KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #7: The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo

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In August 1971, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo and a team of researches conducted an experiment in the basement of Stanford University wherein 24 perfectly normal, healthy male college students took on roles of prisoners and guards. The purpose of the Stanford Prison Experiment was to study the effects of situational forces on both sets of participants: how would the guards respond to their new positions of power, and how would prisoners respond to being stripped of their identity and freedom? I’ll sum it up for you quickly: given the right situation, it appears that just about all of us have the capacity to be total dicks.

The speed with which the prisoners seemed to lose their identity and take on the role of prisoner was impressive; however, the real surprise of the experiment was the intensity with which the guards embraced their new roles. Although they were told they could not physically harm the prisoners, they were free to employ whatever mental harassment they could come up with, including solitary confinement and sleep deprivation; they repeatedly made the prisoners get up in the middle of the night to count off their “numbers” and repeat the rules of the prison in mind-numbing repetition. (It seems to me that sleep deprivation would be physically harmful, but I’m no torture expert.) When one prisoner goes on a hunger strike, the guards force him to “make love” to his dinner sausages, ordering him to hug, caress, and kiss them. When he still refuses to eat, they try to force the sausages down his throat. At one point towards the end of the experiment, the guards humiliate a prisoner by forcing him to mime intercourse with the ground.

Have I mentioned that all of this happened within a span of 6 days?

The roles or prisoner and guard were assigned completely at random and all potential participants were carefully screened to make sure they were mentally stable (i.e., not prone to nervous breakdowns or predisposed to be assholes).  From the experiment, Zimbardo concludes that, “We overemphasize personality in explaining any behavior while concurrently underemphasizing situational influences.” In other words, we are constantly explaining bad behavior as the work of “bad apples,” instead of looking at the “bad barrel” to see how the situation can be corrected.

All of this is very interesting and I wish I could recommend this book; however, I’ve pretty much told you most of what you need to know. So unless you are getting a graduate degree in psychology, please just read the Wikipedia entry on the Stanford Prison Experiment and save yourself time.

I’m probably being unfair; this is, after all, a detailed study of an experiment, but the author’s writing made me want to go out and do some waterboarding. In Chapter 2, Zimbardo describes how he talked the Stanford police into “arresting” the prisoners for his experiment, to lend authenticity to the volunteers’ loss of freedom and start the experiment off with a little flair. He recounts his conversations with the Palo Alto police department officers in dialogue that wouldn’t cut it on Cinemax. The officers conveniently provide a framework for exposition, saying things like “I’m a little confused about a couple of things,” and “Yes, I guess it makes sense the way you put it.” I know I’m being picky, but couldn’t he have found a graduate student willing to ghost write this thing for him? The last straw was when he referenced the Milgram Experiment as having “shocking results” (wink, wink). Good God, who was the editor on this?

But enough of my literary critique. I found myself getting irritated as well with the glee with which Zimbardo set out to conduct his experiment, starting with the “arrest” and local news coverage. Zimbardo himself put pressure on the guards to be tougher with the prisoners, and the only reason the experiment ended after six days instead of two weeks was because graduate student Christina Maslach (who was also romantically involved with Zimbardo) visited the prison and expressed horror at the conditions. Zimbardo does explore in the book whether the experiment was ethical (it wasn’t) and expresses regret that he allowed it to go on as long as he did, indicating that he too got caught up in his “role” as prison superintendent. I just couldn’t help thinking that maybe we need an experiment to study dickish tendencies among the scientific community.

The last third of the book explores what we can learn from the experiment about situational forces and how these forces help explain modern incidents like the Abu Ghraib abuses.  Zimbardo concludes that “this experiment has emerged as a powerful illustration of the potentially toxic impact of bad systems and bad situations in making good people behave in pathological ways that are alien to their nature.”

There’s plenty of food for thought in this book; I just wish it had been available in pamphlet form.

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Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #50: Victims by Jonathan Kellerman

Another in a long line of Alex Delaware novels, in which the child psychologist offers his (usually crime-solving) insights as an occasionally-paid consultant to the LAPD, and in particular to his friend Detective Milo Sturgis. The sometimes humorous/sometimes poignant relationship between Kellerman’s lead characters Delaware and Sturgis is alone sufficient to keep most Kellerman fans coming back year after year and book after book, and Kellerman’s handling of dialogue with authenticity and often snappy wit is a big plus for me, but this time, the plot –despite a number of unexplained holes in it—proved a draw as well.

We are introduced right away to the handiwork of a monster, a disemboweled corpse with the intestines looped around the victim’s neck. We soon discover that the victim was an aggressively abrasive alcoholic loner and our sympathy level ratchets down a notch, only to shoot up when the next victim is discovered to be the quintessential nice guy. Adding to the horror, the second victim’s dumb but loveable Golden Retriever is missing and presumed killed as well. More victims start popping up, all apparently randomly chosen and yet evidently stalked and targeted by the killer. Detective Sturgis does a lot of plodding police footwork throughout the first half of the book that gets him nowhere except in trouble with his superiors for his lack of progress, while Dr. Delaware –with a little help from his love interest Robin–throws in a few professional zingers which keeps the crime-solving moving ahead.

Delaware was more of an enigma to me in this book, functioning less like a real flesh-and-blood character and rather more like a rather bland mouthpiece for solving the mystery. In fact, for me, it was the secondary characters that really made this book hum. Kellerman brilliantly introduces us to a large number of people who are portrayed in all their flawed humanity—the shell-shocked wife of one victim who clings to Sturgis for consolation, the enraged father of a dying child who wants to strike out at the world, the former clinic administrator who in his declining years cannot shed enough possessions to assuage his guilty conscience, the long-estranged son of a homeless victim, and so on.  Kellerman is masterful at peopling his stories with the real thing, and not just black hats and white hats, and it’s one of the things I enjoy about his books.

The plot meanders a good deal, and it’s not until well into the book that our detective and his pal start to connect the killer to a psychiatric facility which was shut down and dismantled many years earlier, but which had a common thread with one or more of the victims. At this point, the pace accelerates, the killer’s identity coalesces and the melodramatic climax ensues. At the end, soulfull looks are exchanged between Sturgis and Delaware which left me scratching my head in confusion. Nonetheless, a page-turner with many good things to recommend it.

One aspect of the novel that bears noting is that I think Kellerman chose Victims to make a strongly personal statement about the insidious nature of today’s health insurance industry, and it comes through loud and clear. I couldn’t have agreed more.