The Lucifer Effect, Or Why We Can Do Malicious Acts

The Lucifer Effect, or why we can do malicious acts

The Lucifer effect can take place in any of our daily contexts. It refers to a process of transformation. With him, a seemingly normal, kind and integrated person is able to commit atrocious acts. These are cases where, instead of rediscovering a disorder or a traumatic past, we are dealing with the powerful influence of a situational factor capable of dehumanizing us.

Any good criminologist with knowledge of sociology will tell us that wickedness is not some kind of “entelechy” or universal truth that exists as a simple antagonism of “goodness”. Evil arises from a context, a social situation and a series of psychological mechanisms linked to the specific moment  that we are experiencing. Thus, an example on this subject that appears in many bibliographies is that linked to the Salem trials, with the famous witch hunt.

It is a historical moment delimited in time and reduced to a concrete community which lived gripped by religious fanaticism, Puritanism, collective hysteria, etc. Another good example of the Lucifer effect can be found in classic television character Walter White from the “Breaking Bad” series.

In this case, anthropologists Alan Page Fiske and Tage Shakti point out that we are faced with someone who begins a series of violent acts starting from a perception of the correct, that is to say that what he realizes, as excruciating as it is, is more than justified by his complex personal situation and social background. However,  we must keep in mind that no violence is “virtuous”.

It is possible that at some point, and due to some social and structural circumstances, someone feels the need or obligation to cross the line for wickedness or cruelty. This is what the Lucifer Effect explains to us. However, morality must be above all of this. This incorruptible dimension which acts as a lure for memory: beyond the pressure of the environment or despair lie logic and integrity.

the lucifer effect

The Lucifer effect and the study of Philip Zimbardo

It is the night of April 28, 2004. The people of the United States finish their dinner and sit down in front of the television to watch the program “60 minutes”. Something changes that day. The TV channel invites these people to discover something, something that many are not prepared for. Footage from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq begins to air showing a group of American soldiers (male and female) sodomizing, torturing and beating Iraqi prisoners  in the most abhorrent and humiliating manner .

One of the people who saw these scenes, with immense dread, was none other than the famous psychologist Philip Zimbardo. However, it should be said that  for him these acts were not new, neither inexplicable, nor strange. American society, for its part, saw the cracking of a classic pattern in its mentality. Very quickly, those whom people regarded as “the good and the saviors” were transformed, without quite knowing how, into “bad guys and executioners”. Their personal characteristics may have been overestimated and this was proof of that.

The 1971 Zimbardo experiment

After the publication of the photographs, these 7 guards were charged and brought to justice. Despite everything,  Doctor Philip Zimbardo considered that it was necessary to attend the trial  to give an explanation for all this.

One of the reasons he felt compelled to cooperate with the trial was  that he himself had experienced a situation similar to that of Abu Ghraib prison. In 1971, he had conducted an experiment at Stanford University in California, during which he had formed two groups of students: the “guards” and the “prisoners”.

  • Within a week,  Zimbardo had witnessed levels of cruelty that had not been anticipated let alone imagined.
  • Liberal university students, known for their selflessness, kindness and sociability, had turned into sadists because of their role as “gatekeepers”. It got to a point where Zimbardo was forced to stop the experiment.
philip zimbardo

The Lucifer effect and its psychological processes

What happened with that experience at Stanford University sounded like a premonition of what would happen years later in Abu Ghraib prison. Dr. Zimbardo  did not seek to excuse or justify the accused soldiers, nor to turn them into victims: he wanted to offer a scientific explanation  by showing how concrete circumstances could completely transform our actions.

Here are the psychological processes associated with what Zimbardo called the Lucifer effect:

  • Group compliance. This theory stated in his time by Solomon Asch shows us that  the pressure of a determined environment with the members that compose it sometimes pushes us to have behaviors that can go against our values,  in order to achieve only one thing. : to be accepted.
  • Obedience to the authority of Stanley Milgram. This phenomenon is common, for example, in those groups in the military or police hierarchy, where a large part of people are capable of committing violent acts if they are justified or ordered by people with higher responsibilities.
  • Albert Bandura’s moral disconnection. People have their own moral codes and value systems. However,  sometimes we perform a series of mental “pirouettes” to incorporate behaviors that are totally opposed to our principles,  to the point of seeing as “correct” what is morally “unacceptable”.
  • Environmental factors. Doctor Zimbardo was able to know that these soldiers  carried out rounds of twelve hours, seven days a week, for forty days and without rest. They slept in the cells. The facilities were in poor condition, with mold, blood stains and human remains on the walls. They also suffered about 20 mortar attacks per week.

Zimbardo explains, in his book “The Lucifer Effect”, that the process of dehumanization was inevitable. Situational factors, the social dynamics of a concrete context and psychological pressure can germinate evil in us. A seed that always sits deep within us, whether we like it or not.

Despite everything,  this perverse side can be rebalanced by the force of determination and this integrity capable of setting limits  and pushing us to get out of certain oppressive contexts in order not to forget who we are and to pass each of our acts through the sieve of our values.


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