How we make monsters

Michael Bywater reviews The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo, in the Times of London:

Imagine a world in which doctors knew the underlying causes of many diseases and had a pretty good idea about most. They could cure many, alleviate more and were working on the rest.

But imagine, too, that in this world the media and politicians devoted their discourse to philtres and quackery. Scientific medicine, when mentioned at all, was presented as the preserve of bleeding-heart liberals, something that would never work. Unthinkable that we might live in such a world.

Now turn from medicine to human society. The social sciences (as important for the body politic as medicine is for the body physiological) are regularly passed over in favour of a monochrome absolutism as daft as any swivel-eyed fundamentalist babbling of the Devil.

Google “evil” – a word so empty that it should surely have withered away – and up come 136m hits in a third of a second. Tony Blair swore to confront evil wherever he found it. George W Bush would be lost without the word: his name is co-googled with it more than 2m times.

Zim_smallBoth men – indeed all politicians and social commentators – should read this book by Philip Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University. Zimbardo’s central thesis is that evil is not just about those who inflict it, but the situations and systems that promote it. Take the scandal of the American guards-turned-torturers at Abu Ghraib. The standard line on the case (backed up by the guards’ trials) is that a few rotten apples can taint the whole barrel. In other words, the way to prevent future Abu Ghraibs is simple: when giving men and women absolute power over others, we should screen them carefully for the job. The alternative is embarrassing: serious misconduct, wholly unacceptable, few rotten apples, let down the regiment, steps taken, won’t happen again, mmph, dealt with, move on.

But Zimbardo knows better and can prove it.

More here.