Coffee House

The Lucifer Effect

2 June 2011

Today’s papers are full of comment on the brilliant Panorama exposé of care
home abuse. But none have mentioned what jumped out at me: the parallels between this and the Stanford Prison Experiment. The way that the
tattooed Wayne treated his mentally ill patients is sickening — but, to me, this is not just a story about human evil. It’s a story about how institutionalisation brings out the evil in
people, and that this evil is far closer to the surface than we like to admit. Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford, randomly divided 25 volunteers to play the roles of prisoners and
guards in a poorly-regulated, mock prison. Before too long, the "guards" were inflicting torture on their "prisoners", who were taking the beating and even ganging up on other
prisoners at the guards’ request. It was stopped, at the request of Zimbardo’s girlfriend who feared even he was getting caught up in it. That was in 1972, and in 2004 Zimbardo wrote a
brilliant book, The Lucifer Effect, about this phenomenon.

What we saw in Panorama was criminal and deplorable. But were the people especially wicked, or sadistic? Perhaps. But they were also bored, paid £16k a year and operating in an environment
where abuse had become the norm. And this applies in all manner of situations. Put 50 boys aged 11 to 18 together in an ill-regulated boarding house, and it’ll turn into a massive game of
Lord of the Flies. No one (well, almost no one) believes that that Germany was an especially
wicked country, predisposed to Nazism. It was subjected to an almighty economic shock which Hitler exploited with his creed of National Socialism. Slavery was a norm pretty much the world over,
before Wilberforce and his predecessors raised objections. And that wasn’t because mankind was evil, just that it had been inured to evil.

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I can feel CoffeeHousers revving up to denounce me for moral relativism, saying that man is a hapless victim of his environment. That’s not my position. There are always conscientious
objectors, and this groundbreaking Panorama was made possible by a former guard at Winterbourne View who risked his job and blew the whistle. Germany had its von Schwanenfelds. My point is that institutional environments are very good at incubating the dark side of human
nature: what Lynndie England did at Abu Ghraib was deplorable, but it is explained not just by the evil of one woman. It’s explained by the system that incubated and nurtured this evil, and
allowed this to happen.

That’s why the response to the Panorama episode should not simply be to lock up the "nurses" caught abusing the patients. It should be to look at how these institutions have been
allowed to operate in this way. To look at the way that, as Zimbardo says, "powerful but subtle situational forces can seduce
people into evil". the government’s priority should be to identify the "situational forces" at work in care homes and similar institutions — and remove them, without

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Show comments
  • Tiggy

    “The Lord of the Flies”!1

  • James Murphy

    If a maniac threatens to shoot my child unless I shoot the stranger next to me, how will I respond…? Not so easy, eh? – Until our moral virtues are physically tested by immediate adverse circumstance we cannot in any meaningful way describe ourselves as ‘moral’; cannot, indeed, claim anything other than a hope, an aspiration that we would, when the time came, behave in a ‘moral’ fashion. The cold-eyed, humbling truth is that most of the time most of our lives are led in such a way that we are never truly tested at all. Such are the suburbs of the heart.

  • daniel maris

    Dick Barton –

    It was implemented and ex slave deputies were welcomed to the French assembly. It wasn’t simply a paper declaration.

  • jackal

    excellent article, totally agree.

  • Anne Wotana Kaye 1

    Fergus Pickering
    June 3rd, 2011 7:14am
    Agree with you about London, Fergus. Unfortunately, standards are set and laws made in the capital city, and it is so easy to forget all the ‘normal’ lives lived in the shires and smaller towns.

  • Fergus Pickering

    Anna, things are pretty bad but British Society is not composed ‘mainly’ of the people you mention. Not yet. Most people are boringly in work, together in couples, bringing up not particularly feral children. They are also white. Like the people in the street I live in.

    London is a sink of iniquity, but then it always was.

  • Dick Barton

    Daniel Maris

    Yours is a very partial and misleading statement on the “abolition” of slavery by “the” French Revolutionaries. It is one thing to pass a resolution; another to implement it. I suggest you re-familiarise yourself with the facts.

  • Dick Barton


    Correct. The additional problem with the EUSSR being that it is an institution with no regulators only ‘carers’.

  • daniel maris

    Is “tatooed Wayne” not deserving of sub judice protection – does the Spectator only accord such civilities to say a pair of well connected professionals with a tendency to sue?

    The French Revolutionaries – mostly not practising Christians – abolished slavery some 50 years before the British. Wilberforce only managed to get the slave trade stopped.

    No doubt Wrinkled Weasel will ignore that historical fact.

  • Renzo

    Prize to ITV News at Ten reporting BBC Panorama findings as a news item, and then in summing up the pious ITV man mentioned that “ITV was reporting abuses x years ago”

  • Anne Wotana Kaye 1

    June 2nd, 2011 6:01pm
    You have summed it up in a few words. The truth is that Britain is now a broken society composed of mainly single mothers, absent, multiple fathers, half-siblings, and households dependent on State benefits. The managers, such as Sharon Shoesmith for youth, and those who are supposed to see that standards are maintained at care homes, frankly dont give a shit. They are just in it for the money and the power they csn exert over undertrained and dullard staff. If anybody thinks things csn change without a complete reversal of the immorality rampant in this country, then they are deluding themselves.

  • disenfranchised

    there’s only “evil in people” who’ve never been taught life rules from decent, disciplining, caring parents. that’s where most of today’s problems come…..

  • Simon Stephenson.

    wrinkled weasel : 4.34pm

    “Simon Stephenson, a worthy link to the debate. It pre-supposes that it is desirable for people to engage in introspection and the pursuit of self-knowledge. I have no evidence to suggest that the majority of people do this.”

    I posted the link as a possible answer to your question as to why some people resist their will being subverted by institutions. There’s no attempt to place the resisters on a higher plane than the accepters. However, I think it would serve us well to understand how much popular opinion is driven not by the concurrence of millions of independent thoughts, the Wisdom of Crowds as set out by James Surowiecki, but by millions of concurrent opinions being derived from a process of assessing what their tribe’s majority opinion is likely to be – and then adopting it.

  • TrevorsDen

    When people come to believe that some others are less than human then they treat them as such. The lessons of the holocaust tell us as much.

  • wrinkled weasel

    Simon Stephenson, a worthy link to the debate. It pre-supposes that it is desirable for people to engage in introspection and the pursuit of self-knowledge. I have no evidence to suggest that the majority of people do this.

    CS. Christians are “lifting a finger” but they are now being slapped down for something as trivial as the wearing of a religious symbol. It is not as easy as you think, for society no longer tolerates them. You may not agree with some of the things that Christians promulgate, such as the sanctity of life and the right of the unborn to life, but since neither side has a monopoly of the truth, you must wait and see. Neither you nor I know what people will think in 100 years time – 100 years ago homosexuals were put to hard labour and popular opinion was that they deserved it.

    It is highly likely that white Christians, indeed the entire populace in the 18th and 19th Century did not believe, as a matter of course, that black people were in any way equal.

    Thomas Jefferson, who declared the self-evidency that “all men are created equal” had 200 slaves.

    I fear you are looking at this with the benefit of hindsight. It takes someone with a “self-transforming mind” (cf Simon’s link) to step outside of groupthink.

    Peter Smith. I am not about to defend organised religion or organised pedophilia. Perhaps you have forgotten, as these Catholic Priests did, that they will one day have to answer to a higher authority?

    At the core of Fraser’s post is a story of a demonstrable failure to detect wickedness and evil and a subsequent failure to deal with it.

    When one loses sight of the difference between right and wrong, or moral absolutes, one is then prey to relativism, and this thread has so far demonstrated how easy it is to do it.

  • Tom Kydd


    Your blog gets to the heart of the matter which is that cruelty is a common response to challenging behaviour and that our frail morality is easily corrupted by a little power – the old, old story.

    We have to acknowledge as well the large indifference that we all show to the plight of those with disorders of the mind and personality which places the topic low down in scale of political priorities. We want them to be out of sight and out of mind and prefer not to think about the institutions where thay are confined – most of the time at least.

    Your reference to pay is important. Although a larger pay packet does not necessarily increase intrinsic motivation it might have the effect of creating a larger field of applicants for this difficult work.

  • Justathought

    Institutions for the mental were closed down in the 70’s for exactly this type of abuse behind closed doors.

    The program reported that the cost of keeping each patient in this institution was £3500 per week, presumably all paid for by the taxpayer. Is it not better to give these parents the support they need at home to care for their children?

    We are seeing a similar situation occurring in hospitals with the elderly bed-blocking because they have nobody to help them at home or because simple adaptations are not installed to help them keep their independence.

  • Andy Carpark

    No-one has yet given an example of a situational force other than the rather nebulous idea of institutionalisation.

    The root cause of any any particular crime is the cost-benefit analysis of the criminal, whether he is in a dark alley or an institution.

  • Peter Smith 1

    And the priests at the centre of the systemic child abuse in Catholic schools all over the world for decades? Are they “Specifically the Godless part of society’s problem.” I think they and their Pope consider themselves very godly………….

  • Perry

    @ bojimbo

    Bit like the EUSSR then. Only they’re more subtle!

  • alexsandr

    should have sa’d above, ‘Remember they were the same regulators that were supposed to be monitoring Stafford Hospital.’

  • alexsandr

    Scotty@June 2nd, 2011 1:38pm

    could not have said it better myself.

    I wonder if the regulator is a box ticker like OFSTEAD were for Baby Peter…

    Did they check the hospital has a risk assesment and a procedure for checking there was toilet paper or did they really look under the bonnet to see what was going on…..?

  • John Richardson

    June 2nd, 2011 1:19pm Report this comment

    “I can feel CoffeeHousers revving up to denounce me for moral relativism, saying that man is a hapless victim of his environment.”

    Ahem? Have you read some of the comments on the Karen Shoesmith/Baby P threads?”

    I do not read Mr Nelson’s blogs as I do not respect the fellow.

    However, I assume ‘Kennyboy’ has not quoted him out of context, in which case; Mr Nelson does not have the brains that many of you assume him to have.

    Personally, I decide some time ago that Mr Nelson was simply ‘good on TV’.
    That is , when set against the usual MS/Corporate media ‘talking heads’ he seemed ‘down to earth’.

    That honestly seems to be his only asset.

    I have never ever read any thing my this current Editor and said to myself,’ I never thought of that’ or even, ‘That gives me a new perspective’.

    Just look at some of the others writing for ‘the Spectator’.

    You would cross a crowded pub to avoid their company if you could.

    ‘Ahem’ indeed.

  • CS

    Austin Barry, we’re presumably already seeing it in the case of the policeman now charged with the unlawful killing of Ian Tomlinson.

    If institutionalisation in a care home leads the carers (those with power) to abuse the cared-for (those without power), then in the case of institutionalisation by a “Nanny State”, it’s the establishment and the police who’ll be abusing the citizens on the streets, not the citizens abusing each other.

    I’m not that convinced by the argument that the carers were victims of institutionalisation as presumbaly these carers don’t live in the home 24/7. Even if they spend only 1/3 of their lives out in the real world, that should destroy the institutionalisation argument which surely requires a closed system than which the inmates have no other experience.

  • CS

    Wrinkled Weasel, yes Wilberforce was a Christian but, if Christians were turning against slavery, it was about bloody time given that Christians had happily justified it for years by reference to holy writ.

    If you want Wilberforce to be in adduced in Christianity’s favour, you must also add into Christianity’s ledger all the Christians who were enthusistically pro-slavery on just as much a basis of faith.

    Indeed, you could argue that Wilberforce only stands out in history because his actions were so much the exception to the Christian rule at that time.

    Also, I find it incongruous that so many Christians who call Wilberforce in aid for their faith (and are therefore presumably in favour of religion moving with the times) are implacably opposed to the Church having any truck with gays or women in 2011. Though, if they were alive in 2211, they’d probably be hailing the first proponents of gay and women priests as evidence of Christianity’s goodness.

    Maybe the truth is that you need an exceptional individual like Wilberforce to effect moral change in society because the great mass of Christians won’t lift a finger.

    The truth is probably

  • bojimbo

    Purely and simply , the ” carers ” are bullies ; the ” inmates ” can’t fight back .

  • Perry

    It’s about groups! People. You. Me. Everyone who does not subscribe to a code of ethics, – and sometimes those who do(!)

    To see a swarm / horde / gang / grouping … in action, look no further than the government of the day: partisan, politicking against each other, filled with loathing and hatred towards those of lesser status, and driven by the comfort of POWER – yes, power.

    So we have people who tend to abuse power, to stifle dissent, to use others for entertainment, or simply to assert authority – however transitory or puerile.

    And to see power without concern, except for self-advancement or to ameliorate dissent, look no further than Brussels and the EUSSR.

  • Bill d’Sarse

    Have a look through job adverts to work as a carer in your local community. You will be appalled at the rates of pay for ridiculous shifts and probably not the nicest job out there (it NMW for those can’t be bothered to look).

    Pay peanuts, you’ll get monkeys.

  • Yam Yam

    Pay peanuts: get monkeys.

    (Or should that be chimpanzees, which – contrary to the harmless little fellow popularised in the Tarzan movies – are capable of eye-opening savagery when they gang up together)

  • Millsy

    Good post, Fraser.

    Why would people like that take jobs in places like that? Is it because they just needed a job and anything would do; or because they have a wicked streak and it looked like a good place to have some fun; or maybe it’s just because they were good people who took on the work with the best of intentions but were let down down by the company they work for and the apparent lack of framework or guidelines to work under.

  • Andrew Parsons

    Good blog piece from Fraser. Interesting book on the subject is ‘Wilful Business Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril’ Margaret Heeffermann’s.

  • Scotty

    Absolutely spot on article – although what the “carers” did was appalling, what is frightening is that the regulatory body was unable, unwilling, negligent,carefree, unobservant but very clearly incompetent in monitoring the activities of the care home.
    Jail the “carers” OK, sack the care home management OK, but dont miss the regulatory body management who blindly disregarded the warings and also failed to set up proper and effective monitoring procedures, no pension rights, no redundancy, no benefits, just discipline and sack them. Maybe the managers of all the other regulatory bodies may stop being complacent and do their jobs more diligently.

  • Austin Barry

    “It’s a story about how institutionalisation brings out the evil in people, and that this evil is far closer to the surface than we like to admit.”

    Since we are all becoming institutionalised in the entropy of, paradoxically, a Nanny State, the logical corollary of your assertion is that we will see more of this brutality on our streets. And we will.

  • Kennybhoy

    “I can feel CoffeeHousers revving up to denounce me for moral relativism, saying that man is a hapless victim of his environment.”

    Ahem? Have you read some of the comments on the Karen Shoesmith/Baby P threads?

  • Simon Stephenson.

    wrinkled weasel : 12.55pm

    “There is a valid point to be made about the way institutions subvert human will, but the clear indication is that not everybody buys into it. Why?”

  • Magnolia

    Stanley Milgram.

    Labour dumbed down everything and called it progress.
    Nurses now do much of what doctors used to do.
    Care assistants now do much of what nurses used to do.
    Teaching assistants now do much of what teachers used to do.
    Conservatives should believe in conserving the best and that means strong(ie. independent) institutions and strong professions.
    Labour tied everyone up with rules, regulation, red-tape and laws which destroyed free thought and action and they called it ‘the modern way’.
    They instilled fear and called it protection.
    Their Pavlovian responses triggered by their BBC propaganda machine indoctrinated the masses into their way of thinking.
    New Liebor destroyed our traditional way of life and hid it by spending debt from a faux boom and conditioning us into thinking it’s all great.

    Stanley Milgram.

  • Fergus Pickering

    The ages of the boys in Lord of the Flies is 7-12. the ages of boys at prep schools. I suggest for your delectation, a Japanese film called Battle Royale. The ages of the murderous cast of boys and girls is fifteen. The film does indeed draw parallels with the Japanese state before 1945. Any damn fool can see that Germans are more predisposed to Nazi practices than we are. They lack our saving strain of bloody-mindedness and bone-idleness.

  • wrinkled weasel

    There is a valid point to be made about the way institutions subvert human will, but the clear indication is that not everybody buys into it. Why?

    Coffee Housers can knock Christianity, pulease, no more “sky fairy” jibes, but you mentioned slavery; it was William Wilberforce, among others, a committed Christian, who spent 20 years of his life attempting to get slavery abolished.

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood up to the Nazis – another Christian. He said: Worldly wisdom knows what distress and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the godlessness of man.

    At the centre of this is a godless man – someone who does not believe that he answers to a higher authority.

    But wait; a humanist can buy into what Bonhoeffer writes here:

    We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, and straightforward men.

    And that illustrates my concern over Fraser’s take on this. If we had had “plain, honest, and straightforward men” in Parliament, the expenses scandal would never have happened.

    It is no good telling people that they can abdicate responsibility because of some supposed external pressure, what men and women must do is to stand up for what is right, and it must be at whatever cost.

  • Man in a Shed

    I only watched part of the Panorama programme – I had to switch channels as it would have upset my wife too much.

    But my first reaction was – “hello – looks like boarding school”.

    As you say there is something deeper at work here. The carers concerned by not have been managed correctly – but they were also lacking in morality, and that’s not just the fault of their employers – its society’s problem. Specifically the Godless part of society’s problem.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    So is that why the Neather post never appeared? The Spectator is apparently an institution too.

  • normanc

    If you’re interested in this sort of thing there’s a book not long out that’s been on my radar, haven’t got it yet.

    The Psychopath Test by the guy who wrote Stare at Goats

  • simon

    Very good post Fraser and lets not forget Abu Ghraib too.

  • DavidDP

    “That’s why the response to the Panorama episode should not simply be to lock up the “nurses” caught abusing the patients. It should be to look at how these institutions have been allowed to operate in this way.”

    I’ll save this for the next time you have a go at Ken Clarke for saying much the same thing.

  • Andy Carpark

    Zimbardo’s book cannot have been that ‘brilliant’ if he did not identify what these ‘situational forces’ were.

    Don’t blame it on individual cussedness. Blame it on situational forces. Blame it on the boogie.

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