The lucifer effect and the stanford prison experiment essay sample



What is evil? Is it strength of the human mind which conquers his thinking ability and forces its own actions? Or is it just a state of mind which flickers with time? Or is it even the body or the mind controlling the evil or is actually the evil which is controlling the mind; it being something supernatural; something absolutely inhumane? And if it is then why are still such people like Mandela and Mother Teresa a part of our society; doesn’t the devil of the evil influence them?

“ Evil” as Professor Zimbardo, in his famous book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, states that “ Evil is a place with many unopened doors and unraveled, darkened corridors of the mind — something that’s out of control.” (Zimbardo, 2007) Thus the question is of how this evil develops and how strongly is one susceptible to be abused by it power.

The Psychology of Evil – The Lucifer Effect: A Theory

Lucifer, according to the Christian belief, is the name given to the fallen angel; the angel who deceived God. As stated in the Old Testament, in Hebrew the literal wording used for Lucifer is that of “ Helel” which means brightness. While in Latin, in the Book of Isaiah, the word refers to the morning star; and furthermore it is related to as the atmosphere, light, and the prince of the power of air. (The Lockman Foundation, 1995)  Also known by the well known name of the devil, the name was mainly popularized by English writers such as John Milton, in his famous book “ Paradise Lost.”

The story of Lucifer from being an angel, to his becoming a devil, commonly known as “ Satan;” dates back to the day of the creation of Adam. Lucifer, as the tradition states was one of the most exalted angels of God; but when He created Adam out of earth, and when Archangel Michael, asked him and his followers to bow in front of the newly created image of God, he refused because he found himself, superior as he was made of fire and would not worship something made out of earth.

No matter he was warned of God’s wrath for his disobedience, but he remained arrogant and the cosmic war started in which he was cast out of heaven and dissembled to earth, where he promised and owed to himself for revenge. As the Book of Isaiah states that he said, “ I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God.” (The Lockman Foundation, 1995) And it was that day when he became the fallen angel, the Satan. He deceived Adam is disobeying God, and in being sent down from heaven to the Earth, and he promised against God, to take his followers away from him and take his revenge by engulfing people in His defiance and disobedience, thus evil was created.

Therefore the conversion of Lucifer to Devil was the act of transformation of the good to bad, which is theoretically known as the “ Lucifer Effect;” it is when a transitively when a good person, first steps into turning evil; however in reality this change is not so considerable as that of the devil but exists very strongly in the world.

The question however is that, how could a normal person living a routine life, may deviate so much from ordinary that he turns evil? Is it something which comes in our genes, something innate, or do we acquire it somehow from our circumstances? And then are we humans so permeable that we might be so easily are affected by the changes and the swishing characters around us?

According to studies into psychology of the humans, it is learnt that at certain points of time, an individuals surroundings and external influence is so strong that no matter how morally and consciously stable or enlightened a person is, he at certain points becomes a handicap in these external evil forces, such so that his conceit of right and wrong abandons him and he takes over as to what is being feed to him from around; and his sense of principles, justice and fair play is weakened or rather overwhelmed by the evil.

And as to how powerful one’s external influences could be onto him were studied exclusively in 1971, by a psychologist, Professor Philip Zimbardo in his famous Stanford Prison Experiment, of which Professor Jon D. Hanson of Harvard University Law School said that, “ Informed by social science, history, intelligence, experience, and self-examination, Phil Zimbardo’s engaging and beautifully written tour de force uncovers the sources of evil–big and small. The Lucifer Effect accomplishes more than simply making the darkness visible; it also helps to make lightness possible. It is crucial reading for everyone.” (Zimbardo, 2007)

Stanford Prison Experiment – A Transformation:  Experiment Meaning and Messages

Philip G. Zimbardo, an American psychologist of the Stanford University, famous for his works in studying human psychology towards adapting evil and how his environment influences him, curious to understand this behavior carried out the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which he placed he placed 24 normal male college students as guards and prisoners in a mock prison created in the basement of the psychology department in Stanford.

The main goal of the experiment was to establish the fact that the evil attitude prevalent in the prisoners and guards was due to the disturbing environment of the prison. Thus in 1971, testing the “ prison stimulation” these 24 white males were shifted to the artificially created prison in the basement of the Jordan Hall, where Zimbardo appointed himself as the superintendent and an undergraduate research assistant as the warden. And to give a perfect feel of a prison, the guards carried real batons, wearing the official uniforms, while the prisoners were made to dress accordingly in white shags while chains were put around their ankles to constantly remind them of their roles.

Each prisoner was given a number by which he was referred to by the sentries. Whereas to give a greater feel of reality to the experiment, the guards were told to keep a hostile attitude with the prisoners, not intending to harm them but to mentally make them feel powerless; so as to take away their individuality. Those selected to be the prisoners were in real arrested from their houses by a police command, and were charge of robbery; brought to the prison, strip searched and received their new identities.

On the other hand the experiment just within six days got out of hand and had to be closed a week earlier from its scheduled time. The prisoners had stated to suffer from the hands of the guards, thus a very stable environment was taken over by a sadistic look and rebellious broke out; and many had already started showing signs of emotional disorder.

The attitudes of guards started shifting severely after the first day; whereby they started off by minor abuses and physical punishments, which gradually grew more violent. At times they were not allowed to use the sanitary facilities, with the hygiene conditions deteriorating strongly around the prison, they were made to walk around naked, in order to break their self respect; were to sleep on concrete floors and even were brought to sexual harassment. While the cruelty of the guards continued to worsen; with one third noted to be portraying sadistic attitudes; whilst many were sad over the early curtailment of the experiment.

However, the prisoners didn’t seem to object the situations as just pay roles, because they had strongly materialized themselves into the situation. But after the strong moral objection shown by one of the graduate students, Christina Maslach, the experiment was curtailed immediately.

Stanford Prison Experiment Ethic and Extensions

The experiment concluded to support the idea of certain attributes could be adapted by individuals through different situations, bringing out such personalities which were absent before in the individuals. However, the study was highly criticized by many psychologists and was rendered to have broken the American Psychological Associate Ethics Code, the Canadian Code of Conduct for Research Involving Humans, and the Belmont Report; stating it as unscientific and unethical. (Carnahan & McFarland, 2007)

They colluded that it being an unrepeatable experiment was such that exhibited influence of the Nazi Concentration Camps; and also it was mentioned that the characters of the study were acting merely like the stereotypes, as just role players behaving the way they were expected to by Zimbardo. Moreover, SPE was also blamed to have been inflated by acts such as blind folding and removing the prisoner’s identities; but professor proclaimed that such acts were necessary to bring out reality to those who were carrying out the experiment; while guards such as John Wayne, the cruelest of all was charged of being adapting self roles out of movies, which made him the most brutal. And lastly, that the sample size of 24 people and time frame of only 6 days was too small to generalize the study as an authority.

Investigating Social Dynamics: Power, Conformity, and Obedience (The Case of Abu Gharib)

A similarity to the Lucifer Experiment which Zimbardo says can be found in many cases one of such seen in the Rwanda Massacre in Karubamba, on April 11, when the capital was turned into a sight of hell, where around 100, 000 to 200, 000 (United Nations), were killed by the hands of ethical and political differences between opposing parties. It was not an example of some ordinary raid, but was a scene of human brutality and hatred; with the most horror scenes established, never witnessed in the history before.  (Fritz, 2008)

Another event which took everybody’s mind towards the acceptance and authenticity of the Stanford Prison Experiment is that of the Abu Gharib American Military Prison; whose comparison was drawn after a report known as Abu Ghraib military prisoner torture and abuse scandal, was published by Major General Antonio Taguba on 2004; describing the reality of the scandalous military prison. The report mentioned that the guards of the prison were under trained and lacked the precise knowledge to handle the large number of prisoners. They had a difficulty in fitting into the Iraqi society and had minimum amount of facilities which could relax their anxieties; while they held complete power with no accountability to any higher officials.

Thus such a situation sparked the evil inside them, as Zimbardo later indicated. The guards who first started of with abusing the prisoners, became stronger and stronger crushing their individual personalities, and later even posing up for photographs and images, proudly accepting the abuse as by that time it had become a trait of their own characters.

Zimbardo who later was directly part of the investigation, studied the attitude of Sergeant Chip Fredrick, who was accused for his brutality and after studies he even proved the signs of Lucifer Effect, of how a good guard who had won 9 medals in his 30 years of service, transformed into evil, and was finally court martial and imprisoned for 8 years; thus displaying the dishonor of the human being. The psychologist summed up his work as how a few rotten apples were responsible in rotting away the entire barrel. Talking to the New York Times, Zimbardo stated that “ It’s not that we put bad apples in a good barrel. We put good apples in a bad barrel. The barrel corrupts anything that it touches.” (Schwartz, 2004)

Investigating Social Dynamics: De-individuation, Dehumanization, and the Evil of Inaction

Dehumanization and de-individuation as the words themselves describe, are phenomena’s by which an individual falls below accepted and prejudiced human levels of integrity and recognition. It is the first step towards ones evolving into an evil; it being a process which blocks his mind and makes him in accepting that others around him want to harm him and are his enemies. This evil attitude is depicted most commonly in Hitler’s “ final solution,” in Hungary which led to the Holocaust.

Comics were issued, which were taught in the German schools, exhibiting a dehumanized character of the Jews, thus establishing a negative stereotype in the minds of young innocents.  But what could be such a strong label which could have been created which would make one society take another as an enemy? The process begins with mentally accepting others as inferiors, dehumanizing their character, rubbing away their individual status in the world, that one psychologically starts accepting the threat from the other community. This would lead to large groups of people in visualizing the threat, and when dramatic images of the opposition are constantly published across the media, they leave an imprint in the human mind; thus accepting the fear and hate towards the others.

Resisting Situational Influences and Celebrating Heroism

It is not only in severe situations such as that of a prison or at war that a person could face a transformation, but the forces of evil are all way around and thus in routine life too one needs to be emotionally strong to fight away such influences. This influence might come to us not only in just verbal or visual forms, but it may be played right in front of us by groups of people together perform such actions so normally that our mind first refuses to feel odd to them but later get immune to them and might start participating in such mutual evil deeds; because if we do not adhere to such “ social calls” then we have to face the extermination from being a part of their kind.

But then there are those who work against this social effect and establish themselves strong on not what is happening around them but over what they believe and what morality would call upon. These are not normal humans but are special ones, with powers which cannot be broken by even the strongest temptations and actions around them, such people as Zimbardo refers to are “ heroes” and their actions as the “ banality of heroism.”

We could classify these heroes into two sects: one group who sacrifice their lives towards the good of the humanity such as Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela; and the other group of heroes is that of situational type heroes, who in certain circumstances would perform such deeds which would evade the evil; while anybody could be such a hero of his time.


Therefore it could be concluded that evil is present around ever human being, sometimes veiled and at the other times out in the open, demanding more victims to join its force; but who would become a part of this evil kingdom still resides in an individuals determination and his belief not into the situational influence but into his own self; into the optimism of a better end. Thus no matter how strong the influence is; the “ banality of evil” then could easily be conquered by the “ banality of heroism” by ones sheer determination and strong will.


Zimbardo, P. (2007) The  Lucifer  Effect:  Understanding  How  Good  People Turn  Evil, Random  House,  New York,  2007,  ISBN 1-400-06411-2

Carnahan,  C. & McFarland, S. (2007). Revisiting  the  Stanford Prison  Experiment: Could Participant  lf-Selection  Have  Led  to  the  Cruelty?  Personality  and  Social  Psychology  Bulletin,  Vol. 33,  No. 5, 603-614

Fritz,  M. (2008) Rwanda  Massacre The  Essential  Global  News  Network.  Associated  Press.

Schwartz, J. ( May, 2004) Simulated  Prison  in  ’71  Showed  a  Fine  Line  Between `Normal’ and  `Monster’. Psychology.  The  New York Times. Retrieved  from  http://www. nytimes. com/pages/world/middleeast/index. html  on  September 20, 2008.

Stannard, B. M. ( May 8. 2004). Stanford  experiment  foretold  Iraq  scandal.  ‘ Inmates’  got abused  in  psychology  study. San  Francisco  Chronicle. Retrieved  on  September  20, 2008

The Lockman Foundation (1995) Bible. New American Standard Bible. Isaiah 14: 13. Retrieved from :

http://nasb. scripturetext. com/isaiah/14. htm