Zimbardo, Lewis and Donne

I’ve been reading Philip Zimbardo’s – The Lucifer Effect, which is proving to be very difficult to read. Someone described it as a ‘transformative text‘ and I completely agree with that sentiment. It’s impossible to read without reflecting deeply about oneself. From what I’ve read so far If I had to distill Zimbardo’s book into a single sentence it would be that situation plays a bigger part in determining evil or heroic behaviour than any innate disposition.

That sounds so simple and yet it’s so very complex. I intend to write a review of the book when I’m finished but for now I’ve been reflecting on some material that Zimbardo points to. The first is “The Inner Ring” by C.S. Lewis, which from what I can gather was a Memorial Lecture at King’s College, University of London, in 1944.

In it Lewis describes one such situational imperative that can drive people to make abhorrent decisions. Many Organisations (all?) have groups of people who are more powerful or influential than others. This is true whether the organisation is a company or a less formalised social group. These so called “rings” admit some people and exclude others. The desire to be inside, to gain acceptance and approval, can be a powerful motivational force for some people, and conversely this desire can be used by those on the inside to manipulate those seeking admission. As Lewis himself describes:

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 skilfull in making a man who 
is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.

We have to recognise, individually, that we are all susceptible to such forces, they are after all a part of the human condition. The problem is many of us aren’t willing to acknowledge this, as Zimbardo points out, our unfounded pride takes precedence over what should be the humility to recognise that we are all vulnerable to such situational forces. In his book Zimbardo recalls John Donne‘s Mediations (27), as a wonderfully eloquent reflection on our common interrelatedness and interdependence, which I think is absolutely key to guarding our hearts and minds against such behavior:

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: but how much
more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness....
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

Zimbardo’s book is proving to be a challenge on many different levels. The graphic nature of some of the experiments he describes, as well as some of the atrocities he has researched is painfully disturbing to read. Man’s lack of humanity is central to Zimbardo’s thesis, and on that subject I can’t help but smile ruefully thinking that Tennessee Williams was probably right when he wrote:

We're all of us guinea pigs in the laboratory of God. 
Humanity is just a work in progress

I’d love to hear anyone else views on the book or the subject, I’m learning a great deal as I read it but I’d welcome anyone else insight. So please leave a comment or get in touch.