How good people turn evil – Stanford Prison experiment

August 3, 2008

In the classic Stanford Prison Experiment
Philip Zimbardo took a group of ordinary students
and placed them in a mock prison, guarded by fellow
students. In less than a week, the study had
to be terminated, when the “guards” became
increasingly sadistic and the “prisoner” pathological.
Raising fundamental questions on good and evil.
Apparently most of us can be initiated
into the ranks of evil doers.

The book, the Lucifer effect, explores
how good people becomes bad.

Lucifer has of course done his job over
the centuries. In the middle ages we had
the inquisition. Where Philip Zimbardo
gives us thought provoking examples on how
good becomes bad.
I.e. The Malleus Maleficarum was required reading for
the judges of the inquisition. It begins
with a problem. How can evil exists in a world
created and governed by an all-good, all powerful
God? The answer is (was) that the Creator
allows evil to test the souls of man. Yield
to the temptations – and go to hell. Resist,
and be invited into heaven.
So to do good – evil had to be found and eliminated.
Especially, find witches and heretics and burn
them on the stake. The ardent and sincere desire to combat evil
generated evil on a larger scale than
ever seen before.

To Philip Zimbardo much of it starts when
human relationships becomes “I – it”.
Humanized relationships are “I – Thou”,
while dehumanized relationships are “I – It”,
The misperception of certain humans
as subhuman, bad humans, inhuman, dispensable,
is facilitated with labels. stereotypes and slogans –
and most importantly – when others are treated as “it”.
The Stanford prison experiment created an ecology
of dehumanization. It started with loss of freedom,
loss of privacy, and finally loss of personal identity.
It separated inmates from their past, their families etc.
Eventually, external coercive rules and arbitrary rules by guards
dictated the prisoners behaviour. Prisoners who just one week
before had been average students.
Tender caring emotions were absent among guards and
prisoners after only a few days.

“Proof” of sorts that Zimbardos thesis , that
external situations decides much of what is good
and evil, – is in fact true.

If one wants to defend human decency by saying that
the students in the Stanford Prison Experiment
were not average – Zimbardo tells you that
they were exactly that. Average.
Even though noone likes to think of themselves as average.
I.e. In a study – 86 percent of Australians rate their
job performance as above average. And 90 percent
of american business managers rate their performance
as superior to that of their average peer.

Worse – it follows that evil is within everyone:
An inventive teacher, Ron Jones, would teach
his high school students something about
Hitlers Nazi regime. Despite his forewarning to
the class about all of this – he quickly established
a new rigid classroom rule, that should be obeyed
without question.
All answers must be limited to three words or less and
preceded by “sir”. When noone challenged this or other
arbitrary rules – the classroom atmosphere began to change.
The verbally fluent students lost their positions and
the less verbal, more physically assertative took
The classroom movement was named the third wave.
Each day there was a new slogan. like – “strength through
discipline”, “strength through action”, “strength
through pride”. And there would eventually be
more than 100 kids attending “a third wave rally”
outside the classroom.
When Jones finally told his students what he had
been up to – and what he wanted to demonstrate –
noone ever admitted to attenting the rally.

Another teacher, Jane Elliott, created third grade hell, when she
divided the class into blue eyed and brown eyed kids and began
telling stories about what blue eyed kids or brown eyed
kids really are like.

In Zimbados words –
Our personal identities are socially situated.
we are what we live, eat, work. It is possible to predict
a wide range of your attitudes and behaviour from
knowing your status factors – your ethnicity, social class,
education, and religion.

But still – not all is said. Occasional
a hero comes along – and can not be bullied
into accepting evil. It might be a John McCain
in Vietnamese prison that will not rat on his
country. Or it might be a Nelson Mandela
that will not answer violence with violence.

Evil does not always have the last word.
and most people eventually know what is right and
what is wrong –
But the immature, it be one prison guard, or an entire nation,
you can apparently always trick into being evil by
creating a “lucifer situation” – where evil is

I would have given the book better marks had there be
more on teaching us all to be Jedi in the
face of evil – as it is, to me, it only demonstrates
that circumstance plays a big part in making
average people evil. I dont think
Zimbardo is out there to explain away evil and
take responsibility away from the individual.
But he should be far more concrete and have much more
focus on all of this.


The Lucifer Effect
Philip Zimbardo
Rider 2007

Tianasquare 1989

August 3, 2008
Tianasquare 1989, Peking.

Tianasquare 1989, Peking.

One man stands up for democracy and freedom.

The Audacity of Hope – Barack Obama book review

March 12, 2008

Obamas second book is almost as good as
the first. But only almost. Long parts are
somewhat boring policy statements. Policies that
doesn’t seem all that new, or exciting.
Something we have heard a million times before, and
where we have turned somewhat cynical.

That said his framing of our world
does seem to be right on the money.
It starts with Reagan – that he doesnt endorse
(I assume he cant as a democrat). – Nevertheless,it does sound
like a ringing endorsement:
Reagan spoke to the longing for order,
our need to believe that we are not simply subject
to blind, impersonal forces but that we can shape
our individual and collective destinies, so long as we
rediscover the traditional values of hard work, patriotism,
personal responsibility, optimism and faith.

It is also good to hear – and obviously necessary:
That the behaviours that express our mutual regard for one another
should be: Honesty, fairness, humility, kindness,
courtesy and compassion.
If you have the basics rights. It cant be all wrong.

And you dont feel manipulated when you read this.
His remarks about Clinton. E.g.
Clinton could seem frightening coldhearted (allowing the
execution of a mentally retarded death row inmate to
go forward on the eve of an important primary).
Candidates signify their values by stopping at a black church,
go on a hunting trip, to a NASCAR race and read in
a kindergarten classroom.
informs us that he understands the need for something genuine
Obamas promise to follow his mothers guiding principle,
when dealing with other prople : “How would that make
you feel”. Also holds a lot of promise in all its
His remarks on values are obviously true. And does
need some attention in this day and age:
Our values are where we put our time, energy and money.
If we aren’t willing to pay a price for our values,
if we aren’t willing to make sacrifices to realize them,
we should ask ourselves whether we believe in them at all.
Do we want nothing more than be rich, thin, young, famous,
safe and entertained?
Then it is understandable why debt is handed down to the
next generation and why millions languish in powerty.

Certainly high spirited. And faith based.
In Obamas words:
When democrats abandon the field of religious discourse,
ignoring the debate on what it means to be a good christian,
muslim or jew – others will fill the vacuum. Which is
bad politics (if you are a democrat).

Is it enough in capitalisms periodic gales of creative destruction.
In a world of natural disasters and wars?

It is all we got – obviously. The rest, time will tell.

The small anecdotes you get as you read the book
makes it worthwhile. E.g.
White couples who toss me their car keys as I stand
outside a restaurant waiting fro the valet, police cars
polling me over for no apparent reason.
And you wonder how these people will feel
realizing that they treated the future president that way?

March 12 2008.

Barack Obama’s memoirs

March 2, 2008

In Barack Obamas memoirs “Dreams from my father”
he informs us that an autobiography promises feats worthy
of record, conversations with famous people, a central role
in important events
– and there is none of that here!
That is funny!

If you are going to president of the United States,
I would say that there is a least one famous person in the book!?
And the book is just crammed with feats worthy of record:
Starting with his white mothers fantasies.
The promise of another life. Warm, sensuel, exotic, different
(from white life in Kansas). His grandfathers hopes and failures,
that takes them to Hawaii. Where eventually his mother

meets Barack sr. She is confused and alone, and flattered by
Barack sr’s attention.
And somehow, her parents are not against the marriage.
There are vague indications that Baracks grandfather
sees this as the future. In stark contrast to everyone else,
he doesn’t judge. Barack sr’s father on the other hand,
back home in Kenya, is against the marriage.
— As he has another wife back there….
A shattered marriage it may be,
but nevertheless a marriage. Besides, the father,
rightly, suspects
it will be difficult for a white woman to live in Kenya.

The journey is as long as any journey could be.
Baracks father is a
Kenyan of the Luo tribe, born on the shores of
Lake Victoria. We are told that the “Luo are intelligent
but lazy”, in contrast to
“the Kikuyu who are money-grubbing but industrious”.
With amazing luck and a quick mind Barack senior gets
a scholarship in the US (University of Hawaii).
Where he meets Baracks jr’s mother.
The plot thickens.

Barack, the father, is very ambitious though.
The parents breakup is only briefly sketched –
but nevertheless easy to understand,
there is a divide. His mother sense of adventure
unbroken though. And she soon finds another man,
this time an Indonesian. And off they
(Barack and his mother) are to Indonesia.
Writing home to his grandparents in Hawaii,
young Barack finds it difficult to tell the whole story
about Indonesia.
The face of the man, who had come to their door one day,
with a gaping hole,
where his nose should have been.
The whistling sound he made, as he asked Baracks mother
for food. The world he finds himself in for four years
(with his mother) is violent, unpredictable and often cruel.
He decides that his grandparents knows nothing of such a
world, and that there is no point in disturbing
them with questions with no answers.
His stepfather explains him the way of the world.
The strong man takes the weak mans land. And he makes
the weak man work in his fields. If the weak mans woman
is pretty, the strong man will take her.
Ending with the question –
what would you rather be? strong or weak?

Baracks mother wakes him every morning at 4 O’Clock,
and teaches him english for 3 hours,
before he is off to Indonesian (and later Catholic) school.
Eventually, she decides his future will be better in America
and sends him back to his grandparents in Hawaii.
Back in Americas consumer culture,
where you are safe (and drops into a long a hibernation).
His grandmother tells him, that the only thing that really
matters in life is that your kids do well.
But not all is well, after all, you have the british out
there to enslave people, from Kenya, to Indonesia
(and originally in America as well, lets not forget).
And then it turns out that he is black (half black anyway).
A struggle that is his, not his mothers, nor his grandparents.
His struggles are his alone, or, would whites look
as his struggles as a mirror of their own,
rather than yet more evidence of black pathology?
As a young man he tries out pot, and booze;
maybe a little blow, when he could afford it.
No mention of not inhaling the stuff (Clinton style)
But eventually he finds his way.
Away from inner city schools (that are about social
control, holding pens, miniture jails). Gets to college.
Finds satisfaction in social work in Chicago.
And eventually lands a Harward law degree.
In America (and the western world) you find
technology and mobility –
and you looses the insistent pleasure of peoples company,
the joy of human warmth.
Is family a genetic chain, parents and offspring.
A social construct, economics. Or something else –
shared memories.
An Ambit of love, a reach across the void? He wonders.
The trail takes him back to Kenya to find out.
In Kenya he finds his father and grandfather Husseins
graves. For some, it seems as though his father ends
up a defeated, lonely bureaucrat.
Obama concludes:
And both men are cursed with to much rigidness,
suspicions and male cruelties.
There is to little encouragement,
To little embrace. Strong true love.
Lot of gifts – a quick mind – powers of concentration,
charm – and some faults.
And there he is – in Kenya. The land of his ancestors.
Where literally, everyone knows his name (and can spell it).
In contrast to Europe, which is beautiful,
but someone elses romance.
At home at last. For we are strangers before them,
and sojourners, as were all our fathers. 1, Chronicles 29.15.
Barack means blessed, and in the end he describes
himself as blessed.

I read the book in one stretch. I find it very logical
that eventually someone with this kind of lifestory will
make it to become US president in 21st century.
What is not so logical is that the eventual president
will be a poet. But then again, King David was a poet.
So we have seen that before, as well I guess.
Barack Obame has been critizised for being naive
– reading the book I find him nothing of the sort.
He is candid, but his pictures of parents,
and grandparents seems very precise.
Actually, none are overly romantized in the book.
Yet I find the book a loving account.
As a european I am not all that pleased to understand
that the next president may be a lot more interested in Kenya,
than he might be in the continent of Europe.
As a human being I would consider Barack Obama my friend
after having read his book.
There is passion, love and struggle
in that book that should end in a warm embrace.

Simon Laub
March 2nd. 2008.