The Lucifer Effect in Action

In the month of April, I binged watch two Netflix series: Freud and Lucifer. Funny that they are both names, one being a surname: Sigmund Freud; the other being a first name: Lucifer Morningstar. Both used hypnotism as a means to an end.

When I was in college, my psychology professor was Philip Zimbardo. In one of our first classes, he “hypnotized” the entire Psyche 101 class. After the session, we each filled out questionnaires about the experience. I wasn’t affected at all, and wondered how anyone could have been, but there were individuals in the class that went totally under during the 30-minute class. The students who were easily hypnotized ended up in one of his research projects. I just ended up getting through the class. I picture Zimbardo with a wizard’s cape on while he was performing the hypnosis, but that might just be 40 plus years of mental embellishment.

Zimbardo is well known for the prison experiments, where he put volunteer students randomly into roles of prisoner or guard and found that students assigned as guards would go to extreme levels punishing “prisoners” who in fact were just other students. From this research came his book, The Lucifer Effect. The premise of the Lucifer Effect is that anyone can become evil under the right circumstances and per Wikipedia on the Lucifer Effect, “There are seven social processes that grease “the slippery slope of evil”.

  • Mindlessly taking the first small step
  • Dehumanization of others
  • De-individuation of self (anonymity)
  • Diffusion of personal responsibility
  • Blind obedience to authority
  • Uncritical conformity to group norms
  • Passive tolerance of evil through inaction or indifference

Which leads me to a book that disturbed me more than I can say: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. What disturbed me so much after reading her book was how quickly the women’s rights in Tehran were taken away. In a matter of weeks, the country went from a place where women and girls were free, going to school, university, bare-headed and independent to a place where all women wore head coverings, unable to leave home unaccompanied by a male family member; they lost the right to education and more.  And it began by mindlessly taking the first small steps—wearing a head covering when outdoors. They didn’t resist because they didn’t believe it could get worse. That small relinquishing of a right became bigger and bigger steps. First it was a head covering; then face covering, then the entire body, from head to foot. And by covering women’s bodies, they were dehumanized and de-individualized. They were no longer a sister, mother, daughter but a shrouded woman, who needed to be controlled.

You could apply the current police brutality situation to the Lucifer Effect. A new cop gets socialized by his or her peer group to behave a certain way. There’s pressure to conform. “It’s just the way it is.” First small step.

The black population is looked at as a whole (dangerous, lawless, scary), not as individuals—they are dehumanized.

The individual cops wear a uniform, drive a squad car and become just another uniform in blue. They lose their own personality and become part of the larger organization (de-individualization of self—anonymity) and as such their personal responsibility is diffused. They aren’t held accountable for their own actions.

Cops are taught that they must obey their commanding officers and they conform to group norms. If they don’t conform, they may not have back up if and when they need it.

And finally, good cops get hardened to the misbehavior of their peers and become tolerant to the evil because, “that’s just the way it is.”

The recent murder of George Floyd is a textbook example of the Lucifer Effect in actions. The younger cops were being “trained” by the senior cop who had his knee on Floyd’s neck. Floyd was just another black man “on drugs” and thus dehumanized. The rookie cops were learning the “norms” by their assigned trainer. They tried to protest, but their words were ignored, and they fell in line, and by not taking a stronger stand, participated in the murder.

The lesson that Reading Lolita taught me is that our freedom and rights can be taken in a matter of weeks. Those women wore the burkas the first times because it was easier to acquiesce than protest. They didn’t think it could get worse. It can and it did.

We have let small lies or mis-truths pass. We have let foreign countries meddle in our elections. We have let the military break up a peaceful assembly. We have people who obey and support authority blindly.

And that’s why the George Floyd protests are different. People—and not just the dehumanized powerless people but people from all walks of life—have drawn the line in the sand and are protesting the injustice they see. By videoing the perpetrators in actions, the bad guys are no longer anonymous cops, but they have names: Chauvin, Kueng, Lane, Thao. And faces attached to those names.

The four cops were going to hide behind a the initial police report of a man in medical distress, thereby diffusing their personal responsibility, but they could not hide because of the video thousands have now seen on the news and social media. This act has uncovered a deeper issue within the police department and criminal justice system. And people are not passively accepting the wrong that was committed. There’s no inaction or indifference here. People rioted.

In police states—in military states—the powers that be quash protesters by using force on the masses. That’s why we have the First Amendment to the Constitution which protects our freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly and the right to petition the government. But the protests are allowing some bad people to riot and loot, destroying property.

One way to look at the current situation is, to paraphrase what I have heard before, “It’s horrible that a black man was killed, but destroying property has got to stop.

Try saying, ‘It’s horrible that property is being destroyed, but killing black men has got to stop.’”


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