Milgram and Zimbardo: The Lucifer Effect on Science

Angels and Demons

A recent blog in Discover takes Milgram, author of the famed Milgram Shock Experiment, to task for sloppy scientific methodology and an eccentric “poet scientist” mentality.  Milgram made much ado of his studies in relation to the Holocaust and haphazard scientific methods certainly undermine his goals.  The work of Philip Zimbardo is largely informed by the Miligram experiments. Zimbardo is the designer of another notorious study, The Stanford Prison Experiment. Zimbardo synthesizes these two works, as long with studies of atrocities in Africa and Abu Grhaib, into his book, “The Lucifer Effect.”  The book is an exhaustive study on the nature of evil: what qualifies as evil, what causes evil in the first place, and how one can recognize and address evil (heroism).  One of the most important lessons of the book though is aimed directly at the scientific community and how to avoid ethical lapses made by both scientists.

In the Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo wanted to study the effects of prison life.  In order to do so, he and his assistants create a simulated prison environment where college students are both the prisoners and the prison guards.  Within three days the experiment devolves into chaos, inmates are rioting (in a simulation!). This dimension of the experiment is discussed in lower level psychology courses around the country. What is not commonly known are the roles played by Zimbardo and his assistants. Zimbardo became the warden, while his colleagues became assistant wardens. In doing so, they actively fought to keep the experiment going well beyond the third day.  Imagine, one is in charge of an experiment gone horribly wrong, the psychiatric equivalent of  Frankenstein getting off the table and running amok, it’s time to pull the plug, yes?  This didn’t happen. The experiment continued well into the fifth day. Why?

Zimbardo, similar to Milgram, experiences his own Lucifer effect. By taking on roles, he and his team were absorbed into the cognitive dissonance of the experiment! They had stopped thinking like scientists and were thinking like prison bureaucracy! It was only because of an outsider, Christina Muslach, that the experiment was terminated. Upon witnessing the interaction between guards and prisoners first hand, an enraged Muslach took Zimbardo aside. “What you are doing to those boys is a terrible thing!” She said. In a TED lecture Zimbardo would say of Muslach, “she forced me to acknowledge the cruelty and inhumanity that I was permitting as prison superintendent.” It also left him with a question, one that would shape his work as much as the Milgram experiment. If a simulated prison disintegrated this quickly, what does this say about the actual American prison system?

In establishing a pattern of evil behavior, Zimbardo lays out a criteria common in systems that give rise to atrocities: the dehumanization of others, the de-individuation of self, and the diffusion of personal responsibility. By viewing them merely as subjects, Halloween clad pawns on their chessboard, the scientists had de-humanized both the guards and the prisoners. In separating themselves into a prison bureaucracy, their attempt to establish a cold objective distance backfired. They became, as my shrink once said, an undifferentiated ego mass, a de-individuated group that had lost the ability for self-criticism and self-reflection (This effect is known as cognitive dissonance). As a result, their roles allowed to shirk the ethical duty they had to men in their care, men who had also fallen pray to this Frankenstein system. It was only because of the heroic act of an outsider, Muslach, that the experiment was terminated at all.

In the Milgram Shock Experiment, scientists took on roles, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate those roles to see if the Lucifer Effect blinded Milgram the way it blinded Zimbardo. The effect of performance, of taking on a role, even if that role is a teacher of scientist figure, is one ethical experimenters should be leery of. The most important lesson though–and the difference between Milgram and Zimbardo–is the former hand no Muslach, no outsider to pull him back from the abyss, correcting the errors he was simply too close to see.

By David Arroyo

The Shocking Truth

Philip Zimbardo: The Psychology of Evil

The Lucifer Effect


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