Ethics of Research and the Lucifer effect


Book review by Kristo Ivanov (April 2011, rev. 180622)

 This page: <http://www8.informatik.umu.se/~kivanov/ZimbardoLuciferReview.htm>



Parts of earlier versions were published at
amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

Please note that controversial amazon-reviews of problematic if yet popular books may be object of spam-attacks or review-bombings aimed at slandering the writers. This happens both in the text of the reviews and in their ratings by readers-customers in the form "X out of Y people have found the following review helpful". In its extreme form this is exemplified in the case of Warren Farrell's book (accessed in April 2011) The Myth of Male Power. and the review-bombing of critical attitudes to computer games such as by Cooper Lawrence and Carolre Lieberman, and John Beiswenger at the site of his book Link as noted by Radio Sweden Kulturnytt 21 June 2012.


  TABLE OF CONTENTS


Introduction

The discovery of evil
Situational forces, situational power, and systems

The neglected complexity of action

The assumed self-criticism of the autonomous ego

Psychology's turning into a social system

Evil related to Feminism

On conscience

The surprises of taxonomy, philosophy and forgotten love

Love vs. authority

Neither love nor philosophy

Conclusion

 


Introduction

This research considers the ethics implied by Philip Zimbardo's  The Lucifer Effect: How Good People turn Evil (Random House: 2007). The review that follows is focuses on the "why of the how", and is motivated by my disappointment in witnessing what I perceived as a decreasing interest for ethical aspects in the work by researchers and students at universities, not to mention managers, administrators and politicians in the society at large. The question which attracted my interest was why and how is that possible, that is, how are these concerns explained away in common thinking about everyday matters. When I discovered this book I acclaimed it as a welcomed contribution to forcing attention on ethical behavior. As I went reading and reflecting upon it, however, I came to realize that its message missed the point and conveyed an ultimately false message. The book by itself may not deserve a painful extensive review effort but I felt that my mission became to expose in detail its structural lure in order to help others to reject similar ineffective if not outright dangerous teachings. They follow from unfortunate hidden fundamental errors despite the great effort that must have been made in good faith by the book's acclaimed author.

 

Philip Zimbardo, professor emeritus of psychology became better know by the general public for his bestseller on the emergence of evil behavior by people in certain particular experimental and real social situations such as in universities, prisons and war. The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil (2007) gathers descriptions of the author's and others' scientific experiments and general experience, supporting the main tenet that "anybody" may can commit evil (or good!) deeds depending on situational influences. Therefore the book concludes with a prophylactic chapter on "resisting situational influences and celebrating heroism". The chapter suggests a ten-step self-managed individual program which recalls a scheme of cognitive self-therapy or the Alcoholic Anonymous' twelve-steps rehabilitation program: it has the purpose of building individual and communal resilience against "undesirable influences and illegitimate attempts at persuasion", where the concepts of undesirability and illegitimacy, as many others in the book, appear to be taken for granted. The chapter also develops a taxonomy of social heroism where heroism is understood as the individual's "inner power, sense of personal agency, to resist evil external situational forces" (p. 180). The whole book strives towards making heroism, as well as evil, an egalitarian attribute of human nature rather than a rare feature of the elect few (p. 488).

 

 

The discovery of evil

 

A great part of the fascination exerted by this book seems to be caused by the medial success of the reported research, its encyclopedic referencing of books and empirical findings, its anchorage in the research politics of the social network of its author, and its outspokenness in reporting details of examples of the type "sex & violence" or evil cruelty in the West's recent history. All this unavoidably underscores the author's all too obvious good intentions and sincerely committed moral pathos, as well as the common reader's feeling of his own comparative goodness and political correctness. It is also attractive to believe that all people are good or at least morally neutral and become good or, especially, evil only as a result of external circumstances that evade our immediate sphere of responsibility. This fascination only works on those readers, possibly a majority, who have not prior knowledge of such examples by reading classics of the world literature at the heights of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "Socratic" dialogues, far from "external circumstances", masterly explained against the background of "freedom" by e.g. Nikolai Berdyaev in his book Dostoievsky: An interpretation. To ignore such historical and relevant world classics is by itself an example of today's cultural decadence. A main relevant book among the works of Dostoyevsky's is The Brothers Karamazov. "The quest for God, the problem of Evil and suffering of the innocents haunt the majority of his novels". In the lowlands of the Enlightenment morality a philosophical illustration is the famous Marquis de Sade, e.g. in his novel Juliette. Not to mention the old and well known "classical" phenomena of hazing, and of crowd psychology that arguably influenced the emergence of fascist theories of leadership during the 1920s. And not to mention late contemporary examples as the Norwegian case of mass murder by Anders Breivik that I analyze in another context. If the reader (and Zimbardo) had read and seriously considered, say, Dostoyevsky and Sade, or the case of Breivik, he would have met much worse and unexplained behaviors which do not fit the book's conclusions and program. They would not have missed some philosophical and theological implications of the moral philosophy of the Enlightenment that he neglects, and which historically were object of extensive intellectual debates that followed the publications of such classics. I will focus upon the way in which the book's misunderstanding runs through the text in the form of the key terms like "situational forces".

 

 

Situational forces, situational power, and systems

 

Throughout the book Zimbardo is focused on so called situational forces, but the term force, as the closely related term energy which he seldom if ever uses, is a metaphoric psychological entity, in analogy and contrast to the very carefully defined concept of force in the Newtonian world of de-humanized physics. This de-humanization is underscored by e.g. Rudolf Steiner e.g. in his Der Entshehungsmoment der Naturwissenschaft in der Weltgeschichte und ihre seitherige Entwickelung (1922-1923/2011, also available in Italian, Nascita e sviluppo storico della scienza, i.e. Birth and historical development of science). It is a highly interesting and relevant reading disregarding whether one agrees with the anthroposophy of its author. This force, then, is used in the context of an undefined branch of a psychology which during centuries has talked about instincts, will, and motivations (not to mention phenomenological intentions) that belong to humans or, rather, to their psyche, spirit, mind, brain or whatever, but never their situations, whatever that means, as the undefined term is used in the book. From the point of view of methodology of science this sort of confusion between human, mind and situation, amounts to one further example of misunderstandings about internal vs. external, or inputs and outputs, (i.e. situational forces) that could have been defined as, rather, "environment" in a conceptual system as conceived, for instance, in West Churchman's The design of inquiring systems (1971, p. 107).

 

It is then necessary to examine in detail Zimbardo's recurring theme of situational forces. For instance we have the statement (p. 15) that "human beings are capable of totally abandoning their humanity for a mindless ideology, to follow and then exceed the orders of their charismatic leaders." One question arises whether humanity, which does not seem to be a situation, also is a force and whether it is internal or external, i.e. whether it is an inborn humanity or an external, culturally inherited humanity, perhaps even part of a religious of other tradition, and whether humanity is necessarily only good, despite all the debate on e.g. the Nietzschean theme of Human, All Too Human. Another question is the relation between situational forces and ideology or mindless ideology, whatever mindless is, if not the opposite of mindfulness, whatever that is, and how it should be tested. A further question is whether charismatic authorities are necessarily disprovided of humanity, or how (their) humanity should be tested and whether their orders always can be succinctly motivated or should be resisted. And what is charisma, including what are its essence and source, and its relation to mindless and mindful ideology. And if ideologies and charisma also are situational forces then almost anything can be a situational force, following the undefined terms force and situation.

 

The resilience of the book against any serious criticism is enhanced by not being possible to overview at once all its fragmentary texts which extend themselves along more than 500 dense pages full of all kinds of references, most of them avoiding philosophical and religious sources as well as historical complex debates about the nature of evil. For instance the above-mentioned humanity is not even to be found in the book's index except in the irrelevant connotation of crimes against humanity.

 

But let's take up again situational forces. If they are to be found neither in humanity nor in mindless ideology where are they or where do they come from? Is their energy uniquely or distributively located, and how are they triggered in action? There is, indeed, a big difference between thinking and acting evil, but the book does not problematize action except in terms of an obscure "decisional lines" (see below), to the point of the word action not even appearing in the word index. In the text, however, the author once almost confesses (p. 180) his impotence in face of the confusion of his simultaneous roles of researcher and "superintendent", short of mentioning the more correct term "actor". By the way, the confusion could have been avoided if Zimbardo had defined his situational forces or, as he also calls them, systems forces, in terms of the roles of decision-maker, researcher, and client along the lines proposed in, say, West Churchman's The Systems Approach (1968). In that same context (p. 180) he goes for once deeper in oversimplified psychological jargon by mentioning, albeit inconsequentially, a process of transformation of  "one's thinking, feeling, and action". But at the same time he offsets this complicating insight by postulating that such a transformation is obscurely controlled or triggered, again, by "the power of Situations" (sic, with capital S, and this time power, not force).

 

 

The neglected complexity of action

 

I will try to show that despite the wealth of information, moral pathos, and interesting thoughts expounded in the book there are some basic and serious conceptual shortcomings, which lead to an unfortunate underestimation of the complexity of the problem of evil. It is the same underestimations which prompted an assumed "marxist" like Leszek Kolakowski to write a whole book on Conversations with the devil, also translated as Talk of the Devil. Zimbardo's book evades the basic rational analyses that historically have been homed in philosophy, religion and theology. An example of what is evaded is, as we have seen, the consciousness of the essence and importance of action as related to "thinking" and "feeling" or, the absolutely most common word, in not concept, in the book: "force", such as in "external situational force" (p.180), akin to "situational imperatives" (p. 289). It is symptomatic that in such approach there is no place, for instance, for a Maurice Blondel (1861-1949) with his thesis on action (1893), which argues for the inescapability of the “religious problem”, and which brought him into the heart of theological and philosophical controversy of his time. Wikipedia points out that Blondel developed a philosophy of action that integrated classical Neoplatonic thought with modern Pragmatism in the context of a Christian philosophy of religion. Zimbardo has nothing to say about Christianity (not found in the word index) or Catholicism (pointing to Inquisition in the word index) and their two thousand years' action against evil, except for repeated references to the evils of just the Inquisition (p. 8-9, 289, 442), and to the Church and its State alliances "run by men" (p. 9). Some positive fragments must be sought where referring to "Catholic grace" in the context of Mother Teresa (p. 481), to a "common sense of decency" (p. 486, more below) or, concededly, to anonymous "moral structures derived from the past" (p. 455).

 

Compare one text by Blondel (The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) about the context of action:

 

"The freedom of the will and the capacity for reflection, for rationality, cannot be maintained as purified, however, as they were for Kant, for the attempt to guarantee autonomy of the will as a condition for moral action ignore[s] the requirement of commitment, of a necessary degree of heteronomy. In order to act in a world that is not simply dominated by the subject, the subject must allow its action to de determined in part by the exigencies of the situation. A certain heteronomy is therefore the condition for the possibility of autonomy.

'Submitting itself to a heteronomy in order to maintain its own sovereignty, it brings to the service of a chosen tendency the very forces of the rival tendencies; it does what it does with the power that it would have used to do everything that it does not do.' [...]

Action is a sort of co-action, not simply the imposition of force externally, but a relation to what one wills to act upon and with. Blondel makes a distinction between the willing will (volonté voulante) and the willed will (volonté voulue) which are both aspects of this play between autonomy and heteronomy in co-action."

 

This means that what Zimbardo tries to expose with his numerous examples and recurring references to situational forces is a very old and well know human problem, which in contrast to his approach has been framed taking into account historical approaches and Christian philosophy of religion. It disapproves sheer autonomy of so-called "critical" reason, which turns out to be a rather frivolous criticality, very often adduced by the author. Furthermore, Blondel's heteronomy includes Zimbardo's situational forces. Christian philosophy has the advantage of taking into consideration what Zimbardo hides in his ambiguous and vague attitude to authority which despite its minimal appearance in the book's index is repeatedly mentioned as a negative entity throughout the text, equated to the "system" and, further, to unjust system. Its only appearance in a possibly just and positive connotation is in the mention of respect for just authority (p. 454, and 213 but only under the connotation of role). And from the pragmatic point of view it is not possible to critically review all authority since most of our knowledge has to rely directly or indirectly on autonomously unchallenged authority, as show by Steven Shapin in his A Social History of Truth (1994).

 

 

The assumed self-criticism of the autonomous ego

 

Returning to the question criticism as a weapon against mindless ideologies and obedience to authority, one antidote suggested by Zimbardo is found in chapter 12 dedicated to investigating social dynamics. It appears that social dynamics is seen as also encompassing psychological dynamics, and in this sense the whole book tends to reduce psychology to sociology. Situational power is explained as dealt with by means of a section titled "Beware Self-Serving Biases May Be at Work" (p. 261). The paradox arises in that the reader is warned that most of us construct self-enhancing, self-serving, egocentric biases that make us feel special - never ordinary, and certainly "above average". But this is exactly what most people feel when they consider themselves to be "critical". As the author notes, what he calls as such "cognitive biases" serve to boost our self-esteem and protecting against life's hard knocks, explaining away failures and disown responsibility for bad decisions, blinding us to our similarity to others and distancing us from reality. But all this is what psychoanalysis has been all about. But it is never adduced in the book except cursorily and implicitly. See, for instance, the unconsequential reference to "ego-defense mechanisms" (p. 214) or to Erich Fromm (pp. 274, 456). In catholic doctrine, in contrast to Zimbardo's "democratization of evil" (p. 211) all this is about the sacrament of penance, and confession with a doctrinaire conceptualization that indicates the book's neglected complexity of the process. In analytic psychology what Zimbardo warns about is termed "the shadow" (as his famous "roles" are termed "the Persona"). What is too easily seen as our similarity to others is consequently the minimum common denominator of our personal unconscious, beyond the collective unconscious, the basic unconscious drives or instincts which the book hides under the too easy term of situational forces or situational power. In this perspective it is quite trivial to verify that anonymity and deindividuation (p. 298) foster irresponsible and cruel behavior. The author does not really explain how to stand against deindividuation, against the temptation of letting action replace thought (p. 305), except for appealing, for instance, to so called mindfulness or frame-vigilance (pp. 452, 454). Like his associate researcher Christina Maslach who distances herself from analytical psychology in her research on individuation (as in her homepage on the Social Psychology Network, accessed 1 April 2011), he does not resort to depth psychology and its interpretations of mythological themes. But he still resorts to unconsequential appeals to mythological sources of that psychology, and related historical studies like Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West. There we find Greek mythological themes of Apollo and Dionysus, and Zimbardo spells out his own one-sided Apollonic solution (p. 219) of maintaining "cognitive control" against the "dionysian excesses" or onslaughts of tautologically bad "mindless emotional responses" (p. 305). Compare this with the contrasting hypothetical idea of e.g. maintaining mindful emotional control against cognitive onslaughts, which would have immediately required adducing the problems of a Freudian "anal personality" and the dimensions thinking-feeling plus sensation-intuition of analytical depth psychology. For the rest, in other contexts of the book, Zimbardo paradoxically seems to condemn the separation of cognition and emotion, as when denouncing the "psychic numbing" of detaching affect from cognition (p. 215). This is an example of contradictions in the book, which can always be explained away because of the neglect of definitions, in this case: of affect and emotion.

 

All the above, however, is reduced by Zimbardo to the idea of combating the shadow by means of simple cognitive exhortations to confess having "made a mistake" (p. 452), possibly through conscientization by means of knowledge of experiments with "basic perceptions of the world" where supposedly obvious (to the researcher-observer) "erroneous information provided by the group" influences the observed individual's basic perception, at variance with (the observer's) "social reality" (pp. 263-264). This argument, again, bypasses and ignores the whole question of the determination of what is erroneous and what is reality beyond consensus (vs. dialectics) in philosophy, theory of science, and systems theory (West Churchman, The Design of Inquiring Systems, chaps. 5-7). A problem with Zimbardo's approach is, once again, that while studying the individual vs. the group he does not problematize the essence of the "circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or feel that he is doing wrong" (p. 484). Our author, while talking about "reality checks" or realizing that one is comfortably living within a lie, or is trapped by the persuasive lures and mind-numbing rhetoric of diabolic preachers (pp. 452, 473, 479) apparently never imagines that this could be just another aspect of not only religious conscience but also of the phenomenon of political correctness which has prompted another author, Howard Schwartz to report a couple of psychoanalytically oriented studies of organizations (The Revolt of the Primitive, and Society Against Itself). Political correctness has the advantage of also encompassing the much more common case of dangerous group influences upon the individual even in the absence of outright persuasive lures, mind-numbing rhetoric and such. Among a group of researchers in, say, a university department, it is enough to have a silent consensus: it may be enough for not considering ethical, or not even political or economic issues in ongoing research, while blinded by the technological imperative and the expected availability of research grants.

 

 

Psychology's turning into a social system

 

A most central issue must be what constitutes the essence of the individual in its relation to the group that is apparently identified with situational forces or opportunities provided by "the system" of prejudices (p. 288). This is especially important in the context of the book's recurring theme of rebellion against "authority" (starting in the preface, pp. xi-xii), blandly countered by some frivolous, rare if not only exhortation to "distinguish" between deserved vs. undeserved authority (p. 454). This is the same question as the distinction between rational or recognized, or recognizable authority and "domination" which, symptomatically, is treated quite ambiguously in one "classic" of so called critical theory, Herbert Marcuse's Eros and Civilization (1955, pp. 33 vs. 205), closely related to problematic socialist feminism in Erich Fromm's The Crisis of Psychoanalysis-Essays on Freud, Marx, and Social Psychology (1970, pp. 121-135). The point cannot be the individual's resisting the pressure from the group or the orders from the authority. It must rather be to recognize whether the pressure or the orders are good or ethically justified in relation to the own limited cognitive abilities and spiritual degree of development. All too often it is taken for granted that group pressure as well as (individual or systemic group) authority if for bad and should be resisted by the individual (or the group) on the basis of his "critical" judgment, whatever this elusive criticality really means in view of the conundrum of autonomy and free will. It should be obvious that the first level of analysis of this problem is to relate it to the classical discussion of rhetoric, criticized as early as by Plato, and to bureaucracy as analyzed by Max Weber. In this light what Zimbardo requires from the individual is nothing less than a rebellion of modern man against justified rhetoric, and bureaucracy that he confuses with his undefined and vague term "system". It is a system that he presumes can be overviewed, evaluated, and challenged at considerable or prohibitive personal risk by the single individual, preferably a university professor, but with a secure tenured position (cf. the case Norman Finkelstein). This single individual will have to rely upon a limited and "stoic" cognitive ability (p. 474) which is assumedly unphilosophical and irreligious since neither philosophy nor religion is taken seriously in the book which is written in the American tradition of an empirical social psychology inherited from the critical Frankfurt school and Kurt Lewin, despite Zimbardo being sometimes introduced as a moral psychologist (as in Christina Mislach in Wikipedia accessed 1 April 2011).

 

 

Evil related to Feminism

 

As it stands, Zimbardo himself seems to have been victimized by political correctness when he, for instance, explains away the participation of a criminal woman in the rape of other women. It is the case of the former Rwandan national minister of family and women's affairs who lectured on women's empowerment. Her crimes are explained away with that "she was a political opportunist in a male-dominated administration" (p. 14). By the way, Zimbardo is throughout the book quite soft on feminism in the form of dwelling on oppression of women, consistently with critical theory's doctrine suggested in Eros and Civilization, mentioned above. It leads to curious paradoxes like when he rightly criticizes the development of a new language with innocuous-sounding words concealing the truth of human cruelty (p. 228f) such as: Sonderbehandlung (special treatment) since it was the code name for the Nazi physical extermination of people. But Sonderbehandlung corresponds e.g. to the Swedish SĢrbehandling, which is what in English is acclaimed as desirable affirmative action aiming, for instance, at the extermination of male supremacy of numbers of actives in determinate branches of society. Obviously the similarity does not reside in the incomparable concrete consequences of the use of these words but in their political function of discriminating and incriminating groups of people of the basis of biological characteristics in a kind of argumentation that recalls biopolitics and eugenics. Symptomatically, the book's attempt at this kind of semantic analysis and its recurring references to the Holocaust contribute nothing to explain evil socio-psychological phenomena that are ignored in the book, like those associated with the so called Society for Cutting Up Men - SCUM.

 

Be as it may, the case of the former Rwandan national minister is supposed to fit Zimbardo's main thesis that good or "any" people may turn evil under unfavorable circumstances, but it is rather an example of the consequences of the book's misunderstanding of the roots of evil. It is a misunderstanding which explains evil away, in this example psycho-socializing it as related to male-dominated administration, while supporting politically correct radical feminism with its abysmal and unexplained aberrations as extremely illustrated by tragic destinies such an Andrea Dworkin's. And there may be also many and "new Andrea Dworkins" in the make like, for instance, Eve Ensler showing that there is something rotten in the reign of feminism that, in contrast to the rottenness of Man's or of the radical Right's world, because of some symptomatic reason remains unchallenged in this book about evil.

 

 

On conscience

 

Here again we can notice that it does not occur to Zimbardo to express the possibility and necessity of sheer listening to one's conscience, a word which I only saw mentioned, in an unconsequential, trivial meaning (e.g. p. 484), a couple of times in the book. The reason why the word conscience is understood mainly, if not only, in its trivial meaning is possibly its positive Christian connotations that are generally avoided in the book, and the word's corruption in critical theory. The latter is displayed in the sentence explaining the historical intensification of the role of conscience conditioned by paternal love as due to that "the person develops an outlook in which the fulfillment of duty becomes the central concern of life, because only that can provide some minimum guarantee of being loved" (Fromm, The Crisis of Psychoanalysis, p. 129, 134). This is at variance with, for instance, teachings on the concept of catholic conscience (see also in the Catechism, §§1778-1806) that is nowhere considered in the book. It is this same word that prompts entries in dozens of paragraphs of the Catholic Catechism and has been the object of a special address by Joseph Ratzinger, a lecture at the American Bishops' Conference on moral theological questions in 1991 (Wahrheit, Werte, Macht. Die pluralistische Gesellschaft im Kreuzverhör, Herder 1995, pp. 29-62). Zimbardo's implicit, hidden conscience is supposedly bolstered by taking "a Zen moment to reflect on the meaning of the immediate situation before acting" (p 453), a mystical and exceptionally positive Zen which, like "Talmudic scholars", (but unlike the absent word "prayer") makes some other whimsical appearances in the text (p. 165, 449, 451). And it is symptomatic for the level of analysis in the book that accounts of European Christians who helped the Jews during the Holocaust is summed up as a sort of banality of goodness (my paraphrase of the book repeated reference to the banality of evil) arising out of a "common sense of decency" (p. 486). This is indeed a mysterious decency, which, in another context (p. 215) happens to be supposedly defined through the "polarities of cruelty and decency" [sic]. Decency as the opposite of cruelty, or...? As much other terminological confusion it is quite mind numbing. Such confusion is also apparent in the book's reference to so called cognitive dissonance (p. 219) where dissonance is said to be a tension that can powerfully motivate change in one's public behavior or in one's private views in efforts to reduce dissonance. The remarkable turn of the text that follows (p. 220) makes it clear that in the absence of a hierarchy with an overarching conscience it becomes difficult to conceptualize something like a safely moral reduction of dissonance or civil disobedience or what the author calls heroism. The greater the discrepancy between beliefs and behavior under evil influences, the stronger will be the motivation to achieve consonance at the expense of the private beliefs, a term which will have supplanted and obliterated religious faith, or the ignored conscience.

 

In summary, the whole impact of two thousand years' Catholicism with its concept of conscience is attributed to a sort of spontaneous, intuitive influence of a common sense of decency which apparently does not even reach the level of complexity which is historically accorded to the concept of dignity. In contrast to Catholicism that is associated to a banal common sense of decency as a banality of goodness, positively loaded "Buddhist style" and "Zen-like" tactics for mental survival in other relevant contexts (p. 165) are apparently more easily associated to "religious experience", religion being a word which I noticed mentioned only once in the whole book (p. 165). Conscience in practical thinking, however, cannot be done away, as evidenced by it being implicitly presupposed in unqualified affirmations such as: "situational power is most salient in novel settings, those in which people cannot call on previous guidelines for their new behavioral options" (p. 212). So, conscience became "previous guidelines", where a guideline is a term that would correspond to rules and authority, synonyms that paradoxically are mostly anathema in the rest of the book.

 

All this has consequences if we return to the linchpin of the book's question of how to "resist destructive authority" while it rightly questions psychological assessments of personality (p. 487), "dispositional tendencies" or "attributes of pathology or goodness" which in the struggle between evil and heroism are taken to reside within the (undisguised) human psyche or genome (p. 485). But according to this argument our conscience would supposedly be reduced to an attribute of personality analyzable by means of personality tests. This reveals a shallowness of the book's analysis. Evil and heroism are classified as being "conditions", whatever that means as compared to situations. Such conditions are said to emerge in particular situations at particular times [implying that time is not a component of situations] when situations forces [arising from or getting their energies from where - in an imperfect metaphor of physical forces] play a compelling role in moving particular individuals across a decisional line from inaction to action [as if a decision to act necessarily leads to action, and whose decision is it, if the forces belong to the situation and not to the individual]. That is, there is a decisive decisional moment [if there are any non-decisive decisional moments] when a person is caught up in a vector of forces [hoping that the reader knows what a vector is] that emanate [possibly equivalent to emerge, whatever that is] from a behavioral [obviously equivalent to situational] context.

 

 

The surprises of taxonomy, philosophy and forgotten love

 

I may have annoyed the reader of the last paragraph above but this was done to reveal the rhetoric of poorly defined concepts, or of a science on shaky grounds which allows the book's empirical psychology, influenced by Kurt Lewin (p. 207) as associated to the Frankfurt School, to neglect other branches of psychology, as well as philosophy, and theology. Zimbardo's implicit view of theology and religion, beyond some superficial and inconsequential references to the Luciferic background in the initial chapter that works like a disclaimer, becomes evident in the diagrams that conclude the book's last chapter on "resisting situational influences" (pp. 468-471, 483). There, Jesus, together with Joan of Arc, Jose Marti, and Steve Bico is taxonomically classified within the heading of social (as opposed to civil and military) heroism, among martyrs who are distinguished from e.g. "religious figures" like Buddha or Mohammed, "politico-religious figures" like Mohandas Gandhi, and "good Samaritans" like Albert Schweitzer. At the same there is no taxonomic place for what Zimbardo seems to be quite fascinated by, the Dutch graphic artist C.M. Escher who’s good-evil image "Circle Limit IV" both initiates and terminates the book. It recalls both the tendency of aesthetics and art to replace religion's inclusiveness, and some phenomenologists' fondness for the same artist as illustration of the Heideggerian-atheological "self-reference", possibly a late expression of the Nietzschean theme of "eternal return" (symptomatically dissociated from its religious meaning). It may suggest some hidden foundations of Zimbardo's convictions.

 

As it stands, the book is mainly an interesting example, along with the curious revival of so called psychological cognitive therapies, of strong and passionate commitment to the moral issues on an apparent unconscious main basis that a good willed reader may attribute to an "enlightened" stoic philosophy (mentioned in passing, p. 474) that in turn recalls the later Kantian cathegorical imperative. Against this supposed deeper background it is symptomatically revealing that Zimbardo misses one main point in his own chain of facts and arguments: the place of love. The issue of love itself seems to mentioned only once, and it is dismissed immediately in an awkward sentence well below the level of analysis of friendship (cf. Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics): "Knowing when to stay involved with others, when to support and be loyal to a cause or a relationship rather than dismissing it, is a delicate question that we all face regularly" (p. 447). It is remarkable if not startling that the author's does not dwell upon the fact that his insight into his own evil-doing in the course of the famous "Stanford Prison Experiment" (SPE), as reported and analyzed in the book, came from a young woman, Christina Maslach (pp. 163, 168-171). He was in love with and dating her at the time, in a situation and process that is remarkably and significantly analogous to Pentagon Papers' Daniel Ellsberg in relation to his future wife Patricia Marx, as told in the documentary film The Most Dangerous Man in America (2009 Academy Award nominee for best documentary feature). Christina had been his teaching assistant, research collaborator, and informal editor of several of his books. They eventually married and the whole book is dedicated to her. An incident which came to be a threat to their relationship is described in the book as having been her shock and disappointment with Zimbardo when coming into contact with the research experimental situation he had managed, to which she reacted with something like "What you are doing to those boys is a terrible thing!" (p. 171). Zimbardo reports that after having felt threatened to loose her love he got a sudden and growing insight into the evil he was inflicting to the experimental subjects, causing him to discontinue the experiment, in a process, which eventually led to the book itself. Zimbardo captures additional sympathy from the readers, besides those raised by his self-definition as an oppressed underdog youngster in the preface's confessions (p. xi-xii), by practicing an act of public "confession" which obviously helps him to clean up his conscience and public image. That is, he benefits of that confession and that conscience, which are not acknowledged elsewhere in the book.

 

 

Love vs. authority

 

Let's associate the above threat to his love relationship to what Zimbardo writes elsewhere about his unconsciously having become, during the experiment, an evil authority figure: "The very nexus of that authority figure is one that I have opposed, even detested, all my life - the high status, authoritarian, overbearing boss man." (p. 180). Even without being a psychoanalyst it is difficult not to read into that statement the hypothesis of someone opposing the love of his rejected father in favor of the expectation of a loving mother. No surprise, then, that the terror in view of being abandoned by a prospective loving mother-substitute in the role of a future wife is capable of generating insight through instilling the sort of awe that religious monotheistic people would find in the thought of being abandoned by God father, further represented in their conscience. Unless, of course, if one hopes to find consolation in feministic fantasies expressed in recurrently emphasizing women's oppression (p. xi, 9, 24, 252), and so called homophobia (p. 118), leading to a feminization and socialization of psychology. It denies the priority of "patriarchal" conscience and duty that is then seen as sheer fear of losing what can "provide some minimum guarantee of being loved", as in the earlier reference to Erich Fromm, and it leads to a social psychology of situational forces. It is not a coincidence that the Fromm's statement appears in a chapter dedicated to "The theory of mother right and social psychology" which constitutes an extremely informative reading, the more so when contrasted to, say, Alexander Mitscherlich's Society Without the Father, and to a related, recently published book by Howard Schwartz on Society Against Itself (2010).

 

Conclusion? It is love that redeems us from evil. And this has been the main message of main world religions, and in particular of Christianity. And if conventional research is necessary one can always check, for instance, R.J. Laub, J.H. Sampson & C. Wimer's published paper on marriage reducing crime (in Criminology, vol. 44, no. 3, 2006, pdf-copy here). But love is the message of neither critical theory nor its feminism. The psychologist and humanist, Carl Jung, writes (in his Collected Works 7, §78) that logically, the opposite of love is hate, and of Eros, Phobos (fear); but psychologically it is the will to power. Those who do not understand this message are the same who misunderstand the essence of love and believe that it may be forced through cognition and various forms of cognitive therapies, balance of power, emancipation and egalitarianism. What remains of Zimbardo's remarkable book is its impressive wealth of information, his own empirical material corrupted by doubtful experimental methodology already pointed out in others' reviews (see e.g. amazon.com's 1 star and 2 stars reviews), and the author's moving and a bit too obvious live commitment against perceived evil. But it would gain in not being mixed up with doubtful theoretical considerations or, rather, in being reworked in the light of other types of psychology, philosophy, and theology, consciously and preventively avoiding the objections raised against the merging of these disciplines, objections that are illustrated in the work of moral philosophers such as Elizabeth Anscombe or Philippa Foot, far from the earlier insights of the previously mentioned Maurice Blondel.

 

Another main conclusion is that because of its theoretical shortcomings and its empirical bias with hidden connection to the type of critical theory of the Frankfurt School, the book will not be read and understood by those who would need it most. Examples will be several USA government officials involved in past scandals that are named and referred to in the book. They will feel that Zimbardo uses straw man arguments. I may have missed evidence presented in the book but I have not seen proofs that the book's approach has fundamentally prevented any significant number of people to counteract what is called there as dangerous situational forces. On the contrary, Zimbardo himself reports abuses of the book for non-intended evil purposes (pp. 252-254). Furthermore, most people who are intended to be in need of the book for their salvation from performing evil deeds will probably follow the behavior which Zimbardo identifies and seems to accept, such as: "most students are not concerned with power issues because they have enough to get by in their world, where intelligence and hard work get them to their goals." (p. 208). This is also what I myself have experienced in contacts with universities, government and business. It is also symptomatic that despite the repeatedly advanced thesis that there are no good and evil people (e.g. p. 211) but, rather, that anybody can behave in a good or evil way depending upon the impact of situational forces, at the end of chapter 11 on ethics (p. 257) the author claims that situations can matter in turning good people into evildoers. This reveals that he still entertains the classical Rousseau-inspired belief about the natural goodness of some if not all humans. This is a rhetorically attractive hypothesis for people who will always appreciate to believe that they are naturally good, but possibly evil only under the influence of rare, unfortunate situational forces. Rhetorically attractive are also many juicy descriptions of evil sex and violence that may bolster the extreme popularity of the book. The sources of popularity include, further, as Zimbardo writes (p. 224), "two events helped to helped to catapult into national prominence a little academic experiment designed to test a theoretical notion of situational power": the massacre at California's San Quentin State Prison and a massacre at New York State's Attica Correctional Facility. This "serendipity", with USA-national repercussions that contributed to the diffusion of Zimbardo’s research, coincided also with the concurrent rise of the politically explosive Black Panther Party and the Weather Underground radical student group.

 

 

Neither love nor philosophy

 

When all is said one can wonder why the writing of such a book could have dispensed from neglecting not only whole branches of psychology other than the implicitly chosen one, but also the philosophy from which the psychological discipline itself arises, and, further the philosophy of religion such as the autonomous reason's Enlightenment father Kant exposes in e.g. Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793). The chaotic complexities introduced by Kantian philosophy are well illustrated by examples of its absurd discussions about good and evil. Indeed it all stands at the basis of much still unresolved controversy that includes the integrative pretensions of his famous third critique, Critique of Judgment on an aesthetics that today has replaces religion with a cult of "design" and of "entertainment industry" or edutainment. Such aesthetics tries to supplement the limitations of the sort of Kantian reason that is implicitly assumed in the book one-sided talk about critical reason while Zimbardo neglects the conscience of Kantian practical reason. Aesthetics appears in Zimbardo's book under the label of "The power of media and visual images" (p. 247), and in the powerful rhetorical layout of the book itself, its underlying research program, and its "industrialization" in the form of Internet sites (p. iii, prior to the preface) such as www.prisonexperiment.org, www.zimbardo.com, and www.LuciferEffect.com, supplemented by his wife's Christina Maslach's maslach.socialpsychology.org.

 

Here we find one further and final main shortcoming in Zimbardo's book. Despite his avowedly critical attitude against "obedience to authority" he never seems to notice and reflect seriously upon one most important hypothesis, which is on the verge of being a fact. The great question of his book, including the feasibility and outcome of his main experiments may not at all be obedience to authority but rather obedience to the authority of organized science, or obedience to science and its organization as represented by the university. It is a science which assumes the connotations of a system in the vague, poorly defined sense which Zimbardo paradoxically wants to criticize (pp. 179f, 226f, 446), and turns into sheer scientism, the more so because its neglected dimensions mentioned above. The unrecognized if not outright ignored broader question of the book is ethics of obedience to the authority of the democratic state and of democracy. The question arises in its ultimate form, for instance, in USA's drone war portrayed in Chris Woods' Sudden Justice: America's Secret Drone Wars, documentaries like Tonje Hessen Schei's documentary DRONE, and testimonies like the one by remote drone pilot-operator ("sensor operator for the U.S. Air Force Predator program") Brandon Bryant.

 

The reason why Zimbardo was allowed and able to set up his experiments, why he was trusted by his experimental subjects (in fact, objects), and why his experimental results were accepted must have been his social competence and commitment-pathos grounded in a solid academic reputation as a successful psychological scientist at one of USA's tops universities which later also gave a halo effect to the SPE "Stanford Prison Experiment". This can be seen as a special awkward example of "adult role playing" that Zimbardo condemns (p. 217). It is a play he implements anew in the writing and distribution of the book whose prestige borrows from or recycles his previously abused prestige. The industrialization of the serendipitous outcomes of this experiment apparently allowed that the book be backed by an enormous amount of references of all sorts including methodological considerations. They culminate with psychological technical conceptions (pp. 197-210) that must be impenetrable for the average amateur reader. On the top of this Zimbardo acknowledges that his or (as he softens the concession) all research is "artificial" being only an imitation of its real-world analogue: "Nevertheless [...] when such research is conducted in sensitive ways that capture features of "mundane" realism, the results can have considerable generalizability" (p. 206f.) Anybody who is familiar with controversies on theory of science will recognize that such a statement is mainly smart rhetoric, fitting others' reviews of methodological aspects referred to above, not to mention the author's own confession of having had to develop useful "street-smart strategies" during his formative years (p.xi). His methodological statement quoted above may happen to come true but nobody knows if and when, and that is not science. And then he goes on referring (p. 207) to a section by Aronson et al. on Experimentation in Social Psychology, in a Handbook of Social Psychology (1985), and further to Kurt Lewin. Eventually he holds to his prestigious scientific role-playing when putting the rhetorical question "was the pain endured by the participants in this experiment offset by the gain to science and society generated by the research?" That is, as it were: was there the gain that is taken for granted? Compare again with West Churchman, a systems scientist who in contrast to Zimbardo has really given substance to the talk about "systems". He advanced long time ago arguments against the use of the classical experiment in planning [for a better society], not only on technical and logical grounds but, rather on the immensely important moral grounds, since it's questionable whether many experimental subjects understand what they are agreeing to, including electric shocks in experiments, akin to Zimbardo's prison experiment (C.W. Churchman, The Systems Approach and Its Enemies, 1979, pp. 56-60, 122, 146f, but also The Design of Inquiring Systems, 1971, pp. 113, 159, 192.)

 

 

Conclusion

 

The conclusion, again, is that the lesson to be drawn from The Lucifer Effect must be mainly the need to mistrust and challenge so called scientism in general and social psychology in particular. The need to distrust authority in general was already a well-known tenet regarding politics, business, and many forms of religion. The book thrives by sharing the prestige of science, but both science and its prestigious practitioners should be mistrusted as much as politicians and businessmen whenever their foundations are divorced from broader psychological science, philosophy, and theology. This book is a captivating and psychically numbing, excellently designed rhetorical artwork. It overwhelms the reader and this explains its marketing success as well as my merciful evaluation. As design draped in cognition it has the same pretensions as science and aesthetics of being substitute for both philosophy and religion. Several years after writing the above somebody called my attention upon a new "salvation doctrine" promoted by Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics, and illustrated in his rhetorically powerful, marketing video, Predictably Irrational, published in March 2018. It shares several of the premises criticized here (e.g. "situational forces") and reminds of the hopelessness in "debating" such issues, as I also illustrate in an essay on Debates.

 

And if anybody dislikes the ultimate reference to philosophy and religion I would like to adduce the epochal work by Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America that deals with the core of democracy. In a masterly chapter with the title What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear, Tocqueville concludes his analysis in a previous chapter by showing how blind obedience, which is one main concept in Zimbardo's thesis, arises out of the shortcomings of a misunderstood democracy. And this very same same blind obedience seems to be the very same phenomenon of political correctness mentioned above. It clearly escapes Zimbardo's implicit political base in critical theory, and it exposes the shortcomings of its social psychology.