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Book Review: The Lucifer Effect, How good people turn evil

A friend of mine, Anne Willoughby, piqued my interest last year with The Lucifer Effect, How good people turn evil - by Philip Zimbardo. I had heard of the famous experiment but was unsure of where to get my hands on the research or of the findings of the experiment. I wanted to find out what happened to terminate the experiment early and how good people can turn to do bad things.

"I believe that in all men's lives at certain periods, and in many men's lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside... Of all the passions the passion for the inner Ring is most skilful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things."

- C. S. Lewis, "The Inner Ring" (1944)

The book shares insight into the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE). The experiment consisted of a small collection of students who where each assigned a role after answering a small advert in a local newspaper. They were offered either a Prisoner role or Prison Guard role, with each decided on the flip of a coin.

Seventy young men (mostly students) applied to be involved with the experiment. Of the seventy interviewed and evaluated eighteen students took part in the final SPE. I have been amazed by the many discoveries that have arisen from the SPE - namely that situation, location and authority can determine outcomes for individuals that are hazardous for one group over another.

As a counsellor and Forensic Mental Health Practitioner working within the UK's Criminal Justice Service, I have been given a chance to review my understanding of how prisoners, service users and those affected by crime are treated by Police, Courts, Probation, Prison Officers, the service user's family and friends, medical and mental health teams.

Philip Zimbardo is able to make the SPE accessible and relate to a number of other 'them and us' experiences you may have heard of including Al-Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay Prison in Cuba.

For me, Dr Zimbardo using footage, personal accounts and his own observations has been able to share an insight about the pervasive nature of power, authority, bias, and the human capacity to be creative and be uncomfortable in being excluded and left 'out' and how this can lead any one of us to make terrible errors in the judgement of others.

The Lucifer Effect is a well written book that throws light on darker elements of our inner psychological selves. Dr Zimbardo writes with an aim to elevate consciousness and enable those that read the work to be aware and mindful of the choices we make and how those choices can affect those around us. I have referenced two quotes from the book that stand out, one from C.S. Lewis above, and John Donne's...

"All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language, and every chapter must be so translated.... As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all.... No man is an island, entire of itself... any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

- John Donne, (Meditations 27)

Further reading can be found at

Authors Bio


Michael Opoku-Forfieh is an experienced integrative therapist who utilises a range of techniques including; person centred, psychodynamic, CBT, Walk and Talk Therapy, Baking Therapy and Basketball Therapy to support you therapeutically. He approaches psychotherapy creatively. Working with clients in a holistic way to resolve concerns. You can get in touch with Michael via his website here

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