controversial section, God and Country, the essays are focused on the place of a presidents
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