The Lucifer Effect

The Lucifer Effect, Interview to Prof. Philip Zimbardo, by Walter La Gatta, Storic Archives of Psicolinea

Read the Italian Version


WLG You are probably the first psychologist who gave importance to shyness and decided to study it. Why did you open the ‘Shyness Clinic’? Are you satisfied of the results reached by research in this field?

PhZ I believe I was the first researcher to study shyness in adults. My interest in this topic came directly out of the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), and a clinic to treat shy adults and adolescents followed years of research, to put into practice what we had learned.

Here is a section from my new book on this link (1)

WLG Can we say that shyness is nothing ‘pathologic’, but only lack of social abilities and self-trust?

PhZ Shyness varies enormously from a “garden variety” of mild apprehension and reserve, to slight fear of social encounters, to extreme, crippling social isolation. At the extreme it becomes a pathology that severely handicaps people, but even moderate levels of shyness limit many social opportunities, impact on one’s life style, cause the shy person to lead a less fulfilling life and even make less money than others who are not shy. Shy children tend to be teased and bullied in schools, and that makes they dislike school, which in turn can lead to poor school performance.

WLG Coming back to shyness, your colleague Bernardo Carducci has recently spoken about his theory of ‘cynical shyness’, an extreme form of shyness affecting mostly males, that can lead to violent behaviour such as that seen at Virginia Tech. What do you think about it?

PhZ When students who are shy get teased, bullied or rejected in other ways, they build up resentment and rage against others and against the school system that allows such behavior to continue. In the United States, those young men now have easy access to guns; guns change the equation making shy students suddenly dangerous and able to extract revenge. That is my view of cynical shyness of Carducci. I collected data some years ago that showed most men who were “sudden murderers’ who committed homicide without ever previously engaged in violent behavior–were very shy. They also had a feminine or androgynous gender image. And usually they are over controlled in their impulses.

WLG Can you explain us why you elaborated your new theory of Lucifer Effect, which turns ordinary people in evil?

PhZ My new book allowed me the opportunity to relate the evil that I had witnessed, and helped to create, in the Stanford Prison Study with other real world evils, like genocide, the torture and abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison by American soldiers and the evil in corporations where greed corrupts smart, ambitious people, as in Enron and other disasters. It is my view that most evil deeds are perpetrated by people who are ordinary in most ways, not inherently evil or pathological. I argue that we must pay more attention to the power of social situational forces and the systemic forces that create such situations when we want to understand the causes of evil and develop means to combat and prevent such evil. It is more often a Bad Barrel that corrupts good people than it is bad apples who corrupt good barrels. I argue that we need a paradigm shift from the prevailing medical model that focuses on the individual to be treated, instead to adopt a Public Health model. Such a model seeks to find the vector of disease in a society and then inoculate the population against its virulent effects. Evil is a vector of disease in many societies, with the Mafia being one example. It is not enough to focus only on the perpetrators of evil, but equally on the systemic conditions that support and maintain such evil. Here I mean the cultural, legal, political, historical foundation that gives legitimacy to evil doers.

WLG According to your theory, ordinary people may also, when particular conditions arise, do good and become heros….

PhZ If ordinary people can be guilty of the banality of evil, then they can also rise up to represent the best in human nature, in the banality of heroism. I believe that the best safeguard or antidote to social evil is in promoting the heroic imagination in as many of us as possible.
Heroes are usually ordinary people, everyday heroes, who in a particular situation engage in an extra-ordinary action. They Act when others are passive. They are more concerned about others, socio-centric, than about their own well being at that time, ego-centric. I am beginning to do experimental research designed to study the decisive moment when someone acts heroically, such as defying unjust authority. My collaborator at the University of Palermo, Piero Bocchiaro, and I have just completed the first in a series of experiments to try to determine what personality and social factors characterize those who have just acted heroically.
In the final chapter of The Lucifer Effect, I present a new taxonomy of 12 different types of heroes with examples from various cultures. Of course, heroism is culturally and historically defined. When my book is translated into Italian by next spring 2008, I hope to get feedback from Italian readers about the nature of those they define as heroes.

Walter La Gatta

(1) Shyness As Self-Imposed Prison

What other dungeon is so dark as one’s own heart!
What jailer so inexorable as one’s self?
Nathaniel Hawthorne

In our basement jail, prisoners surrendered their basic freedoms in response to the coercive control of the guards. Yet, in real life beyond the laboratory, many people voluntarily give up their freedoms of speech, action and association without external guards forcing them to do so. They have internalized the demanding guard as part of their self image; the guard who limits options for spontaneity, liberty and joy in life. Paradoxically, these same people also have internalized the image of the passive prisoner who reluctantly acquiesces to these self-imposed restrictions on all their actions. Any action that calls attention to one’s person threatens her or him with potential humiliation, shame and social rejection, thus must be avoided. In response to that inner guardian, the prisoner-self shrinks back from life, retreats into a shell, and chooses the safety of the silent prison of shyness. Elaborating that metaphor from the SPE, led me to think about shyness as a social phobia that breaks the bonds of the human connection by making other people threatening rather than inviting. The year after our prison study ended, I started a major research initiative, the Stanford Shyness Project, to investigate the causes, correlates, and consequences of shyness in adults and adolescents. Ours was the first systematic study of adult shyness; once we knew enough we went on to develop a program for treating shyness in a unique Shyness Clinic (1977). The clinic, which has been in continuous operation over all this time in the Palo Alto community, has been directed by Dr. Lynne Henderson, and is now part of the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology. My primary goal in the treatment and prevention of shyness has been to develop means to help shy people liberate themselves from their self-imposed, silent prisons. I have done so in part through writing popular books for the general public on how to deal with shyness in adults and children. [2] These activities are a counterpoint to the imprisonment to which I had subjected the participants in the SPE.

(2) Shyness research: Zimbardo, P G. (1986). The Stanford shyness project. In W. H. Jones, J. M. Cheek, & S. R. Briggs (Eds.), Shyness: Perspectives on research and treatment (pp. 17-25). New York: Plenum Press.

Zimbardo, P. G. (1977). Shyness: What it is, what to do about it. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley,

Zimbardo, P. G., & Radl, S. (1986). The Shy Child. New York: McGraw Hill.

Who is Philip Zimbardo?

Philip ZimbardoPhilip Zimbardo, Ph.D.Professor Emeritus of Stanford University (born March 23, 1933) is known for his Stanford Prison Experiment and as the author of Psychology textbooks that have introduced countless college students to the subject.
In 2002, Zimbardo was elected president of the American Psychological Association. Under his direction, the organization developed the website, a compendium of psychological research that has applications for everyday life. Also that year, he appeared in the British reality television show, The Human Zoo. Participants were observed inside a controlled setting while Zimbardo and a British psychologist analyzed their behavior.
In 2004, Zimbardo testified for the defense in the court martial of Sgt. Ivan “Chip” Frederick, a guard at Abu Ghraib prison. He argued that Frederick’s sentence should be lessened due to mitigating circumstances, explaining that few individuals can resist the powerful situational pressures of a prison, particularly without proper training and supervision. The judge apparently disregarded Zimbardo’s testimony, and gave Frederick the maximum 8-year sentence. Zimbardo drew on the knowledge he gained from his participation in the Frederick case to write a new book entitled, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, about the connections between Abu Ghraib and the prison experiments.


Walter La Gatta © Ottobre 07

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