July 08, 2008


Lucifer falling. Gustave Dore's illustration of Milton's Paradise Lost. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Let's start with an unsolicited product endorsement. El Cabrero officially recommends that anyone interested in making the world be a little less nasty should get their hands on a copy of Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo's book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. It's not just a useful and important book. It's a page turner.

For starters, you can go to the book's informative website right now.

Zimbardo has been a leading figure in social psychology for decades. He is best known for the disastrous but illuminating Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), in which psychologically normal students were randomly assigned to prisoner and guard roles for an anticipated two week experiment. The mask quickly became the face and the roles became real. Guards began abusing prisoners within 36 hours and prisoners began to show signs of acute mental distress. The experiment had to be called off in less than a week.

In his 2007 book, Zimbardo not only recaps the SPE but generalizes its conclusions and summarizes other relevant research, with all too many illustrations from recent events.

There's a lot to unpack there, but here's a start. Most of the evil acts from human history haven't been committed by sociopaths but rather by normal people. As C. P. Snow put it,

...you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion.

Usually, when we try to explain evil behavior, we look at the individual psychology or disposition of the people who engage in it. But this misses two other factors that exert a much greater influence on what happens: the situation and the system that underlies it.

More on that tomorrow.

STATING THE OBVIOUS. Oil may have had something to do with the unnecessary war in Iraq.

TROUBLE IN PARADISE. On a related note, many Americans are rethinking their love affair with the car.

THE PROPER MEASURE of poverty and what to do about it is discussed herein.

TWO MILLION VIOLATIONS. A Minnesota judge ruled that Wal-Mart made employees work off the clock and skip breaks over 2 million times. Workers were granted back pay to the tune of $6.5 million. This fall, a jury will consider punitive damages.

LET THEM EAT ETHANOL. A recently leaked World Bank report blames biofuels for the global spike in food prices.


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