It seems that we can’t turn on the news these days without hearing about another tragic mass shooting or the perverse exploits of a twisted serial killer. Typically, what connects these stories are the backgrounds of the offenders. Whether those close to the perpetrators noticed or not, the offenders had a history of bad behaviour. They were the outsiders, they had no friends, and no one liked them. In other words, they were already bad people. But what about the exceptions? The good people that end up doing bad things? Perhaps the Lucifer Effect can help us understand.

What Is the Lucifer Effect?

Where does the term come from?

In the Bible, Lucifer was one of God’s right-hand angels. As such, he had to be perfect, beautiful, wise and just all-over splendid. And he was. However, he became obsessed with his own beauty and believed he deserved the same glory as God. As a result of Lucifer’s hubris, God threw him down to earth with such force that it created Hell. We now know that Lucifer was once a good person who turned evil.

So what is the Lucifer Effect?

The Lucifer Effect describes the extreme transformative switch a person undergoes from good to bad. Most of us believe that we would never commit an evil act unless we were under extreme duress.

For example, if we are in fear of our lives or our children’s, we may lash out and accidentally harm someone. But we wouldn’t intentionally seek out victims to hurt them. That’s not in our nature. But certain experts think that we are all capable of evil. You only have to look at WWII and the terrible atrocities carried out by hundreds of thousands of Nazi troops.

Philip Zimbardo is the psychologist behind the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971. In this study, Zimbardo took normal, liberal-minded college students and randomly assigned them the roles of prisoners or guards. Because of the guard’s brutality towards the prisoners, the experiment had to be shut down in less than a week.

As a result of this study, Zimbardo has spent the following 30 years researching the specific set of circumstances that will contribute to the Lucifer Effect. He examines what will make the perfect storm and enable good people to commit evil acts.

Four Factors That Make Up the Lucifer Effect

  1. Group Conformity

When we identify with a group we are more likely to change our behaviour to match that group. Moreover, we are less likely to speak out against the members of our group. This makes sense. No one likes to stand out or be the odd one out. We all want to be with the ‘in-group’. If we are not we’ll get bullied or ostracised. We are safe within our own group.

Solomon Asch conducted experiments on group influence on the individual after WWII. He wanted to see how individuals reacted when a group presented incorrect information.

The results showed that majority went along with the group, even when it was clearly incorrect. This suggests a willingness to accept a group decision. Asch hypothesised that belonging to a group can pressure us to adopt behaviours we may not agree with.

  1. Obedience to Authority

Stanley Milgram wanted to understand why so many ordinary people followed the Nazi regime during WWII. He conducted the famous authority experiment in the 1960s.

A team member of the study was strapped in a chair and the participant was responsible for administering electric shocks if the team member incorrectly answered a question. Halfway through the experiment, the team member complained of a weak heart. The study showed that the presence of an authority figure in the room meant the majority of participants delivered fatal levels of shocks.

“Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” Milgram

This experiment proves that even people with the best of intentions can commit heinous acts.

  1. Stereotypes

Do you remember when the actor Liam Neeson gave an interview in which he confessed to wanting to beat up black men? Neeson’s friend had been assaulted by a black man and his immediate reaction was to go out, find and assault every black man on the planet. This suggests that rational people can suddenly flip and think the most ridiculously unrealistic thoughts.

In their 1933 study, Katz and Braly conducted a questionnaire-style experiment for students at Princeton University in the US. The students displayed clear racial stereotypes, believing that white Americans were industrious and hardworking, blacks were lazy, Jews were shrewd and Japanese were sly.

  1. Environment

During the Iraq war, reports began to filter into the news of atrocities committed by American soldiers at a US Army detention centre called Abu Ghraib. These atrocities included rape and sodomy of male and female prisoners, forcing the prisoners in sexual positions then photographing them, punching, kicking, slapping prisoners, keeping them naked for several days, and forcing male prisoners to masturbate.

During an investigation into the soldier’s behaviour, Dr. Zimbardo learned of the environment and conditions the soldiers were living in. They worked 12-hour shifts with no breaks for 40 days straight. The prison environment was disgusting, with human remains including blood and mould on the floor and walls. And the soldiers had to sleep in the cells and endure mortar attacks on a daily basis.

Zimbardo concluded that the deteriorating conditions had a significant effect on the mental health of the soldiers.

Who Is Susceptible to the Lucifer Effect?

Unfortunately, anyone can be susceptible to the Lucifer Effect, as Zimbardo witnessed in his prison experiment. All Zimbardo did was allocate these liberal students different roles of guards or prisoners. He witnessed the most brutal cruelty from the so-called guards who took their sadistic duties to extreme levels. In fact, one of the students was so upset he was removed after just 36 hours.

“In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.” Zimbardo

One interesting thing to come out of this experiment is that the guards were not told how to assert their authority over the prisoners; they could do what they wanted, within reason. As such, they first used press-ups to punish bad behaviour in prison. This is significant because Nazi SS guards in prisoner-of-war camps started off with this same method.

Final Thoughts

Studies show that an individual is influenced by the group they identify with, a fear of disobeying authority, stereotyping certain people and reacting to their environment. This is what makes normal, rational people turn evil. If we can be aware of these influences, perhaps this effect won’t have such an insidious hold over us.

References:

  1. https://www.psychologicalscience.org

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