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True Crime Book Club - Past Titles: June 2023

Trigger Warning: Take a look through our previous titles from our True Crime Book Club.

"The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil" by Philip G. Zimbardo

  1. In one sentence, how would you describe The Lucifer Effect? What is this book about? 
  2. What did you know about the Stanford Prison Experiment before reading this book? 
  3. Why doesn't Zimbardo see humans as inherently good or evil? 
  4. What was the Stanford Prison Experiment? What was the original purpose of this experiment? What ended up happening? Why was Zimbardo forced to end the experiment early?
  5. How did you feel while reading Zimbardo's in-depth day-by-day description of the Stanford Prison Experiment? Why do you think Zimbardo provided so much detail? Was this hard to read at times? Why? How does Zimbardo's approach to these events help you to process what you're reading?
  6. How does Zimbardo connect the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment to real-world events outside of a controlled setting? What other research does he introduce or describe? How did you feel about all of this? What does it mean when it's all brought together?
  7. How does this book approach the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib? What were the situational and systemic forces that led US military personnel to commit acts of torture? Who does Zimbardo ultimately blame for this? How do we balance blame between the people committing evil acts and the leaders who build the institutions and systems that encourage that behavior? What are your thoughts on this?
  8. If this is a book about simulated and real torture, why doesn't it see people as inherently evil? Does this book end on a cynical or pessimistic note? How does Zimbardo introduce the concept of heroism? What did you think of this definition of a hero?
  9. What police procedures are used during arrests, and how do these procedures lead people to feel confused, fearful, and dehumanized?
  10. If you were a guard, what type of guard would you have become? How sure are you?
  11. What prevented "good guards" from objecting to or countermanding orders from tough or bad guards?
  12. If you were a prisoner, would you have been able to endure the experience? What would you have done differently than those subjects did? If you were imprisoned in a "real" prison for five years or more, could you take it?
  13. Why did our prisoners try to work within the arbitrary prison system to effect a change in it (e.g., setting up a Grievance Committee), rather than trying to dismantle or change the system through outside help?
  14. What factors would lead prisoners to attribute guard brutality to the guards' disposition or character, rather than to the situation?
  15. What is "reality" in a prison setting? This study is one in which an illusion of imprisonment was created, but when do illusions become real? 
  16. Do you think that kids from an urban working-class environment would have broken down emotionally in the same way as middle-class prisoners? Why? What about women?
  17. After the study, how do you think the prisoners and guards felt when they saw each other in the same civilian clothes again and saw their prison reconverted to a basement laboratory hallway?
  18. Was it ethical to do this study? Was it right to trade the suffering experienced by participants for the knowledge gained by the research?
  19. How do the ethical dilemmas in this research compare with the ethical issues raised by Stanley Milgram's obedience experiments? Would it be better if these studies had never been done?
  20. If you were the experimenter in charge, would you have done this study? Would you have terminated it earlier? Would you have conducted a follow-up study?
  21. How can we change our real institutions, such as Attica Prison, when they are designed to resist critical evaluation and operate in relative secrecy from taxpayers and legislators?
  22. Knowing what this research says about the power of prison situations to have a corrosive effect on human nature, what recommendations would you make about changing the correctional system?
  • Carried out August 15-21, 1971 in the basement of Jordan Hall, the Stanford Prison Experiment set out to examine the psychological effects of authority and powerlessness in a prison environment. The study, led by psychology professor Philip G. Zimbardo, recruited Stanford students using a local newspaper ad. Twenty-four students were carefully screened and randomly assigned into groups of prisoners and guards. The experiment, which was scheduled to last 1-2 weeks, ultimately had to be terminated on only the 6th day as the experiment escalated out of hand when the prisoners were forced to endure cruel and dehumanizing abuse at the hands of their peers. The experiment showed, in Dr. Zimbardo’s words, how “ordinary college students could do terrible things.” (Stanford Prison Experiment)
  • Photos
  • The experiment was conducted in 1971 by psychologist Philip Zimbardo to examine situational forces versus dispositions in human behavior. (Simply Psychology)
  • 24 young, healthy, psychologically normal men were randomly assigned to be “prisoners” or “guards” in a simulated prison environment. (Simply Psychology)
  • The experiment had to be terminated after only 6 days due to the extreme, pathological behavior emerging in both groups. The situational forces overwhelmed the dispositions of the participants. (Simply Psychology)
  • Pacifist young men assigned as guards began behaving sadistically, inflicting humiliation and suffering on the prisoners. Prisoners became blindly obedient and allowed themselves to be dehumanized. (Simply Psychology)
  • The principal investigator, Zimbardo, was also transformed into a rigid authority figure as the Prison Superintendent. (Simply Psychology)
  • The experiment demonstrated the power of situations to alter human behavior dramatically. Even good, normal people can do evil things when situational forces push them in that direction. (Simply Psychology)

BBC World Service - Witness History, The Stanford Prison Experiment

  • Philip Zimbardo is perhaps best known for the Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted in the basement of the Stanford University psychology department in 1971.
    • participants in the study were 24 male college students who were randomly assigned to act either as "guards" or "prisoners" in the mock prison
    • initially slated to last two weeks, but had to be terminated after just six days because of the extreme reactions and behaviors of the participants
    • guards began displaying cruel and sadistic behavior toward the prisoners, while the prisoners became depressed and hopeless
  • born on March 23, 1933, in New York City
  • attended Brooklyn College where he earned a B.A. in 1954, triple majoring in psychology, sociology, and anthropology
  • went on to earn his M.A. in 1955 and his Ph.D. in 1959 from Yale University, both in psychology
  • taught briefly at Yale before becoming a psychology professor at New York University, where he taught until 1967
  • after a year of teaching at Columbia University, he became a faculty member at Stanford University in 1968
  • Since the prison experiment, Zimbardo has continued to conduct research on a variety of topics including shyness, cult behavior, and heroism.
  • In 2002, Zimbardo was elected president of the American Psychological Association
  • After more than 50 years of teaching, Zimbardo retired from Stanford in 2003 but gave his last "Exploring Human Nature" lecture on March 7, 2007.
  • he continues to work as the director of an organization he founded called the Heroic Imagination Project
    • promotes research, education, and media initiatives designed to inspire ordinary people to act as heroes and agents of social change
  • “In this book, I summarize more than 30 years of research on factors that can create a "perfect storm" which leads good people to engage in evil actions. This transformation of human character is what I call the "Lucifer Effect," named after God's favorite angel, Lucifer, who fell from grace and ultimately became Satan. Rather than providing a religious analysis, however, I offer a psychological account of how ordinary people sometimes turn evil and commit unspeakable acts.” (The Lucifer Effect)
  • "When I look back on it, I think, “Why didn’t you stop the cruelty earlier?” To stand back was contrary to my upbringing and nature. When I stood back as a noninterfering experimental scientist, I was, in a sense, as drawn into the power of the situation as any prisoners and guards." (The New York Times)
  • Currently, the only authorized full-length film on the Stanford Prison Experiment is Quiet Rage (The Lucifer Effect)
  • Recently, however, Coup d'Etat Films has contracted to make a feature-length movie based on the experiment. Stanford University has granted permission to use the school's name and image, contingent upon the final script conveying the facts and events as they actually happened. (The Lucifer Effect)
    • Crime Scene Pictures and Coup d'Etat Films are set to produce Christopher McQuarrie's upcoming feature project "The Stanford Prison Experiment." Set to shoot this fall, the movie is co-written by McQuarrie and Tim Talbott. McQuarrie produces alongside Coup d'Etat Films' Brent Emery and Crime Scene's Adam Ripp/Rob Paris. The movie will be shot partially on the Stanford campus in Palo Alto, California, as well as, outlying areas in California. (The Lucifer Effect)
  • "The Lucifer Effect" (2017) is also based on the experiment.
    • The experiment was originally based on the 1971 "Stanford Prison Experiment" carried out by professor Philip Zimbardo to understand the development of norms and the effects of roles, labels, and social expectations in a simulated prison environment with some students of Standford University playing prisoners and others playing guards. Where Philip Zimbardo tested what happens when you put ordinary people in a position of power over others, Film Director; Tim Burke twisted the original experiment to answer a more supernatural hypothesis. In "The Lucifer Effect", Mr. Burke trapped 8 unsuspecting movie role contestants to test whether "good" people turn "bad" trapped in a reportedly evil environment. The film centers around 8 people, from all warps of life, who thought they had bought a 'movie role' in a horror film, only to be locked inside the haunted mental asylum to test the experiment. After signing release forms, the test subjects were locked inside for three days and three nights, with no phones and little food or water. The contestants were monitored on 24 CCTV cameras with no script or direction and just an Ouija board for comfort. Unlike other films it has been compared to, such as "The Blair Witch Project" or "Paranormal Activity"; the bizarre footage and horrifying events in "The Lucifer Effect" actually happened. As a result, the experiment was quickly shut down and police confiscated footage. Reports of a curse started to be reported in the media shortly after the contestants were released from the asylum and after the unfortunate events which happened at the film's test screening. (IMDB)

Photos from the Stanford Prison Experiment




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