The Lucifer Effect

While most people are good most of the time, powerful situational forces – anonymity, group pressures, or diffusion of personal responsibility – can easily lead them blindly to obey authority and to aggress against innocent others after dehumanizing them. But understanding such situational forces can enable us to uncover, oppose, defy, and triumph over them.

Why do good, ordinary people sometimes become perpetrators of evil? The most extreme transformation of this kind is, of course, the story of God’s favorite angel, Lucifer – a story that has set the context for my psychological investigations into lesser human transformations in response to the corrosive influence of powerful situational forces.

Such forces exist in many common behavioral contexts, distorting our usual good nature by pushing us to engage in deviant, destructive, or evil behavior. When embedded in new and unfamiliar settings, our habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting no longer function to sustain the moral compass that has guided us reliably in the past.

Over the past three decades, my research and that of my colleagues has demonstrated the relative ease with which ordinary people can be led to behave in ways that qualify as evil. We have put research participants in experiments where powerful situational forces – anonymity, group pressures, or diffusion of personal responsibility – led them blindly to obey authority and to aggress against innocent others after dehumanizing them.

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