What is the Lucifer effect?

The Historical Context One of the most studied areas in social psychology is the influence of groups on behaviour. Experiments on group influence go back 80 years, to Jennes’ experiment on conformity to a group norm.  He put beans in a jar and asked all the participants to examine it and declare their estimate of the number to other members of the group. Next, they were asked to re-estimate the number of beans in the jar. In most cases, the participants’ estimates moved closer to the mean demonstrating the pull of the group on beliefs. This relatively harmless little experiment demonstrated conformity to a group.

But then came the second world war and all the obscenities of evil acts worked out on a range of minorities, but most of all the Jewish People.  And when the reckoning came, the same excuse was repeated many times, like an echo: “But I was only obeying orders”.  The banality of the response was not lost on political theorist Hanna Arendt who analysed the trial and implications of the defence of war criminal Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem.  Arendt concluded that he was not a fanatic or mentally unstable, but that he had done evil things in a business-like manner and had done this all because he believed he was obeying orders.

Stanley Milgram picked up the baton from Arendt’s thesis and tested whether he could trick people to do evil through obedience to an authority figure.  He set up a fake scenario where participants believed they were delivering powerful electric shocks to others in obedience to a man in a grey technician’s coat and with a clip-board telling them to “please continue”.  Asked by Milgram to predict how many would go to a lethal dose, most top professors of psychology and psychiatry said “not one in a thousand” would be so evil. The actual percentage who gave a 450V shock was 65%. Milgram went on to develop this experiment across cultures, sexes and in different environments, the results did not vary much overall.  Dying young from a heart attack in 1984, he missed the horrors of further genocides in the late 20th century and the obscenity of child soldiers forced to kill. A new millennium dawned and yet mankind’s inhumanity to man continued with the evils of Abu Ghraib and the “collateral damage” of the Iraq war.  But by this time yet another psychologist had picked up the baton and claimed it for his own, Philip Zimbardo.

The Lucifer Effect

Lucifer was once an angel.  He was the most exalted. His name means “bringer of light” but he fell from grace because he refused to recognise that of God which was in His creation Adam. He was banished to Hell and became the embodiment of evil, the devil. The devil made it is aim to expose the evil in man through temptation to do bad things.  And according to Zimbardo, it is this metaphor which has inspired him to focus his research on:

“Transformations of human character not as dramatic as this one, in which ordinary, even good people begin to engage in bad deeds, for a short time or longer, that qualify as “evil.”

The beginnings of Zimbardo’s work was in his work on “The Stanford Prison Experiment”. A group of students were randomly assigned to the role of prisoners or guards for a 2 week experiment on conforming to social roles. The guards took to their role so well that quickly they began to bully and harass the prisoners and to dehumanise them.  In fact Zimbardo himself even lost his detachment and became engrossed in his role as prison governor.  The future Mrs Zimbardo, visiting the mock Jail brought Dr Zimbardo to his senses and the experiment, now brutal and out of control, was terminated after only 6 days.  Yet is had achieved its aim, demonstrating how good people can learn quickly to do bad things.

From this time Zimbardo has made it his life’s work to understand the process whereby people succumb to the “Lucifer Effect” and what we can do to protect ourselves against it.

Zimbardo identified that the main factor at work in treating a group less favourably was the process of “Dehumanising” the group.  The process involves taking away the humanity of the victim and reducing them to a lesser, more animalistic status.  This is achieved through propaganda and can be done in several ways as the following examples suggest:

Hitler and the Jews: 

  • Children at school were made to read stories which portrayed Jews in increasingly negative light.  Jews as “greedy”, looking different with their strange clothes.
  • Racial stereotyping: using physical differences to suggest lower intelligence, cunning, degenerate natures
  • In camps taking away their clothes, hair, name and even possessing their thin bodies so they no longer looked human.

Faces of the enemy (to inspire soldiers to fight) 

  • Using stereotypes of faces, uniform and other characteristics to inspire hatred
  • Images of them as rapists, child molesters
  • Images of them as powerful, cold and alien

Strange Fruit”

Abel Meeropol wrote the words to the Billie Holliday song based on the lynching of young black men in the southern states of the USA in the early part of the 20th century.  The strange fruit referred to dead bodies left hanging from trees.

  • Trophy photographs taken by the people at lynchings were like those taken by big game hunters, serving to turn dead young black men into dead game.
  • Trophy photographs taken by Lindy England et al at Abu Ghraib showing naked Iraq prisoners in pyramids and being led around naked on leads and forced to commit acts which were sacrilegious to their religious beliefs

Dehumanising language 

Language can be used in such a way to remove the inhumanity of an act.  The murder of six million Jews was called “the final solution”.  Killing civilians in any recent conflict has been called “collateral damage” and killing people from one’s own side is called “friendly fire”.

Can we beat the Lucifer Effect?

Zimbardo is convinced we can by most of all being mindful of our own context, feelings and circumstances following a few simple steps:

  1. Admit mistakes, don’t waste time justifying yourself, move on.
  2. Be mindful and critical of the language and actions of others.
  3. Take personal responsibility for your own actions.
  4. Be clear about your own individuality and identity and enjoy it.
  5. Respect just authority but resist unjust authority (just authority has wisdom).
  6. Balance your desire for acceptance by a group with your need for individual identity.
  7. Be frame vigilant: be aware of how ideas are expressed.
  8. Think about the time context – decisions now have longer term consequences.
  9. Don’t sacrifice freedom for illusion of security (e.g. the war on terror has led to our freedoms being curtailed)
  10. Oppose unjust systems  (e.g. whistle-blowers can make a difference)

There you have it a long way from the innocence of beans in a jar lies the abhorrence of Abu Ghraib.  But if Zimbardo is right we all have a responsibility in preventing our own Lucifer from taking over.


  1. Philip Zimbardo: The Lucifer Effect How Good People Turn Evil; Random House 2007

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14 Responses to “What is the Lucifer effect?”

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  1. Anna Schollaert says:

    Also just wanted to point out Zimbardo was a Stanford prof. not Stamford.

  2. Diana says:

    Also, what is meant by “possessing their thin bodies so they no longer looked human”. Are you speaking of “possessing” in regards to the tormentors raping the tormented here? What do you mean “so they no longer looked human”? Do you mean the tormentors no longer looked human because of their evil, predatory behaviors? Or do you mean the tormented no longer looked human?

  3. Diana says:

    I find this phrase to be confusing ”
    “In most cases, the participants’ estimates moved closer to the mean demonstrating the pull of the group on beliefs.”

    Can you please clarify what you mean by “the mean” and what is meant by “to the mean demonstrating the “pull” of the groups???

    • Adam says:

      The mean- means the purpose what they meant to achieve in result or consequence of what they were meaning to achieve. Know what I mean? I’m not mean as in cruel but I think that is what you didn’t understand that many words have meanings and mean different things MEAN

      • Mike says:

        I understood ‘the mean’ to refer to ‘the average’. i.e. the average of the other participants guesses of the total number of beans. So people adjusted their guesses in order to conform.

  4. Noelle says:

    “using physiological differences” is incorrect. You mean physical differences. Physiological is how the body works, such as pumping blood, and making ATP.

  5. trompie says:

    really informatice article, thanks for sharing

  6. Bo says:

    The whole history have to be told. Very rarely is the first narrative that comes out of a war be it on terror or on jews the underlying context need investigation. Philip Zimbardo made his first experience being subdued into subhuman by his own experiment. The story about about the jew and ww2 lac the fact from 1933. Judea showed its own fighting capacity then. Now forgotten by a perpetually painted false truth. Where does images like thous push us. There are many more informations from revisionists. Is it important to find them to bring us all closer to our human selves? Or shall we just consider all of reality to be an opinion?

  7. Rachel says:

    You said in this paragraph that Philip Zimbardo is TV’s famous Dr. Phil. That is not correct. He appeared on Dr. Phil’s Tv show on October 25,2010. They are 2 different people not the same person.

  8. kingnine says:

    “TV’s famous Dr. Phil” is not Philip Zimbardo.

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