At company retreats in Aspen, Colo., over the last five decades, between skiing and spa-ing, corporate executives often attended performances at the Crystal Palace dinner theater. There, more often than not, they would implore the cabaret’s founder, Mead Metcalf, to sing his signature tune, “Peanut Butter on the Chin.”
Metcalf, who recently retired, claims he hated “the stupid song,” but couldn’t resist the shouted requests from a roomful of bigwigs. And it’s clear why they loved the ditty, whose main character is a corporate CEO who, in a rush to get to work, fails to clean his face after a hasty breakfast — and then passes the entire day with a lump of peanut butter on his chin. Of course, no one dares to give the boss a heads-up about the embarrassing blob. When he finally gets home after a busy day and takes his first look in a mirror, he is horrified by what he sees and concludes that he has made a fool of himself in the eyes of his minions. The song’s second stanza finds the CEO back in the office the following day. And, lo and behold, his entire management team sports lumps of peanut butter on the chin!
I thought about this lighthearted ode to corporate conformity while reading a much more serious account of the psychology that causes it: The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Philip Zimbardo’s riveting — and chilling — account of the prison experiment he conducted at Stanford University in 1971. Older readers likely have at least heard something about this storied psychology experiment that quickly got out of hand. Young men had been assigned to play the roles of guards and inmates in an ersatz jail in the basement of a campus building, but the participants took their playacting so seriously that the scheduled two-week experiment had to be aborted at midpoint when the student-guards began to psychologically and physically abuse the student-prisoners. Zimbardo’s book is the first detailed, popular account of what happened. The retelling was prompted by the torture of Iraqi detainees by U.S. military grunts at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003, a bizarre and terrible incident that eerily replicated the earlier experiment.
In the book, Zimbardo’s goal is to understand why good people do bad things — to unravel the psychological and social sources of evil. He begins with a nearly 300-page, day-by-day account of all that transpired during the hellish experiment in 1971, and follows it with a review of the real-life horrors that occurred in Nazi concentration camps, the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, the cultish mass suicides at Jonestown in 1978, and the more recent genocides in Rwanda and Darfur. He reanalyzes these familiar events in light of two decades of research into the psychology of evil and the emotional causes of the worst manifestations of human behavior. In the process, he turns what we thought we knew about the subject on its head.
For years, experts had asserted that people do bad things because that is the inherent human condition; something in our DNA compels us to give in to the persistent temptation in life to do wrong. Zimbardo believes this assumption has no merit and uses his Stanford experiment and hundreds of subsequent psychological studies to disprove it.
Zimbardo’s prison experiment at Stanford demonstrated that human behavior is determined not by nature but by situational forces and group dynamics — the nurture, as it were, of our jobs and relationships, groups we belong to, and daily interpersonal interactions. Almost all of us can be drawn over to “the dark side,” where good people can end up participating in out-of-character, unspeakable activities, given either a large dose of peer pressure or some arm-twisting (obvious or subtle) by individuals we view as superior. In The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo shows how easy it is to create situations and systems in which people are driven to do bad things by the nature of what’s around them. He highlights, for instance, the phenomenon known as groupthink, which occurs when all members of an organization become so inward-looking they fail to recognize that the assumptions driving their behavior are false, outmoded, or even self-destructive. But he concludes on a hopeful note: We can just as readily design systems and group behavioral models that lead to positive actions.