Can psychologists root out the causes and triggers of “evil”? One psychologist claims he’s done just that. In “The Lucifer Effect“, Philip Zimbardo describes the mechanisms by which seemingly “ordinary people” can be driven to inflict horrors on other, and claims he’s been able to replicate it in experiments.

At this point, I expect, I’ve almost lost you. Far too much junk science gets printed by “psychologists” under similar, cheesy titles, and this claim, philosophically speaking, is incredibly bold. Zimbardo, though, doesn’t just have an impressive, Ivy League resume, including a stint as President of the American Psychological Association, he’s also the man behind one of the most fascinating experiments of all time: the Stanford Prison Expeiment.

And with that, if you’ve ever heard of it, I suspect I’ve got your attention back.

For those who haven’t, it’s a grisly tale. Back in 1971, a group of student volunteers were gathered for a two-week roleplaying exercise which would simulate a prison in a Stanford University basement. After screening to ensure they were “normal” (psychologically speaking), the 24 volunteers were divided into guards and inmates. Almost as soon as the simulation began, “guards” began to inflict sadistic and abusive punishments on the “inmates”, who began to break down emotionally, and even, at one point, organized a rebellion. Researchers cut the experiment short, in horror, after only six days.

The experiment was a testament to the ability of power to transform human relations and even people themselves. Other experiments conducted by Zimbardo and his colleagues over the years showed similar results, too. Making use of actors and “electric shocks”, most volunteers proved more than willing to keep pressing the button and delivering “shocks” at increasing voltage long after the actor had started screaming about a heart condition, flopped around on the floor and stopped moving. These results were easily influenced one way or the other – simple acts like giving the victim a name meant people would stop far sooner, while refusing to let them leave easily swayed them in the other direction. Through it all, themes emerged, such as authority, ideology and identity, which seemed key to bringing out the worst in people.

Zimbardo admits this subject of research had its origins with Jewish colleagues seeking answers in the wake of the Holocaust – how could so many “normal people” willingly participate? What’s frightening is that he may have found a piece in that puzzle – the use of authority and hierarchy to enforce obedience while reducing the sense of personal responsibility. Every aspect of their environment played a role, from the rules to the uniforms and propaganda which assured everybody what they were doing was “right”.

To add an extra, chilling dimension, Zimbardo also bases his conclusions on the conditions within Abu Ghraib. After notorious pictures of prisoner abuse surfaced, Zimbardo ended up working with the defence teams in the ensuing trials. The picture presented by his investigations is dark, but not surprising, and stands as an indictment of the prison itself. The abuse, as he demonstrates, was inevitable, especially as most of it was on approved lists of interrogation techniques. Much of the rest had to be predictable – understaffed and unsupervised night shifts of largely untrained reservists were watching an overcrowded dungeon – what did the Pentagon think was going to happen?

As far as “the Lucifer Effect” goes, I’ll stop short of saying that “evil” can be so easily explained. I will say, however, that his conclusions have some obvious relevance for questions of politics and violence. Long before the subject was studied by psychologists, the same lessons were learned easily enough, though simple trial and error. Since the first states, empires and warlords, competition between them has been driving a steady evolution in techniques for mass manipulation toward violent ends. Philip Zimbardo gives us a glimpse at the mechanics of this process, where psychology seemingly meets black magic. In time, I can only hope this will help us develop the tools to identify and counteract these methods, wherever they appear, and start the long process of breaking this odious spell.

PS: I don’t know that I can find a “legal” version, but there’s also German film, “Das Experiment“, based on the Stanford project. More of a thriller/horror flick than a documentary, but I really can’t recommend it enough.