Turning Evil Inside Out

“We fear evil, but are fascinated by it.” So writes Philip Zimbardo, the author of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. While the precise line where immoral action becomes evil may vary from individual to individual, the evil Zimbardo writes of are actions that, in general, evoke a deep feeling moral reprehensibility. As the designer of the Stanford Prison Experiment and an investigatory agent in the Abu Ghraib scandal, he knows a thing or two about evil.  And while The Lucifer Effect explores a wide range of research, it is also an intensely personal work.

Zimbardo traces the book’s origin to the “ghetto sandbox days” of his childhood when he saw his own friends—good boys—do bad things. He even saw one boy skinning cats alive.  The discord between the normalcy of these people in daily life and the evilness of their actions interested Zimbardo, who wanted to study the situational and systemic forces, rather than personality traits of the individual, that cause evil.  Some of these systematic forces are clear, for instance, during the mass rape of Rwandan women by their Hutu neighbors, one rapist explained that “he had ‘permission’ from his mother to rape Tutsi women”. The go ahead from his mother, a superior, prompted this boy to do something he would otherwise not do. Other social rationales that Zimbardo uncovers are less pronounced, and he deems them underexplored.  Despite focusing on social psychology, Zimbardo does not wholly neglect individual psychology. His ability to focus intensely on a subject of interest without losing sight of the general picture makes The Lucifer Effect a truly exceptional read.

The book is remarkably focused on Zimbardo’s own experiences: the page breakdown alone points to the personal forces behind the book—Zimbardo spends nearly two hundred page describing the Stanford Prison Experiment and another hundred on the Abu Ghraib abuses.  While occasionally Zimbardo lingers too long on a single detail of an experiment and the book becomes wearisome, more often the great detail is both interesting and productive as Zimbardo proceeds to capitalize on it in his analysis. For instance, he carefully ties his impressions of the participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment to the results obtained from tests of the subjects on the Machiavellian Scale. It is in this kind of analysis that Zimbardo steps away from his personal experience and into academic psychology, from the specific to the general, and comprehensively explores the psychology of evil.  From this general psychology, he steps back to the personal, this time not into his own mind but that of the audience.

Again and again Zimbardo asks the reader to mentally participate in the studies he describes, but not before he warns, “Most of us construct self-enhancing… biases… you might well conclude that you would not do what the majority has done.” He proposes a simple yet frightening conclusion: we are all capable of great evil in the right situation. Consider for instance, the Millgram experiment, in which 65% of the participants followed orders that they believed might kill another participant. Drawing from this experiment, Zimbardo defines the situation where good people do bad, providing a checklist for evil. Some of the items on this list include: entering into contracts, adopting roles, diffusing responsibility, using basic rules, and taking other simple steps that can transform Average Joe into a murderer.

The surprisingly personal angle on evil in The Lucifer Effect was directly motivated by Zimbardo’s experiences with Abu Ghraib. As an expert witness in the trials he was dismayed when the military refused to acknowledge or even consider the role of situational forces in the abuses.  Although Zimbardo began The Lucifer Effect 30 years before he finished and published it, he explains in the preface that at that time he would have been happy to write a much more limited book, one that examined the situational forces behind evil in a measured and dispassionate way.  After the Abu Ghraib scandal, however, Zimbardo is both “frustrated and angry.” This causes him to reach into a personal and speculative realm, perhaps beyond the scope of academics, and informs a turn toward activism at the end of The Lucifer Effect.

Without this shift The Lucifer Effect would be a disheartening read in which even the best among us succumbs to evil, but instead Zimbardo looks hopefully toward the future.  He talks of heroes and offers solutions to the situational and systemic elements that increase the likelihood of everyday evil.  Many of these are personal steps to take—acknowledge mistakes, pay attention, take responsibility—and while some are cliché, the research behind them provides new weight. Occasionally, however, when Zimbardo rails against the system and calls for drastic reform, his suggestions no longer seem reasonable and science falls by the ways side. But while his future is idyllic, some of his suggestions are level-headed and backed by research. Perhaps the most striking, Zimbardo turns the Millgram experiment around, suggesting we use the same situational forces to promote good deeds instead of bad.

The Lucifer Effect supports Zimbardo’s early claim: evil is fascinating.  The five hundred-page non-fiction tome reads almost like a novel. And, while Zimbardo oversteps a bit at the end of the book, addressing the reader in a way that is a bit too romantic and idealistic, he both accepts that evil can lurk within the most virtuous individual and looks beyond it, elegantly exploring how our weaknesses can become our strengths.


  1. Zimbardo, Philip. The Lucifer Effect: understanding how good people turn evil. New York: Little, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2008.
  2. Image credit (Creative Commons): Benedetti, Aldo Cavini. “Angeli o diavoli? Angels or devils? II.” Flickr. Last modified January 22, 2008.

Felicity Deiss is a second year student at the University of Chicago majoring in Biology and minoring in English and Creative Writing. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.