Thinking. The thin line between good and evil

The Lucifer Effect

I'm reading a fascinating book entitled The Lucifer Effect by Phil Zimbardo.

Zimbardo was the head of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment in the 1970s which took 24 college students into a simulated jail situation. All were 'good', healthy, stable and upright citizens. By random ballot, half were assigned to be 'prisoners' and the other half assigned to be 'guards'. 

The experiment was supposed to run for two weeks and was mostly looking at the effect that being a 'prisoner' would have on someone. Would the prisoners band together as a collective? Or would each person act individually.

After only six days, however, Zimbargo called a halt to what he had started. He was appalled by the inventive and sadistic cruelty that the 'guards' were inflicting on the 'prisoners' in their charge. It took less than one day for reality to fade and the students to completely inhabit their new roles. The guards became meaner and the prisoners more passive and depressed.

The experiment has been cited around the world as an example of how situational evil and 'the system' we each inhabit can have a much bigger effect on human behaviour than we would normally think.

The book promises to investigate the Abu Ghraib abuses and other appalling human behaviours in detail. I will be following it with great interest. It's intriguing on a personal level too. I was a victim of bullying for a year in middle school, and I can recognise many of the factors that were present for that to have happened. I can also recognise the ways in which I responded to that bullying - both for good and for bad.

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