The Louis Cypher Effect

What is it about people that makes otherwise NICE people do really NASTY things? Are we all potentially sadistic Nazis Shower Attendants on the inside?

Unfortunately the answer to the first question is very complex. The answer to the second is also unfortunate but simple; Yes.

Luckily for humanity, to balance this, we are all potential Heroes inside as well.

Image of The Lucifer Effect


Perhaps the scariest and most horrifying of those Psychology Tests that are actually testing something else, which they trick you into as gullible freshman during Orientation Week, was the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment.

You know the one. One week... we draw lots... you guys are the prisoners... you guys are the guards. Off you go... uniforms there... we'll talk later.

Philip Zimbardo, who helped devise and run this experiment, has finally written a book detailing the scary results. The guards, one minute nice guy students, quickly became tough guys, arbitrarily sadistic and viscious. The prisoners, one minute nice guy students, became dehumanised meek and passive victims. The experiment had to be called off after several days due to the violence that was was brewing.

This was an experiment that should have woken us up. The Situation or Role we are in and the Set-up of the System in which we are placed have a MUCH greater effect on our behaviour than our conscience and our essential character. Call it meta-peer pressure. We are almost powerless against these forces. As Zimbardo calls it - "a perfect storm" of factors.

This is more than just some soft liberal, let's blame society for "bad people" argument however. If you are looking at reasons for, not excuses for criminal behaviour, try this book.

It's easy to dismiss the argument. It falls too glibly to our tongue, based on some conceited sense of your own sainthood. "I wouldn't do that," you say.

"The people who lapse into those evil roles are instrinsically weak and predisposed to such behaviour when placed in situations of temptation. That's why murderers and drug-couriers should be exterminated. They are evil people at heart, not good people in complicated, tight optionless situations."

But a whole host of books I have been reading lately - Happiness Hypothesis, In Defence Of Atheism, are some - all at some stage make the point that self-criticism and self-assessment are our weakest points. We say we will do something, we do something else. Or more likely we do something first without actually knowing why, and then we justify ourselves later.

If YOU were a guard...

If YOU were a prisoner...

The evidence in science, the evidence in history tells us what you would do, how you would act.

It's not particularly good news.


Abu Ghraib. Zimbardo was called as an expert witness.


One day I'll tell you a story from my adolescence. About an attempted rape. Here's a taste...


For much too long I stood by. It scares the shit out of to think why. I sort of looked up to the potential rapist, he was a big guy in our pathetic little street-gang. He seemed reasonable about the set-up. The badness of it was played down, the fun played up.

"She likes sex, she's been fucking around since she was twelve. What's another fuck for her? If she says no, you hold her, I'll fuck her."

You put her in the shower, I'll turn on the ZylonB.

Her brother was in his bedroom, screwing his sister's best friend, keeping her away, playing wing-man. He was in on it too. There were three of us left in her parent's loungeroom, waiting. He turned to her. "We might as well fuck too."

She struggled hard, this was not going be an easy screw, like he said. She was not going to say, "Yes." Not ever. I released the wrist I had been holding, which I was only half-restraining anyway. There was apart of me that thought that she wouldn't blame me for this, I was just holding. This is not right, I thought, she doesn't want to fuck him at all.

"Stop," I said to him. "Let's go..."

He relented, as he needed my physical strength. She sat up. "Fuckin' bastard," she spat at him. He laughed a sort of Bobby Peru giggle that I wouldn't recognise until many years later.


This is too traumatic. Another time.


Eternal vigilance is required. Thin ends of wedges need to be recognised. Our weaknesses need to be catalogued so we can resist them.

Stay good.



Posted by: expat@large on Aug 21, 07 | 12:43 pm | Profile


The say for evil to triumph all that needs to happen is for good people to do nothing...I think that battle is waged inside us all the we do, no matter how painful, how isolating, how lonely the thing we know to be right? Or do we follow with the crowd so we can belong?

Posted by: Indiana on Aug 21, 07 | 3:21 pm

The thing is, according to the SPEx, good people will do bad things if they are placed in certain situations and be able to justify it to themselves: "following orders" etc...

We've met Germans (hell I married a 50% kraut), do you really think they are all Nazis seething under the skin? OK not counting my ex... The lesson of Nazi Germany, of Cambodia's Killing fields, of the IRA bombers, of AlQueda terrorists, of American and British guards at Abu Ghraib etc is that ANYONE can do evil things... and ANYONE includes you and me... When that perfect storm of situation and role presents itself...

Eternal vigilance... we are weak...

Posted by: expat@large on Aug 21, 07 | 3:32 pm

Ohh I have no qualms at admitting that I would be capable of some very evil acts.

One only has to look at the darkness in our hearts and imaginations to know if manifested would be of unspeakable horror.

Posted by: Indiana on Aug 21, 07 | 3:47 pm


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