This morning I caught an interesting segment on CBC’s The Current, with Anna Maria Tremonti interviewing Philip Zimbardo (RealAudio). Similar to the Milgram Experiment, Zimbardo has explored the question of what makes otherwise good people act evil, stepping well beyond their own ethical boundaries. The segment intro:
The Current: The Lucifer Effect
The now infamous Stanford Prison Experiment occurred back in 1971, when a psychologist at Stanford University named Phil Zimbardo gathered 20 perfectly healthy and mentally stable young volunteers. He randomly assigned them to the role of either prisoner or guard. The prisoners got workclothes and had their names replaced with numbers. The guards got billy clubs and sunglasses to obscure their faces. The guards’ only task was to maintain order among the prisoners. The experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but after six days it had to be shut down because the guards were humiliating and tormenting the prisoners with an intensity no one had predicted.
Phil Zimbardo has since used the experience as a way of understanding why seemingly moral people commit horrific acts. He became especially interested in the abuse that took place in Abu Ghraib, the U.S. military-run prison in Iraq. He details his work in his latest book called The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Phil Zimbardo joined us from San Francisco.
The interview was fascinating. I’ve previously questioned whether the ecclesiological structures and systems we set up are inherently detrimental or dangerous to those leaders within it. “Power corrupts.” Zimbardo’s questions and thesis support the asking of the question, but his research obviously goes way beyond what I was suggesting and into much bleaker circumstances. He suggests that the system itself can be constructed not only to allow evil behaviour, but encourages it… and in essence, can make it seem almost unavoidable. He began with some unexpected consequences from The Stanford Prison Experiment and made an ongoing study of the question.
I spent some time poking around The Lucifer Effect website, and discovered that among many other resources, there’s a theology blog, Lucifer Goes to Church. As well, he pressed the question from the opposite side, asking conversely what causes people to be pressed into heroic action, and how we can resist the influence of systems which encourage us toward evil behaviour. I’ve got more reading to do, but the subject is quite a fascinating one that ties into a number of global situations and helping to understand some of the dynamics at work.