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Distinguished Science Lecture Series Archives

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

Dr. Philip Zimbardo

How is it possible for ordinary, average, even good people to become perpetrators of evil? Dr. Zimbardo, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, ran the famous “Stanford Prison Experiment” in the late 1960s that randomly assigned healthy, normal intelligent college students to play the roles of prisoner or guard in a projected 2 week-long study that he was forced to terminate after only 6 days because it went out of control, with pacifists becoming sadistic guards, and normal kids breaking down emotionally. Dr. Zimbardo applies his theories to understanding torture in the Inquisition, the massacre in Rwanda, the rape of Nanking, and the abuse and torture in Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

Dr. Zimbardo reviews the research findings from conformity, obedience to authority, role-playing, dehumanization, deindividuation and moral disengagement, that validate the assertion that situational power is stronger than we appreciate, and may come to dominate individual dispositions. He introduces the “evil of inaction” as a new form of evil that supports those who are the perpetrators of evil, by knowing but not acting to challenge them. Finally, after considering “The banality of evil” as everyman and every woman’s potential for engaging in evil deeds despite their generally moral upbringing and pro-social life style, Dr. Zimbardo introduces the new concept of “The Banality of Heroism” by those who defied the Lucifer Effect.

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