The Lucifer Effect by Zimbardo


The Lucifer Effect by Zimbardo

The Stanford Prison Experiment


n The Lucifer Effect, we examined how social situations lead ordinary people to commit unimaginable acts of violence, discrimination, and indifference to the suffering of others. Many of us hope that if we were placed in such situations, we would be the courageous ones who resist unjust authority, who are immune to compliance tactics, and who never abandon our core beliefs and principles in the face of social pressures. However, the reality is we can never predict our actions without being placed in similar situations. This is one of the recurring themes of “The Lucifer Effect” and something that should not be lost on us as we make everyday decisions.

Indeed, even without being placed in the heat of war, the inhumanity of prisons, or the clutches of social psychologists, our daily lives are wrought with similarly compelling social tensions. This section of the website was created as a springboard for learning how unwanted and unjust influence can impact your daily life and to better equip you to resist these forces. By understanding the contexts of influence and social compliance, become familiar with significant experimental findings from social psychological research, along with some basic terminology, we hope you will become more proficient in identifying common social influence principles and the strategies that professional agents of influence may use to gain your compliance. Finally, we will take you through frameworks that prominent social psychologists have created to understand social influence and identify how you can apply these ideas to your own life. Furthermore, we will discuss ways to utilize your new understanding of the principles of social influence for positive social change, and finally close with some specific hints from Dr. Z on how to resist unwanted influences.

Varieties of Influence

We listen to a debate with each side presenting seemingly compelling reasons to endorse one or another point of view. We get messages from advertisers, from the government, from assorted authorities to take particular actions, like buy a product, vote for a candidate, give blood, avoid impending disasters, and more. Such attempts to influence our attitudes, values or actions are considered forms of persuasive communication. ”Do as I say,” is its motto. When they are politically motivated with a bias toward a politically relevant action such messages are considered propaganda.

Other times the influence comes not dressed up in words in persuasive messages or visually appealing ads, but simply when the members of a group you are in, or want to belong to, act in a particular way. They don’t have to tell you what to do; they simply exhibit the behavior or the style of action that is expected of “good team members.” That form of social influence is known as conformity. “Do as we do,” is the conformity motto.

Go along with the majority, the consensus and be accepted. Refuse to dress as they do, talk like they do, value what they value, or act in ways that are clearly the accepted social norm for this group, and you are rejected, isolated, expelled, ridiculed. The power of many groups in our lives to influence our thoughts and actions can be enormous, especially when we desperately want to be accepted by any given “in group.”

You don’t need a group to put pressure on you to act as they expect you to do; in fact, much social influence comes from a singular source—another person. Compliance is a form of influence in which direct pressure is put on individuals to take some specific action, such as doing a favor, buying a product. The influence agent doesn’t want to change your mind, only to get you to act on his or her request. Sometimes the request is pro-social, like donating blood in a blood drive, but more often than not, the request is to get people to purchase a variety of products that they might not need or even want initially.

In some special cases, an organization wants to go beyond inducing such specific changes, and actually to get individuals to change in more fundamental ways, to become “true believers” in some ideology or belief system. They want individual members to internalize a set of beliefs and values, even to change their personalities, so that they totally identify with the group’s mission. One common form of this intense personal change is seen in cult recruiting and indoctrination.

Finally, all these sources of social influence are imposed from the outside in, from assorted influence agents on individuals or groups. One of the most powerful forms of influence is self-persuasion, where conditions are set up that encourage individuals to engage in personal thought and decision processes. Obviously we tend to know our strengths and weaknesses better than do others, so we can tailor self-generated persuasive messages likely to be effective. One tactic for inducing self-persuasion comes from role-playing positions that are contrary to one’s beliefs and values. Also when we are resolving a commitment we have made to engage in public behavior that does not follow from our personal beliefs, cognitive dissonance is created. To the extent that we come to believe we made that commitment freely, without (awareness of) external situational pressures, we start to rationalize it and come to convince ourselves that it was the right action and the right position to hold.

There are many books on the science of influence, some of which we will note for your later in depth review. For now, however, we will outline some suggestions about what you can do to weaken or counter each of these varieties of social influence. Some of our advice is specific to a given influence type, other advice is more general in that it focuses on how to develop effective mind sets which will serve you well across many different influence settings. Knowledge of how these influence settings work and what you can do to resist them is the first step in becoming a wiser consumer of social influence. However, you have to be continually vigilant and continually put into operation these resistance tactics for you to inoculate your self against their insidious power.

Why We Conform: The Power of Groups

henever we change our behavior, views, and attitudes in response to the real or imagined presence of others, we are experiencing conformity. Why we conform is a topic of great interest to social psychologists. In particular, the classic studies of Solomon Asch and Muzafer Sherif have shed light on the determinants of conformity. Their research and that of others (Morton Deutsch and Hal Gerard) has demonstrated two main types of conformity: informational and normative. Informative conformity often occurs in situations in which there is high uncertainty and ambiguity. In an unfamiliar situation, we are likely to shape our behavior to match that of others. The actions of others inform us of the customs and accepted practices in a situation. Others inform us of what is right to do, how to behave in new situations.

In addition to conforming to the group norms due to lack of knowledge, we also conform when we want to be liked by the group. This type of conformity, called normative conformity, is the dominant form of social conformity when we are concerned about making a good impression in front of a group. Though we may disagree secretly with the group opinion, we may verbally adopt the group stance so that we seem like a team player rather than a deviant.

Both of these pressures impact us everyday, for good or for worse. A staple of a functioning society is that people follow social norms such as obeying traffic laws, respecting others’ property, and diffusing aggression in non-violent ways. However, conformity can have deleterious effects if one conforms automatically without questioning of the validity of social norms. In Nazi Germany, many ordinary people did not dissent to the ongoing atrocities because few other people resisted. Similarly, in the Stanford Prison Experiment, the subjects who were randomly assigned as guards gradually adopted the behavior of cruel and demanding prison guards because that became the behavioral norm in an alien situation.

In our daily decisions, we should also examine whether our reasons justify our actions. In an unfamiliar situation, first ask yourself whether the actions you observe others performing is rational, warranted, and consistent with your own principles before thoughtlessly and automatically adopting them.

Similarly, in a situation in which you want to impress and be accepted by others, ask yourself whether the action conflicts with your moral code, and consider whether you would be willing to compromise your own opinion of yourself just so others would have a higher one of you. Ultimately, you are the only one who has to live with your actions. Also take a time out to find out the correct information.

To resist the powers of group conformity: know what you stand for; determine how really important it is that these other people like you, especially when they are strangers; recognize that there are other groups who would be delighted to have you as a member; take a future perspective to imagine what you will think of your current conforming action at some time in the future.



How We Are Persuaded

he slogan for understanding persuasive communications is: “Who Says What to Whom, With What Effect?” That means we need to focus on the nature of the Communicator (Who), the nature of the Message (What), the intended Audience (Whom, including You), and the desired outcome of the process (What Effect). There is a large body of research on each of these components of the process by which verbal communications come to influence us. Here we can only highlight the most critical aspects. Communicators are most effective if they are perceived as Credible, meaning having both expertise relevant to their message and also being trustworthy—honest, and unbiased. But pseudo experts who are celebrities that know nothing about the product they are endorsing often seduce us. Take time to inquire into the expert background of persuasive communicators and the extent to which they might be biased, making big bucks when you do what they request. Communications come in many forms, some rational, some hit at our emotions, some make evident the action we should take, and others leave the action implicit. Also some messages are simple, others complicated, some lead with the request, others build up to it. Ideally, we need to process communications systematically, that means taking the time to figure out what is being requested, what evidence is being presented, and how contrary views are dealt with. Too often, we take short cuts, and process the information only peripherally, meaning we are too focused on the packaging and not the product. We may give excessive value to the speaker’s resonant tone of voice, or his or her good looks, and too little to what they are really hawking. Always try to figure out Who this message is intended for, people like you, those from a particular background, social class, ethnic group, degree of intelligence. Finally, figure out what action is being requested, immediately or delayed, small act now but likely a bigger one later, just changing how you think and feel about the product, or pushing you to own it or vote for it.

New research outlines six characteristics of effective communications. Being aware of what makes their messages “stick” is one way to better resist their influence. Messages that survive and not die on the message vine are those that are: 1) Simple, brief as possible but still profound; 2) Unexpected, sufficiently surprising to catch the attention of the audience; 3) Concrete, detailed examples based on real life experiences; 4) Credible, delivered by someone the audience can trust; 5) Emotional, makes audience feel as well as think, and 6) Tells a Story, in a narrative that can be remembered and retold to others. These ideas have emerged from both academic and commercial research summarized by the Heath brothers, Chip and Dan in their new book, “Made to Stick.” (See references: For more details about persuasive communications and other forms of influence, I recommend you examine the book I wrote with Michael Leippe, The psychology of attitude change and social influence (See Selected References at the end of this guide).

Cialdini’s Principles of Social Influence

aving begun to understand the impetus of social influence, we now move on to the better delineated principles of influence studied by social psychologist Robert Cialdini.

Cialdini is a renowned social psychologist that has done extensive research on the domains in which social influence is most powerful. The following principles play on fundamental human instincts and can be exploited both intentionally and unintentionally by professional influence agents.

Many of these may seem like obvious tactics that advertisers and influence agents will utilize to sway our opinion. However, when we are not prepared to scrutinize and resist them, these principles will often work subliminally and quite powerfully. Thus, an important part of resisting these common influence tactics is awareness of their fundamental operating principles, contexts in which they are most easily provoked, and the best methods to avoid falling prey to them.

We hope that by learning about these principles of persuasion, you will be better able to recognize the situations you are in that may lead to act against your will and then to have the tools to resist unwanted social influence. There are six basic principles, and each one is set in a specific Context. When you are aware of the Context, or the behavioral Setting, you will better recognize the principal at work, when you see the principal operating, you will understand the Context in which it is embedded

  1. Reciprocity
  2. Commitment and Consistency
  3. Social Proof
  4. Liking
  5. Authority
  6. Scarcity






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