Fraser Nelson Fraser Nelson

The Lucifer Effect

Today’s papers are full of comment on the brilliant Panorama exposé of care home abuse. But none have mentioned what jumped out at me: the parallels between this and the Stanford Prison Experiment. The way that the tattooed Wayne treated his mentally ill patients is sickening — but, to me, this is not just a story about human evil. It’s a story about how institutionalisation brings out the evil in people, and that this evil is far closer to the surface than we like to admit. Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford, randomly divided 25 volunteers to play the roles of prisoners and guards in a poorly-regulated, mock prison. Before too long, the “guards” were inflicting torture on their “prisoners”, who were taking the beating and even ganging up on other prisoners at the guards’ request. It was stopped, at the request of Zimbardo’s girlfriend who feared even he was getting caught up in it. That was in 1972, and in 2004 Zimbardo wrote a brilliant book, The Lucifer Effect, about this phenomenon.

What we saw in Panorama was criminal and deplorable. But were the people especially wicked, or sadistic? Perhaps. But they were also bored, paid £16k a year and operating in an environment where abuse had become the norm. And this applies in all manner of situations. Put 50 boys aged 11 to 18 together in an ill-regulated boarding house, and it’ll turn into a massive game of Lord of the Flies. No one (well, almost no one) believes that that Germany was an especially wicked country, predisposed to Nazism. It was subjected to an almighty economic shock which Hitler exploited with his creed of National Socialism. Slavery was a norm pretty much the world over, before Wilberforce and his predecessors raised objections.

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