Book Review - The Lucifer Effect Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

Cultic Studies Review, 8, (1), 2009, 77-83

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

Philip Zimbardo

Reviewed by Monica Pignotti, Florida State University

How well do we really know anyone? How well do we really know ourselves? Are those who commit atrocities people with serious character defects or psychopathology, or are they ordinary people responding to an extraordinary situation? How many times, in the course of our ordinary lives, have we been surprised to learn about the actions of someone we thought we knew well? The Lucifer Effect provides some possible explanations for this phenomenon, as well as for those of us who have been involved in cultic groups or other situations in which we were, in retrospect, baffled by our own actions, which contradicted our previous notions of our identities. The author, eminent social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, elaborates in-depth on a lifetime he has dedicated, as a professor at Stanford University, to research and exploration of these issues.

In chapter 1, Zimbardo sets the stage for what is to come by providing us with an overview of how psychologists and others have addressed the question, “What makes people go wrong?” (p. 5) or, to put it more boldly, What makes people engage in evil acts? In using the word “evil,” Zimbardo ventures into territory that has been considered taboo and controversial by many psychologists. He defines the word: “Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize or destroy innocent others—or using one’s authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf” (p. 5).

As is evident from this definition, the study of evil is the study of particular behaviors and motivations. As such, it could be argued that such a study is within the legitimate province of psychology, although some may be disturbed by this.

Zimbardo begins by pointing out that the predominant paradigm in our culture for explaining human behavior is known as the dispositional model, a model that focuses on inner individual personality traits and deviance. Although he acknowledges that such factors can and do contribute to human behavior, he maintains that an alternate, equally important model that our society tends to minimize and overlook is the situationist perspective, the contribution of external factors pertinent to the situation that contribute to behaviors human beings engage in.

The systemic model goes a step beyond that view and examines the system that made the situation possible. Zimbardo maintains that people in our culture tend to overestimate the contribution of internal personality factors and underestimate the contribution of situational and systemic factors. He uses the analogy of bad apples (individuals), bad barrels (situations) and bad barrel makers (systems). All too often when we are analyzing situations in which atrocities occur, our cultural bias is to focus on the belief that the atrocities were committed by the “bad apples,” ignoring the barrels and barrel makers. The purpose of this book is an attempt to remedy this bias by providing evidence from a large body of social psychology research to support the often-overlooked contribution of external factors to explain human behavior.

Zimbardo has been criticized in some reviews (Donnellan, Fraley & Krueger, 2007; Mastroianni, 2007) for putting too much emphasis on the situation. However, a careful reading of The Lucifer Effect reveals that, as he points out in his response to this criticism (Zimbardo, 2007), he does not intend to deny that individual characteristics play a role; rather, he wishes to convey to the reader the overlooked situational and systemic contributions. Given that an abundance of literature already exists that focuses on individual pathology as explanation, Zimbardo chose to make the situational and systemic perspectives the focus of The Lucifer Effect. This is a focus that those of us who are studying cults or who have been members of cults can certainly appreciate. People commonly exhibit the propensity to blame the victims (Singer and Lalich, 1995), seeking out putative pathology, character flaws, and familial dysfunction to attempt to explain why people enter cults, which enables them to, in essence, declare “not me.” Zimbardo challenges readers to consider that each of us could be capable of unthinkable acts, given certain situations.

Chapters 2 through 11 contain an in-depth account of Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE). Although most readers of this journal are undoubtedly familiar with the SPE, the account presented here provides a number of details that were not possible to include in the more concise scientific publications. This account courageously describes the highly personal experience of how the author transitioned from the role of psychological scientist to prison superintendent during the course of the experiment. He also describes in detail how ordinary students with no pre-existing pathology took on the roles of prisoners and guards, and engaged in actions their personality traits would not have predicted. Ultimately, an outsider (Zimbardo’s future wife, psychologist Christina Maslach) who arrived late on the scene became the catalyst to the researchers’ ultimate decision to put an end to the experiment after only six days, when she spoke up and brought Zimbardo to the realization that the experiment had spun out of control and was harming people.

One point made in these chapters is how one’s taking on a certain role, when that is a role the person is strongly identified with, can influence that individual to behave in uncharacteristic ways. In the field of cultic studies, this role identification has been referred to as taking on the cult personality (Hassan, 1990; 2000); Zimbardo’s account provides insight into this phenomenon from a social psychology perspective. Zimbardo points out that when people take on roles, it is easier for them to behave in ways that contradict a more positive self-image they might possess.

Chapters 12 and 13 provide an analysis of the social dynamics of power, conformity, and obedience, including an in-depth analysis of the Milgram experiment. (In the Milgram experiment, subjects were made to believe that they were administering a progressively severe series of electric shocks to people as part of a study that was alleged to be about learning and memory. The study was actually about obedience to authority, and the results were that a high percentage of subjects went all the way to the highest level of shock, obeying the researcher’s orders to continue.) These chapters provide insight into social-influence processes that can apply to cults. Such processes provide an alternative and perhaps more parsimonious explanation than the more complicated theories some cult experts have presented that focus on individual pathology induced by cults, such as the use of hypnotic and other mind-control techniques that allegedly result in dissociative disorders believed to be common among ex-cultists (Hassan, 2000; Lalich & Tobias, 2006). The two views need not be mutually exclusive, but social-influence processes carried to an extreme may suffice as an explanation in some if not most cases, and may be a less pathologizing alternative. Zimbardo notes:

I will argue that the most dramatic instances of directed behavior change and “mind control” are not the consequence of exotic forms of influence, such as hypnosis, psychotropic drugs, or “brainwashing,” but rather the systematic manipulation of the most mundane aspects of human nature over time in confining settings. (p. 259)

Zimbardo challenges the criminal justice system to consider the role situational forces play in criminal behavior, rather than making the usual assumptions of individual motivation and personality factors. He expands upon this in chapter 14, in his in-depth analysis of the recent revelation of egregious human-rights abuses, including the torture of prisoners that occurred at the United States military prison in Iraq, Abu Ghraib. He also reveals some striking parallels between the SPE and what occurred at Abu Ghraib. As with the participants in the SPE, he provides evidence that the parties involved in the Abu Ghraib abuses were not initially “bad apples,” and that their backgrounds and the results of psychological tests for individual pathology were unremarkable.

In addition to examining the situational forces present at Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo puts the system that made this possible on trial in chapter 15. Although he does not completely absolve the parties directly involved of responsibility, he takes the position that mitigation is warranted and that the entire chain of command should be held responsible. This is the section of the book that appears to have generated the most controversy and criticism (Donnellan et al., 2007; Mastroianni, 2007) for not putting enough emphasis on individual personality factors. Although Zimbardo undoubtedly has placed more emphasis on discussing situational and systemic factors, we need to take into account the context and purpose of The Lucifer Effect, which he outlined in the opening chapter, as previously described.

The concluding chapters discuss the more positive side to human nature, heroism. Zimbardo begins what will hopefully be an ongoing dialogue we can all engage in about how undesirable situational forces might be resisted. This is a very new area, in which much less empirical evidence exists, so at this stage the discussion is exploratory and tentative. Zimbardo presents “A Ten-step Program to Resist Unwanted Influences” (p. 451). The list is not meant to be definitive, but, rather, a way to begin to examine possibilities of how such influences might be resisted. The main criticism I have of this chapter is regarding his proposal for a “reverse-Milgram” experiment to induce people to engage in acts of altruism:

Our goal is to create a setting in which people will comply with demands that intensify over time to do good. The participants would be guided gradually to behave in ever-more-altruistic ways, slowly but surely moving further than they could have imagined toward ever-more-positive, prosocial actions. Instead of the paradigm arranged to facilitate a slow descent into evil, we could substitute a paradigm for slow assent into goodness. (pp. 448-449)

What immediately came to mind when I read this passage was that this is precisely what people involved in cults are doing. Most people in cults sincerely believe that they are helping people; and even when they are aware that they are manipulating people, they maintain that the ends justify the means, and that they are doing it for a good purpose. I have no doubt that if most people involved in cults were shown this statement, they would readily agree that this is what they are doing. The heavenly deception of the Unification Church (Hassan, 1990) is a prime example of this. While to his credit Zimbardo qualifies this as “doing good without any supporting ideology” (p. 449), what might be considered ideology could be a highly subjective matter. It is doubtful that people who are in cults would describe what they are promoting as ideology-based because, from their perspective, they are simply telling the “Truth”. The question arises of who would get the privilege of defining what constitutes doing good, and that is what makes me uncomfortable with this proposition. Anyone who has studied cults can provide examples of members who, while sincerely believing they are acting altruistically and doing good, have sacrificed themselves and their families in ways that in retrospect they decided were not helpful.

Zimbardo concludes The Lucifer Effect by presenting real-life examples of individuals who have been able to resist the forces of social influence and become heroes. One example he gives is Deborah Layton’s courageous actions in speaking out about the People’s Temple. Further study of people who have managed to resist the forces of undesirable social influence would undoubtedly make a valuable contribution and perhaps provide us with insights into how we all might be better equipped to resist such influence, an important topic for future research.

On the whole, The Lucifer Effect is a book that is well worth the read and ought to be on the bookshelf of every professional who studies or deals with people involved in cultic groups, as an excellent resource for challenging the tendency most of us have as human beings to minimize the power of the situation. There are times that even we as cult experts need to be reminded of this.


Donnellan, M. B.; Fraley, R. C.; & Kreuger, R. F. (2007, June/July). Not so situational. Observer, 20(6), 5.

Hassan, S. (1990). Combatting cult mind control, 2nd Edition. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.

Hassan, S. (2000). Releasing the Bonds: Empowering people to think for themselves. Danbury, CT: Freedom of Mind Press.

Lalich, J. & Tobias, M. (2006). Take back your life: Recovering from cults and abusive relationships. Berkeley, CA: Baytree Publishing.

Mastroianni, G. R. (2007). Zimbardo’s Apple. Analysis of social issues and public policy, 7, 251-254.

Singer, M. T. & Lalich, J. (1995). Cults in our midst: The hidden menace in our everyday lives. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Zimbardo (2007, September). Person X Situation X System Dynamics. Observer, 20(8), 6. An extended version of this response is available at