Let me ask you a disturbing question.
“Would you electrocute a stranger?”
Most of you would respond with an emphatic no. But perhaps you are underestimating yourself.
I am neither doubting your character nor your sense of morality but empirical evidence suggests that human beings underestimate their own vulnerabilities that can turn them into evil. To support my claim let me take you through a fascinating experiment.
In 1971, Philip Zimbardo, a young psychologist from Stanford University, wanted to study the psychology of imprisonment i.e., study the roles people play in prison situations. So he invited students to participate in an experiment and randomly assigned them the roles of ‘prisoners’ and ‘guards’. Tests showed that all students were normal people and physically and mentally healthy. A simulated prison environment was created to mimic real-life prison conditions, where they lived for several days. As part of the role playing the ‘guards’ behaved aggressively and ‘prisoners’ behaved helplessly.
But few days into the experiment things took a nasty turn when the participants, who were playing guards, actually began to treat the prisoners as if they were non-humans. Not only that, the prisoners began experiencing depression and extreme stress. The more the prisoners acted like non-humans, the more the guards mistreated them. The experiment, that was supposed to last for two weeks, had to be abruptly ended after only six days.
Zimbardo witnessed levels of cruelty he’d never have predicted or imagined. Within no time, liberal undergraduates became sadists, tormenting their fellow students.
Often when we are in a role, we tend to act as others expect, Zimbardo said, “Even when they thought they didn’t have to meet anyone’s expectations, the role of prison guard determined their actions.”
As a consequence of this behavioural pattern, good people, under certain circumstances, can turn into bad (dishonest, evil, and even dangerous) people. Zimbardo named it as The Lucifer Effect and later wrote a book with the same title. He writes –
God’s favorite angel was Lucifer. Lucifer means “the light.” It also means “the morning star,” in some scripture. Apparently, he disobeyed God, and that’s the ultimate disobedience to authority. And when he did, Michael, the archangel, was sent to kick him out of heaven along with the other fallen angels. So Lucifer descends into hell, becomes Satan, becomes the devil, and the force of evil in the universe begin. This arc of the cosmic transformation of God’s favorite angel into the Devil, for me, sets the context for understanding human beings who are transformed from good, ordinary people into perpetrators of evil.
Coming back to our original question. Would you, or for that matter any normal person, electrocute a stranger? Knowing what you now know about Lucifer effect, the answer should be – It depends.
Depends on what? Depends on the circumstances to which a normal person is put through.
In fact, Zimbardo’s experiment was just a confirmation of what Stanley Milgram had already shown through his research a decade earlier. Milgram wanted to understand how, under Hitler’s regime in Germany, thousands of supposedly good people were induced to participate in unspeakable atrocities on fellow human beings. So he designed an experiment to study how people would respond to authority.
Participants in Milgram’s experiment were told that they were going to study the effect of mild electrical shocks on a person’s learning ability. The participant would be the teacher who was in control of a panel of electrical switches. The ‘learner’ was strapped to the shock apparatus in another room. If the learner answered a question incorrectly, teacher’s job was to flip a switch which would send an electrical shock to the learner. The shock intensity was supposed to increase with every incorrect answer, going all the way up to a deadly 450 volts. Of course, unknown to the participants, the electrical shocks weren’t real and the learner was actually Milgram’s accomplice who would act as if he’s experiencing the shocks.
The shock starts at 15-volts which is too small. But as the shock intensity increased, the guy (learner) starts screaming with pain. The confused participant is constantly reassured by the Milgram, who is wearing a lab coat with a serious look on his face (a sign of authority), “Don’t worry, please continue.”
Milgram ran this experiment on 1000 men aged between 20 and 50. Ordinary men i.e. barbers, clerks, and white-collar people.
So here’s a pop quiz for you. How many people do you think went all the way up to 450 volts?
An astonishing 65 percent people went on to flip the last switch of deadly 450 volts, even though they were uncomfortable with it, simply because they were asked to do so by the professor. Watch the video below which describes both Zimbardo’s and Milgram’s experiments.
Click here if you can’t see the video above.
Although Milgram’s experiment was a test of “obedience under authority”, it proves the point that under certain circumstance, authority bias in Milgram’s case, normal people can be made to commit horrible acts. Milgram concluded that it could have been that the millions of accomplices in the Nazis camp were merely following orders, despite violating their deepest moral beliefs.
Many people think that the line between good and evil is fixed, with them on the good side and the others on the bad side. But the cold truth is that the line is very much movable. Good people could be seduced across that line to indulge in evil acts. It’s not that everyone is vulnerable to become evil when pushed to the corner. Some are very resilient. Some are not. In fact, most are not.
Peter Bevelin, in his book Seeking Wisdom, writes –
Extreme circumstance and conditions can cause people to do things they would never do under normal circumstances. Put good people in a bad situation and their normal behavior changes.
How To Recruit A Killer?
Here’s an anecdote that brilliantly illustrates how good, honest, law-abiding, and kind people can slowly transform themselves to outright criminals.
Joe has a stable job and a comfortable life. One morning he receives an envelope containing 10,000 rupees. The enclosing letter says that he received the money because some stranger called Mr. XYZ died a day before. Surely enough, the newspaper features Mr. XYZ’s name in the obituary section. Joe is confused but decides to keep the money. The next day, he receives one more letter informing that he could get 10,000 more if yet another stranger Mr. ABC dies. Next morning the news about Mr. ABC’s demise arrives in the newspaper and so does the money at Joe’s doorstep. Soon, this becomes a routine. Joe starts liking this free money but doesn’t realise that he has secretly started wishing death for strangers. One day, the letter informs him that he would receive an unusually large sum if an old man, in a nearby hospital, dies. However, the money doesn’t come the next day and neither does the news of old man’s death in the obituary. Impatience takes Joe to that hospital where he finds the old man in the ICU. Figuring that the old man is not going to die soon, Joe ends up killing him, not realising that he has turned into a contract killer.
And this is how the slippery slope of Lucifer effect gives birth to evil.
I don’t mean to say that an evil act is justified because situations forced the person commit the crime. But if you can take your eyes off the subject and focus on the situation, you could find a pattern that will help pre-empt such situations. You would know that dealing with an honest person in a bad environment is as risky as dealing with a dishonest person. More importantly, you would know how to avoid being in such situations yourself.
One of the most important lesson that one can learn from Lucifer Effect is about empathy. When you see someone indulging in an illegal, unkind, or irrational act, don’t be impatient in judging his personality or character. Remind yourself, “Who knows, I may have done the same if put in the same situation.” This will allow you to have an unbiased and objective look at a situation and the people involved.
In his wonderful book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, Dan Ariely writes –
We should realize that the first act of dishonesty might be particularly important in shaping the way a person looks at himself and his actions from that point on – and because of that, the first dishonest act is the most important one to prevent. That is why it is important to cut down on the number of seemingly innocuous singular acts of dishonesty.
In his book Ariely describes many of his experiments where he proves that given a chance and right conditions most people don’t shy away from dishonesty.
Reminds me of this statement from a locksmith, “There are very few locks which can’t be broken by a professional burglar. So most locks are made to protect your house from honest people who would otherwise be lured by an open door.”
Interestingly, there’s a bright side to Lucifer effect. If people can be pushed towards the Devil’s side, they can also be pushed to commit heroic acts.
In fact, heroes are ordinary people whose social actions are extraordinary. Instead of doing nothing, they choose to act. Zimbardo tells the story of Wesley Autrey, a fifty-year-old African-American construction worker, who became New York Subway hero. A white guy fell on the train track. While 75 other people chose inaction, Wesley jumped on the tracks, pulled the white guy between the tracks, covered him and the train goes over them.
What’s the lesson here? Ordinary people, when put into extraordinary situations, become heroes. That’s Lucifer Effect in reverse.
Most scams usually start very small with one insignificant and/or undetectable act of violation. Like taking help of creative accounting to make sure that the earnings match the guidance. In recent years, the line separating what’s legal and what’s ethical has become blurred. So it all starts small when you ignore the tiny cracks in the ethical conduct. The intention could be to do it only once but this small start (like Milgram’s participants starting with 15 volts) may lead to increasingly bigger and more serious acts of violation.
When the markets are rising, a very few corporate leaders ask “Is it right?”. Instead they begin pondering “Is it legal?” And then from that point, it’s not very far from “Can we get away with it?”
Even most of us aren’t immune to the Lucifer effect. It could start with a fake LTA receipt to claim the tax benefit or intentionally evading taxes. Or it could be as insignificant as jumping a traffic signal or offering a bribe to get one’s work done at a government office. Even before he or she realises, the slippery slope of Lucifer Effect leads them to serious offenses.
In the end, a lot of evil and dishonest acts can be traced back to a faulty systems, inadequate regulations or poor policies. There are certain businesses and industries where the incentives are structured in such a manner that it promotes lying, cheating and/or stealing. E.g. real estate business. You never know how much money is exchanging hands under the table. Which means Lucifer effect will ensure that even honest people are cornered and forced to indulge in unethical activities.
Listen to Warren Buffett’s advice on this matter. He says –
There’s plenty of money to be made in the center of the court. If it’s questionable whether some action is close to the line, just assume it is outside and forget it.
When Jesus said, “Hate the sin, not the sinner”, perhaps he had Lucifer effect in mind. He was asking us to focus on the sin i.e., the situations that became the fertile ground for producing sinners. The sinner is just an outcome, a symptom of the problem.
My intention here is not to tell you everything about a mental model. It’s not possible to squeeze all the details in a few hundred words. Moreover, even I have limited information about this topic at this stage. So like you, I am also learning as I write these words.
The smartest way to learn deeply about a subject is by repeatedly going through the cycles of reading and thinking. Writing and sharing are my ways to crystallize my thoughts on the subject. I hope you take this post as a starting point for your own discovery about the topic.
Since your experiences are different than mine, you have read different books, interacted with different people, and thought different thoughts, the dots that connect in your mind based on what you read here will generate different insights. Unique insights that are your own.
I hope that you would share those unique insights with the Safalniveshak tribe.
Take care and keep learning.
Vipin Patel says
A real eye opener. Though I had already seen the documentary of the Milligram Experiment before, it is only after reading this mental model I have come to understand it’s consequences. Thanks a lot…hope you will keep on posting such Mental Models.
Anshul Khare says
Vishal Kataria says
Superb post Anshul.
Apart from poor or absent regulations and faulty systems, some successful acts of dishonesty (Ponzi schemes for instance) can probably be linked to a victim’s weak will power. Such people are more prone to commit small acts of dishonesty, or give into greed even when it is irrational. For instance, after a particularly harrowing day at work, we find it hard to not jump the red light if we can, or not get into an argument with our partner.
I think the more we fortify our will powers to “repeatedly go through the cycles of reading and thinking” and not giving in to tiny temptations, the more we can insulate ourselves from the Lucifer Effect.
Thanks for your comments Vishal.
I agree. Ego depletion is another reason why one would become more vulnerable to Lucifer effect.
That was an amazing post !! I was moved …” the first act of being wrong needs to be corrected” is the key here … I think we will have think about our actions which we did against our conscience and correct it ..else we might repeat it ..
Anshul Khare says
Thanks for your comments Bharath.