Examining the Lucifer Effect

September 4, 2008 Updated: November 27, 2009

“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”

—Albert Einstein

“In threatening and survival situations, we look for evidence of hope—a small sign that the situation may improve. When an abuser/controller shows the victim some small kindness, even though it is to the abuser's benefit as well, the victim interprets that small kindness as a positive trait of the captor. In criminal/war hostage situations, letting the victim live is often enough,” writes Dr. Joseph M. Carver in his article “Love and Stockholm Syndrome: The Mystery of Loving an Abuser.”

As with many hostages of the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Colombians or Colombian Armed Forces), or with the famous publishing heiress Patty Hearst after she was abducted by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), some kidnapped individuals are known to develop a psychological condition known as Stockholm Syndrome—named for an event in Sweden where a pair of criminals kept hostages in Stockholm’s Kreditbanken bank for six days in August 1973.

When police rescued these captives who had been held for 131 hours and faced violent threats and abuse, they actually feared the law enforcement personnel. They had come to believe that their captors were protecting them from the police. Even more surprising, one of the hostages got engaged to her captor while another helped aid the criminals in their defense.

Such behavior seems out of step with what should be expected in these situations. What would lead an individual to befriend or even protect a captor? According to modern psychology, the most rational explanation for Stockholm Syndrome stems from a natural fear victims develop due to the physical risk the situation exposes them to, creating a total obedience toward their captors. In this environment, the subject restructures his or her value system in a confused manner, unconsciously coming to defend the same ideals as the assailant.

The Milgram Experiment

Some, like Dr. Carver, believe that the symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome can develop in abusive interpersonal relationships as well, such as in battered women who refuse to press charges on their abusive spouses, even after enduring years of mental and physical assault. While a majority of people are unlikely to face these circumstances, other situations involving a powerful authority figure can still bring about unexpected behavior.

The Milgram experiment, a psychological test developed in 1961 by a scientist of the same name, shocked the scientific community with its implications for individuals with seemingly stable mental faculties.
 
A year after the execution of Nazi Lieutenant Colonel and Holocaust promoter Adolf Eichman, Stanley Milgram wondered how it was possible for otherwise stable, even peaceful, individuals to degenerate to the point where they contribute to genocide.
 
With this idea in mind, Milgram enlisted numerous volunteers of sound mental health to take a simple test. Acting as “the teacher,” one subject would administer electric shocks to a fellow participant, called “the learner,” when that person answered a question incorrectly. With each incorrect response the voltage would be increased, and the cries and supplications of the learner would match the intensity of the rising voltage. The teachers were told that they were helping to develop a new system of learning, but they had no idea that the electric shocks were fake or that the learner was a professional actor.
 
But despite cries of pain and torment from the learner, the teacher was found, again and again, to continue to administer the increasingly painful shocks. Even though the majority of the 40 psychologists assessing the project predicted that none of the teachers would continue the experiment past 150 volts, two-thirds of the participants, blindly obeying the experimenter’s insistence that “the shocks are required to continue,” applied the maximum possible—450 volts.
 
The Milgram experiment brings to the table a number of chilling questions: Can a seemingly normal person develop a sadistic personality in unhealthy surroundings? And is this debility of the spirit a trait shared by the majority of humanity?

Obeying Officer Scott

This phenomenon found a bizarre manifestation in the 1990s when a character by the name of “Officer Scott” began calling fast-food restaurants around the United States. Pretending to be a local police officer and armed with key information about each restaurant—such as the names of managers, supervisors, and employees—Officer Scott was able to goad individuals into committing outrageous acts.

After introducing himself in a telephone call to a McDonald’s in New Hampshire, for example, Officer Scott accused a new employee of stealing a purse. He asked the assistant manager to call the young woman into the office. The assistant manager did as instructed and locked the office door, dutifully obeying the voice on the telephone. The assistant manager was ordered to strip the young woman of all clothing except her apron while searching for evidence of the allegedly pilfered purse. Officer Scott had convinced the assistant manager that he had the McDonald’s corporate office on the other line, as well as the store’s manager. The assistant manager even believed she could hear police radios in the background, adding to the apparent authenticity of the story.

 
Among the dozens of other cases involving restaurants across the country between 1995 and 2005, Officer Scott’s demands became increasingly horrifying, but his victims, nevertheless, consistently followed his orders. Convinced that they were following the instructions of a real policeman, many of Officer Scott’s victims had to appeal charges of sodomy, rape, and other crimes, months later in court. Other Officer Scott victims had spouses divorce them after they saw the security footage of the consequences of these telephone conversations.
 
One manager was convinced into removing her clothing in front of a customer who the caller said was a suspected sex offender. Officer Scott promised that undercover police would burst in and arrest the customer as soon as he attempted to molest her. The manager was surprised when the police never came.
 
Real police detectives had suspected the caller of working from across the road of these restaurants, using binoculars. They later realized he was a master of deception. The restaurant workers who talked to Officer Scott said he was unusually persuasive and had mastered the calm, authoritative tone of a genuine police officer. He knew a lot about the places he was calling and often used police jargon.
 
A security guard was later identified as the infamous “Officer Scott” after police saw him on Wal-Mart security footage buying the calling card used in his coercive scheme. The lawyer for one of his victims described him as "a freak who plays God." Yet, despite his repeated instigations, he was never convicted of any crime.
 
Many specialists believe that during the communist revolution, as many Chinese people were destroying sacred monuments, or killing so-called enemies of the people, their personalities became distorted. These people were no longer rational individuals but mindless automatons under the total command of an authoritarian regime.
 
But this behavior isn’t just isolated to Maoist China. In fact, dictators around the world seem to be well aware of this psychological phenomenon and have repeatedly used it to their advantage. Some are able to control their populace with such skill that even the initially skeptical soon submit their will to the pervasive and perverse ideology. This phenomenon is what Phillip G. Zimbardo calls “the Lucifer effect.”
 
In his 2007 book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Zimbardo explores the transformation an individual undergoes when encountering an insidious influence.
 
In 1971, Zimbardo devised the controversial Stanford Prison experiment, which had ordinary college students assigned to roles as either prisoners or guards. The experiment was designed to be a two-week project, but Zimbardo had to disband the experiment after a mere six days because “our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.”
 
He proposes, nevertheless, that undesirable external influences on our behavior could be resisted through heroic acts. “Each of us has three possibilities: to be passive and not do anything, to turn bad, or to become heroes. I admire those everyday heroes, normal people who do extraordinary things,” Zimbardo writes.
 
Having carefully examined how horrifying the degeneration of human nature can be, Zimbardo has come to admire the individuals who manage to hold tight to their moral principles and take notice of external forces that could otherwise push a person to work against his conscience. His latest work looks at what he calls the “heroic imagination,” celebrating individuals who are able to maintain their moral fiber in traumatic situations and stand against unjust authorities.