Professor Phil Zimbardo on “The Lucifer Effect”


Over 35 years ago, in a now-famous study dubbed the Stanford Prison Experiment, Professor Phil Zimbardo showed that ordinary people will do extraordinarily terrible things when placed in the right situation. On April 4, in a filled-to-capacity lecture in the Ames Courtroom, he used the results of that experiment and other psychological studies as a lens through which to view the prisoner abuses in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.

Zimbardo’s lecture was based on his new book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. He began with a simple assertion: the commonly-held view that bad actions are a result of bad character is wrong. “I have a different view of what makes people do evil things,” said Zimbardo. More powerful than personality, situational and systemic factors are the true causes of terrible acts, according to decades of research by Zimbardo and other social psychologists.

Rather than viewing evil actions as stemming from the flawed character of one “bad apple,” the theory that Zimbardo advanced instead focused on the corrupting influences of an actor’s “situation,” or behavioral context – what he called the “bad barrel”; as well as broader systemic influences, such as political, economic, cultural and legal influences – what he called the “bad barrel makers.”

These situational and systemic factors struck Zimbardo as plainly evident when documentation of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib surfaced in the spring of 2004. Detailing the results of numerous psychology experiments, he sketched out the conclusion that the potential for abusive treatment of detainees was entirely predictable based on a fundamental understanding of the principles of social psychology.

Using the story of one soldier who was tried and sentenced for the abuse, Zimbardo discussed how situational and systemic forces were implicated in the atrocities. Before his assignment to Abu Ghraib, Staff Sgt. Ivan Chip Frederick had received nine medals and awards for his military service and had a stellar employment record as a guard in a small correctional institution.

In the dark confines of Tier 1-A in the Abu Ghraib prison, Frederick worked 12-hour shifts for weeks on end without a break, in an environment soaked in filth and noise and under constant attack. He was given responsibility for one thousand prisoners and was neither trained nor supervised. Situational factors such as these, said Zimbardo, along with systemic factors embodied in the Military Commissions Act of 2006, predictably resulted in evil outcomes.

Zimbardo’s talk ended, as his book does, with the bright inverse of his theory: just as ordinary people can do horrific things, they can do heroic things. He defined a hero as someone who overcomes tremendous situational forces to perform an extraordinary moral deed, and pointed to, among other examples, the soldier who exposed the Abu Ghraib abuses.

The lecture was well received by those in attendance. “I was impressed by how animated and engaging he was,” said 2L Anne Gibson. “His comparison of the Stanford Prison Experiment to Abu Ghraib was chilling, and I was particularly inspired by his discussion of the Military Commissions Act of 2006.”

1L Justin Raphael said Zimbardo “made an excellent case that the unintended consequences created by the horrific situations inherent in a foreign occupation should give any society -and particularly its leaders – pause before sending its young people to war.” Raphael added that he would have liked to hear Zimbardo address “whether his Lucifer Effect theory plays an equally strong role in the psychology of crimes more commonplace and less extreme than torture or war crimes.”

The lecture was sponsored by Harvard Law School’s Project on Law and Mind Sciences (PLMS), Program on Law and Social Thought, ACLU-HLS, the American Constitution Society at HLS, and Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics. HLS Professor Jon Hanson, who delivered the introduction to the lecture, said Zimbardo “did an amazing job of demonstrating some of the unsettling discoveries of social psychology and their implications for law and policy.” Hanson said feedback from the event was “incredibly positive,” and that PLMS hopes to continue to bring prominent mind scientists, as well as the legal scholars who rely on their work, to the law school.

A video of the lecture will be posted on the PLMS website and blog this week, which can be accessed at

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