LETTER TO THE BOOKSHELF
A letter regarding Robert Levine's review of The Lucifer Effect
This letter is in response to "The Evil That Men Do," the review by Robert Levine of Philip Zimbardo's book The Lucifer Effect (September–October 2007), which discusses the effects of the situation on personality traits.
I disagree with the hypothesis that situations may be more powerful determinants than the personality traits of the people involved. If that were the case, why didn't George Washington's undernourished, ill-equipped, weary and poorly clothed Continental Army succumb to the harsh and brutal winter at Valley Forge instead of reorganizing the remaining regiments into an effective fighting force that eventually defeated the British Army? Why didn't the 101st Airborne Division, which was under siege with very limited resources, wounded soldiers and no avenue of escape, surrender to the German army at Bastogne instead of continuing to fight on? And what about the 5,000 U. S. Marines at Khe Sanh—why didn't they just give up when surrounded by over 20,000 North Vietnamese Army soldiers instead of standing their ground for 77 days and forcing the enemy to retreat to safety?
It is true that there are times when people are forced into insane situations and may have to act accordingly, as with the horrific Andes plane crash, a well-known example of survival under extreme circumstances. [But] the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment was a controlled experiment, and it was the volunteer prison guards that created the intolerable living conditions for the prisoners. The volunteer guards were not held accountable for their behavior toward the inmates as they would have been in a normal American custody setting.
Furthermore, I disagree with the statement that typically good people succumb to the psychological forces of the situation, with the worst possible results. During the recent Rice and Palomar fires in San Diego County, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 residents were evacuated from their homes, and there was no mass chaos, no violent civil unrest and no widespread looting of evacuated homes and businesses. The residents of San Diego County acted like decent human beings during a crisis situation and did not respond to the power of situational forces.
Zimbardo analyzes the abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison, where good soldiers acted badly. In this instance, members of the military acted poorly because they were not held to a higher standard, as they should have been. And just as in the Stanford Prison Experiment, the volunteer prison guards were not held accountable for their actions, and human beings suffered. The volunteer prison guards' behavior in Zimbardo's experiment was unreasonable and would not have been tolerated by those familiar with the American criminal justice system "on both sides of the bars"—although in the photograph accompanying the review, it appeared Zimbardo was treating the volunteer prisoners more like POWs than civilian convicts. In addition, Zimbardo did not take into account "prison politics," where prison gangs control the activities of inmates in prison. The prison gang members would not have tolerated this form of disrespect and would have retaliated in a violent manner by assaulting or killing one of the staff members in retribution. Research has proven that absolute power does corrupt, and this is the actual core tenet of the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment.
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