“The Lucifer Effect” by Philip Zimbardo
“The Lucifer Effect” was originally published in 2007. Its author, Philip Zimbardo is a professor of psychology at the Stanford University. He is famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment. Zimbardo’s book “The Lucifer Effect” devotes the first chapter to the moral transformation that occurs as a result of the relationship between systems of power, situations and individual disposition. In the rest of the book, the author dedicates his efforts to describe the Stanford Prison Experiment. The experiment was an attempt to study an interplay between prison guards and the injustices they met on the prisoners. The book also relates the findings of the Stanford Prison Experiment and findings of other studies to the events in the Attica Prison as well as those in Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq.
Zimbardo’s work is a great illustration of what really happens when people are desensitized. For instance, in the Stamford Prison Experiment, the researcher got a group of students and assigned them the role of either a guard or prisoner randomly. The experiment was meant to last two weeks and was to investigate conformity to social roles. It was, however, terminated in six days. The reason being that the guards quickly adapted to their role and began bullying and harassing the prisoners. They quickly became engrossed in their roles as prison guards and were already brutally handling the prisoners. The experimental guards forced the experimental prisoners to do inhumane acts that they would not normally do.
The whole experiment was dehumanizing. Dr. Zimbardo, the mock jail governor, was himself so engrossed in his experimental role that he failed to realize what was really happening. His senses were awakened by his future wife who had come to visit. She ground him back to the reality that the experiment was going out of hand, and Dr. Zimbardo was forced to terminate it early. He, however, learned enough about human nature. He saw firsthand how quickly good people could change for the worse in a very short time.
From the analysis, the Zimbardo observed something that made it very easy for the people to become bad without having had such intentions. He saw that by dehumanizing the other group (prisoners), the prison guards could treat them unfavorably without feeling bad about immoral actions. The process of dehumanizing the inferior group requires that they take away the other groups humanity and in that sense seeing as lesser beings. How is the process of reducing a fellow human to a figure of a mere animal status achieved? This is through negative propaganda.
Several methods of spreading propaganda and dehumanizing others are given in the book including the case of the Holocaust where millions of Jews were exterminated. For instance, at schools children were forced to read stories that depicted the Jews in a negative light. Jews were described as greedy and strange. Another means of dehumanizing humans was by racial stereotyping. Some people are for instance said to be of lower intelligence, or too conniving, or to have some other negative connotation. Jews in camps were stripped of their names, clothes, and even hair. They were also denied enough food so that their gaunt bodies appeared less human.
The book further explains that in the military, for instance, stereotyped faces of the enemy together with their other characteristics that are meant to breed hatred. The enemies are shown as child molesters and rapists. They, on the other hand, are shown as powerful humans who are also alien in a cold world. In other cases, the others are shown as strange beings. The soldiers, for instance, take trophy photographs with their victims because they see them as strange beings. In Abu Ghraib prison, for example, the soldiers took photos of themselves with the prisoners as trophies. They also forced them to commit acts that were against their religious beliefs. Doing such actions makes it easy to see the less dominant or the marginalized groups as less human. We are able to see the other people as inferior beings and, therefore, we do not feel bad when we commit any injustices against them.
In Zimbardo’s view, however, the events of the prison were not bred by the guards. This was something that had grown from the topmost authority in the Bush administration. However, James also cautions that everyone is capable of inhumane acts. It is not enough to see them as atrocious acts because given the right setting everyone can easily become like the guards in the Abu Ghraib Prison facility. It is, however, possible to overcome the predicament by remaining conscious of one’s surroundings. We should also understand the context of some framing of issues and languages used so that we do not easily get indoctrinated of desensitized. All in all, the failure to remain vigilant leaves us exposed to deindividuation.