The Lucifer Effect: Summary & Review

the lucifer effect

In The Lucifer Effect (2007) Zimbardo argues that good and evil coexist in the same person and that the circumstances around us will dictate which one will prevail. By knowing better how the circumstances influence us, we can all make sure that good wins out.

Bullet Summary

  • There are both good and evil in the world
  • The barrier between good and evil is nebulous
  • It’s possible for angels to become devils and vice versa
  • The conditions around us can be more important for our behavior than our personality
  • To prevent crimes of obedience: assert personal authority and take full responsibility for your own actions (a foundational value of this website)

Full Summary

The Lucifer Effect speaks at length of various experiments and circumstances. I will focus instead on the main takeaways here.

Moral Disengagement Breeds Evil

Most people, most of the time, are moral.
But imagine morality like a gear shift, and like a gear shift, it can go neutral.

When that happens, there is no more morality to stop our actions, and if our car persona happens to be standing on a slope, we can easily go downhill and do things that we wouldn’t otherwise do.

How do we disengage morality?
Well, four major ways, according to my understanding of The Lucifer Effect:

  1. Deindividuation (loss of self in the group’s dynamics)
  2. Dehumanization (we don’t consider our victims to be humans and “like us”, so morals don’t apply to them)
  3. Anonymity (people commit more crimes when they can stay anonymous)
  4. Diffusion of responsibility (the more the people, the less we feel responsible for helping or for inflicting pain)


  1. The neighborhood effect: run down in the Bronx and clean and neat in Palo Alto (broken window theory)
  2. Time pressure (if we’re in a hurry, we are less likely to help)

Failing to Recognize Porosity of Good and Evil Invites Evil

Zimbardo says we all want to construct a simple world where good and evil are opposite.

But they are not.

Our Western societies also tend to induce us into mistakes as they glorify the individual and the individual choices (dispositional approach).
But the individual acts in a bigger social setting, and takes on different roles within his life.

If the social setting and the roles he takes on tilt a certain way, they can overpower otherwise moral and ethical people.

This is important, because when we fail to understand how we can all produce evil, then we invite evil

To prevent evil, we need to learn evil

How Evil Is Created

Zimbardo lists a few steps that have been shown to overpower personal ethics to induce evil acts (based on the Milgram experiment)

  1. Pre-arrange a form of contractual obligation
  2. Give them meaningful roles to play where they can activate previously learned responses
  3. Use rules and remind them that “rules are rules and must be followed”
  4. Change the semantics from “hurting someone” to “helping the experimenter/science/country”
  5. Create diffusion of responsibility (they won’t have to take final responsibility)
  6. Start small and build up to bigger acts of evil
  7. Increase the steps in small amounts so, that each step seems almost like the last
  8. Start rational and just and when you act evil people won’t recognize the difference
  9. Make the costs of quitting high
  10. Offer an ideology of a lie to justify the evil acts

Hence, the ways to stop the crime of obedience are to assert personal authority and take responsibility for one’s actions.

The Stanford Experiment

Zimbardo spends a lot of time discussing his own famous Stanford Experiment.

Students who started as normal and mentally healthy human beings soon began to change as they started embodying their characters of guards or inmates.

The prisoners became passive and submissive. They learned helplessness.

The guards on the opposite started acting mean and evil.

As things spiraled out of control, several prisoners had to be released early and the whole experiment had to be stopped because it was taking on a very bad twist.

One prisoner had an emotional breakdown.
The prisoner later recounted saying he was faking it to be released. But Zimbardo says he just made that up because he felt ashamed of breaking down.

Abu Ghraib Was Predictable

Zimbardo draws a parallel between his Standford experiment and the scandals of the Abu Graib prison where US military personnel abused -and recorded the abuse- local civilians.

The author says that it wasn’t a case of “bad apples”.
They might have been good people on different occasions. Indeed, similar abuse happened in the UK military as well, and it included a former war hero.

He says the responsibility should be looked at in the system that made it possible.

I couldn’t agree more that it’s the system that we should look into even more than the individuals’ faults.
However, I didn’t personally find the “systemic analysis” to be too enlightening for me here.

Corporate Evil

Zimbardo makes one more point which I love.
He says that organized systems can sometimes produce evil as a byproduct of legal or operational frameworks which do not take into account an ethical framework.

A system can produce evil as a byproduct of pursuing its goals of profits, ideology, or end results.

The author also talks about “mediate violence”, such as situations where authority can inflict pain without physical assault.
Such as by firing, giving bad reviews, yelling at an employee, undermining, etc.

Also, read:

Ethical Disobedience For a Better World

This is by far my favorite chapter and something I strongly believe in.
We should all wonder if the authority that is giving us orders only has the title of authority or also the moral compass to be in charge.

Always take responsibility for your actions.
And always look critically at authority.

In life, always take responsibility. It also helps the world being a better place.

Banality of Heroism

The author finally says that as much as there is the possibility of evil and we can witness evil in daily circumstances, heroism is the same.

There is a hero in each one of us.

Turns out, Bowie was right. We can be heroes. Just for one day.

Heroes are everyday people like you and I

What is The Lucifer Effect

The Lucifer Effect in psychology alludes to the fact that all human beings can commit cruelty under certain conditions.

As a website on psychology, games people play and the darker side of socialization and human nature, good and evil is a topic I explored a lot.
Also, take a look at:

The hero’s motto:

I did what everyone could and what everyone ought to do

Great stuff.

Criticism of Stanford Experiment & Lucifer Effect

The Stanford experiment has been vociferously criticized.
The name itself is a misnomer, as the lack of scientific rigor does not make it an experiment, but as the author himself admitted, more of a demonstration.

The results of the “experiment” have not been replicated in similar successive experiments and I invite you to read this article which is the dialogue between Brian Resnick and Zimbardo. It’s an incredibly interesting article.

Zimbardo says at one point:

The single conclusion is a broad line: human behavior, for many people, is much more under the influence of social situational variables than we had ever thought of before.
I will stand by that conclusion for the rest of my life, no matter what anyone says.

Would he stand by that conclusion for the rest of his life if he were presented with contrasting evidence?
I don’t think a scientist should ever say he will stand by it for the rest of his life.

I also found it sad for science in general that Zimbardo didn’t want to hear about a colleague of his with a different opinion.
Zimbardo answers the question of whether he thinks the critics might not be in good faith:

I’m not saying good faith. That’s what their claim to fame is the importance of social identity.

As I said in another article, scientists should look for the truth.
When a scientist stops searching for the truth, he is not a scientist anymore.

However, Zimbardo also makes good points in defense of his experiment.
This is what Zimbardo says, describing the guards’ brutality:

Were these acts of brutality—and their striking parallels with real-world prison atrocities—nothing more than a function of social demand characteristics in a fraudulent “sham” study, as Blum and other critics have argued, or do they tell us something important about human nature?

My opinion is that the Stanford Experiment has been overblown.
But Zimbardo is right: the circumstances around us are very important in determining how we will -and whether we will act like good people, or like not-so-good people-.

Also, read:

The Genovese Blunder?

The Lucifer Effect also talks about the famous Genevose stabbing where 38 witnesses didn’t lift a finger -or a phone- to help a woman who was being assaulted -repeatedly and at different times- in the street.
Well, turns out the story was largely made up.
The New York Times which ran the original story also admitted to mistakes and inconsistencies in the original article.

the lucifer effect

Real-Life Applications

Keep Your Moral Compass
We can do things we don’t want when we crave to belong or when we let others dictate our actions.

Assess Others Realistically
And like Dalio says: learn to love and appreciate reality. And appreciate reality means that we can overestimate our ability or people’s ability to stand up to evil. An ounce of prevention and preparation can go a long way.
That also means building systems and organizations that are evil-resistant.

Assess Your Group & Use Mental Energy Against Groupthink
Research shows that going against public opinion takes a cognitive toll on our brains. Keep that in mind next time you disagree with a group and be prepared to prepare that cognitive price.

Assess Your Leaders & Use Personal Power Against Obedience
This is a fundamental step to avoiding organized evil.
Also, see this article and this video:


Long and Diluted
I find The Lucifer Effect to contain extremely compelling wisdom which is crucial for the whole humanity. But it gets lost in too many details.
The description of the Stanford Experiment lasts 5-6 chapters and I didn’t feel I needed all of that. The same few themes repeat over and over through different events and experiments while a briefer description of one and a simple mention of the rest would have sufficed.

Why Women Stay in Abusive Relationships
The author says that starting fair and just and only later becoming unfair and evil creates confusion and people don’t realize the change. He says that that’s the “reason why abusive women stay with abusive spouses”.
But that’s a vast oversimplification.


The Lucifer Effect Can Improve Humanity
This is wisdom that can make the world a better place. Let’s all learn from it and apply the principles to prevent abuse and evil.

Great Self-Development Message
I find The Lucifer Effect to contain a great message that encompasses both personal development and human development as a whole: asserting personality authority and taking responsibility for moral actions will make us better human beings and will prevent crimes of obedience.
And it will make it more likely that we will help out.


The book itself is great.

However, we like our reviews to go deeper.

And while researching for this review of “The Lucifer Effect” I didn’t like how Zimbardo defends his experiment and views, rather than defending scientific evidence and searching for the truth.

However, I wouldn’t want that the criticism of the Stanford Experiment as a scientific experiment would lead us to throw the baby with the bathwater.
Roles and social situations do influence people.
And we have already seen normal people acting evil. I’d also like to focus on that and on preventing from happening it again.

Now, about the book.
I didn’t particularly enjoy listening to this book because it’s too long and convoluted. Unnecessary details on the Stanford Experiment might lead people to miss the important point Zimbardo makes.
And I don’t think The Lucifer Effect is too well written, which might make it harder to digest for the masses.

And that’s a pity because this is a very important topic.

In a way, The Lucifer Effect is what I advocate with The Power Moves. Personal power and responsibility for a better self and for a better world.
And I will say it one more once again:

  • To prevent crimes of obedience and groupthink, assert personal authority and take full responsibility for your own actions

Check out the best psychology books or get the book on Amazon

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