The Lucifer Effect

In exploring human morality and temptation, Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil labors in a field that has been tilled by almost every important figure in the Western canon, from the writers of the Old Testament to modern philosophers and psychologists. According to Zimbardo, the dominant modern perspective on evil is “dispositional”: People commit evil because of some flaw in their characters, morals, or personalities, and therefore the only one at fault for an evil deed is the one who commits it. To Zimbardo, the Western emphasis on personal responsibility provides the basis for theory and practice in fields as diverse as education, medicine, psychiatry, religion, and criminal justice.

As Zimbardo contends, the emphasis on personal responsibility for evil is flawed for several reasons. First, almost a century’s worth of research in social psychology demonstrates that people can be led to do a wide range of previously unthinkable actions when the conditions are right. Second, dispositional approaches lessen the responsibility of others to create social conditions that are fair, just, and workable. Also, the dispositional approach does very little to prevent future evil; removing bad apples from a barrel does not stop other apples from rotting. Finally, the dispositional approach does little to explain how ordinary people often commit acts of good in spite of pernicious social forces.

The title of The Lucifer Effect refers to an angel turned archfiend, a figure in Judeo-Christian religious thought whose story was described in the first few books of the landmark poem Paradise Lost (1667), by John Milton (1608-1674), the eminent seventeenth century English poet. Basing his poem on both canonical and apocryphal books of the Bible, Milton writes that Lucifer was once God’s most beautiful and favored angel but became disgruntled by God’s preferential love for humanity. In his pride, Lucifer rebelled, was cast out of heaven, and was transformed into the devil. Frustrated in his exile from heaven and aware that he could not win in open revolt against God, the devil’s plans changed, to warp humanity into rejecting God. By secretly working on human beings, tempting them with half-truths and illusions, the archfiend works behind the scenes, subverting God’s providence.

In offering this figure as symbolic, Zimbardo observes that each of us can easily become transformed into someone we would hardly recognize, choosing evil when before we would have considered ourselves wholly good. Similarly, the symbol illustrates Zimbardo’s second point: People must remain watchful of the temptation to consider themselves stronger than their circumstances. These circumstances include letting the desire to be a part of a group outweigh our moral compasses, when we are led to believe that others will take responsibility for our actions, when we believe that we can act anonymously, and when we believe that those who suffer are not as important as ourselves.

In making the argument that circumstances matter, Zimbardo is not claiming that those who commit evil should not be blamed for it. In fact, he repeatedly expresses his belief that those who do wrong should face the consequences of their misdeeds. In addition to personal accountability, however, Zimbardo makes the commonsense claim that conditions influence personal choice and that we are all responsible for changing abusive, inhuman circumstances.

To support this claim, Zimbardo offers a wealth of evidence from social psychology. One of Zimbardo’s more compelling examples of the power of situations to influence action comes from an experiment at Princeton University in 1973. Theology students at Princeton were asked by experimenters in the psychology department to deliver a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan from the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament. The parable describes the moral duty of good people to help others when they are in need.

The experiment, however, demonstrated the power of time pressures to make us ignore others’ needs. Some theology students were told that they were late for the videotaping session and would have to hurry; other theology students were told they had a little more time; still others were told they had plenty of time. During the walk across campus, each theology student was confronted by a distressed stranger, calling for...

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Booklist 103, no. 16 (April 15, 2007): 6.

Discover 28 (April, 2007): 68-69.

Library Journal 132, no. 5 (March 15, 2007): 83.

The New Republic 236, no. 16 (May 21, 2007): 51-55.

Publishers Weekly 254 (February 12, 2007): 74.

The Times Higher Education Supplement, April 6, 2007, p. 21.

The Times Literary Supplement, October 19, 2007, pp. 3-5.