Irradiated by LabRat
Right now I’m reading The Lucifer Effect, by Phillip Zimbardo. The author is the architect of the Stanford Prison Experiment, a study from the early seventies; it achieved notoriety because in it, college student volunteers selected randomly descended almost immediately into bizarre psychological transformations into brutal guards and beaten-down prisoners. The experimenter shut it down after only five or six days when it became apparent that all involved (including him) were losing their grip on reality in a major way.
The book talks extensively about the experiment and lessons learned, goes on to cover a broader body of social psychology in how ordinary people can be induced to toss their morality out the window, covers the abuses at Abu Ghraib (and detainees in general), and then adds a final chapter on inducing people to do good and inoculating them with the mental tools to resist negative social pressures.
It wound up a very interesting read for me, because the author and I agree on just enough (the banality of evil and the ordinariness of heroes being beliefs of mine from the outset) and strongly disagree on more that reading it was like having a running mental argument. If we shared fewer premises I would have put the book down, and if we had shared more it wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting an experience. The author is a self-described “bleeding heart liberal”, and while I wouldn’t go that far he certainly sits well to the left of me. Either way, he’s good enough at building his arguments that I did walk away with new opinions on a few things, so it was worth the headaches wading through his not always concealed contempt for the military and trying to pin down exactly where he considers the lines of individual accountability to be.
Recommended, but only if you’ve got time- this is no zippy popcorn book. There’s a website here for the book that has some information on the Prison Experiment, but I found the site in general so nakedly promotional that it wasn’t much fun to visit after having read most of the book. It probably gives a good foretaste, though.