Faculty Scholarly Dissemination Grants


The Evil of Crime: Reconsidering Zimbardo's "Lucifer Effect"


School of Criminal Justice


College of Community and Public Service

Date Range



In 1971, Philip Zimbardo conducted his famous prison experiment at Stanford University to examine the effects of situational variables on the behavior of volunteers engaged in roleplaying prisoners and guards. Thirty three years later, Zimbardo reacted to images of American military personnel engaged in sadistic acts at Abu Ghraib military prison in Iraq. Drawing a connection to the unexpected outcomes of his prison experiment, Zimbardo wrote The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. For Zimbardo, Lucifer is a quality embedded within all people making them susceptible to the evil forces of social systems and institutions. People engage in evil, whether street crime, prison brutality, or genocide as a consequence of being seduced or pushed into behaviors they would not ordinarily do. For Zimbardo, people are not evil, only systems and those who run the systems are evil. This paper argues that Zimbardo is wrong in his understanding of the nature of evil. As James Q. Wilson noted, Evil people exist. An alternative interpretation of the causes of violent crime, brutal acts by military personnel, and even Zimbardo s own psychologically-damaging experiment is offered to argue that evil exists and that evil forces can make evil people do evil things.

Conference Name

2011 Annual Meeting

Conference Location

Washington, DC

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