‘The line between good and evil is in the centre of every human heart.’
– Solzhenitsyn.


Over the past weeks, I have been given assignments requiring me to research into the power of the situation, in adversely affecting someone’s behaviour. I completed an annotated bibliography on sources which I would find useful or not, if I was to write a dissertation on Situationism and now I have to compare two of these sources and there contents in-depth.

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.

By Philip Zimbardo

The Lucifer Effect  is a realistic exploration of human behavior, which is not as internally governed as we believe, instead of focusing exclusively on the inner elements of their personality and genes we should acknowledge the external situations influencing them as well. It’s shaping up to be an interesting but disturbing read, one which I hope will explain the ways we can strengthen ourselves and our institutions to better maintain moral standard in our lives.

The source of inspiration of this book came from the Standford Prison Experiments which Zimbardo himself carried out in 1971, at Standford University. Twenty-four students were selected out of 75 to play the prisoners and live in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. Roles were assigned randomly. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond what even Zimbardo himself expected, leading the guards to display authoritarian measures and ultimately to subject some of the prisoners to torture. The experiment was widely reported by the news and has been to date repeated several time by many sources. Most recently there was a Hollywood movie made based ont the events of the experiment, The Experiment. Many people have tried to figure out why in certain situations people act irrationally or usual, but here we have a successful analyse of actual events which back Zimbardo’s original theory.

To support his theory on the power of the situation, Zimabrdo has cited many sources which he found to be most enlightening when he was piecing together his theory. Most of all Milton’s Paradise Lost, an account of the most dramatic effect of the Situation on the individual. Lucifer’s banishment from heaven from being one of God’s favourites is a definitive example of the power of the situation. Zimbardo also found evidence in the Torture Crimes at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq in 2004. Where American soldiers, respectable, normal people, abused and humiliated ‘terror suspects’ to an extreme degree, echoing the abuse of Zimbardo’s own experiment. Another interesting source which was mentioned in Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘The Tipping Point’, was of the experiment conducted by a school teacher, Ms Jane Elliot. Ms Elliot split the class according to eye colour, Blue eyes superior to those with Brown eyes, simulating class and racial divides in America of that time.

Zimbardo has given a compelling argument here against what people are lead to believe, that bad people do bad things. In his book he shows us again and again that there is no cause for complacency: all of us, given the exact circumstances, are capable of unimaginably acts. Thus helping to prove his theory of the POWER OF THE SITUATION.

For my second source I have chosen Barbara Krahe’s,

‘Personality and Social Psychology: Towards a Synthesis’.

This source is an academic textbook from Barbara Krahe, a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Potsdam, in Germany.  Her research is in the area of applied social psychology. ‘Personality and social Psychology’ is a review and amalgamation of recent advances in personality psychology. It focused on the latest data obtained in the impact of the social in an individual. Krahe outlines the background to the misconceptions of the already established beliefs in this area in the beginning of the text, before progressing and showing us  new methods which challenges traditional personality theory.

As with Zimbardo’s book, Krahe is looking to disprove what the field of Social Psychology have been lead to believe Since Gordon Allport’s Trait Theory. I am looking at a specific area of  her paper, in reference to Situationism, ‘The Role of the Situation in Personality Research’.

Krahe herself outlines two questions which she wants to answer in this section of her paper;

‘1. How do situational factors interact with specific characteristics of the person in producing a particular kind or pattern of behaviour?

2. How does an individual’s personality influence his or her choice of situations?’

The main idea, I felt when looking through this segment of her work, is how held back the understanding of the situation in behavioural psychology is, due to arguments, between Situationists and Trait Theorists.  The mental battle has been creating controversy for years and not until recent has the situation become a considered factor in modern psychology.

‘The study of situations is back in fashion and for good reasons’,

Cantor and Kihlstrom.

Krahe shows us sources which have aided her in beginning to establish a precedent for analysing Social behaviour in all types of social situations.


Krahe’s paper has many interesting facts in it, some where. I found it to be very hard to read and not an easy choice for this assignment. However, it being a Psychology paper it was very enlightening with regards to the situation and has made me very interested in conflicting theories within Psychology.



After writing about these two sources I have a much more detailed understanding of Situationism. Zimbardo’s first hands experiences in social experiments ‘gone wrong’ make for a more interesting read than Krahe’s paper on Personality and Social Psychology, however they are both as important than the other.
Krahe’s gives more references to early papers which talk about the situation and quotes, which help to build up the background to advancements in Behavioural Psychology. Zimbardo also makes references, however less frequent, yet his active researching into the situation makes up for the lack of history. From both sources I have obtained that the situation, in Social Psychology, is majorly over looked when identifying problems of the individual.    The power of the situation is a key factor, when looking at aberrant behaviour. Zimbardo himself has appeared in court, defending people who have acted in an atrocious manner. He defended the American soldiers who abused the prisoners at Abu Ghraib personally and has been a consultant in many other cases.

The idea of the power of a situation is a clouded one. Both sources and Malcolm Gladwell’s, ‘Tipping Point’ have opened my eyes to the power an everyday situation can have on an individual, where it be in a controlled experiment or everyday life.


To continue with my research I will need to look at some more case studies of the situation having an effect on the individual, to grasp a solid and sound understanding of why the situation has so much power over people.
Here are some of the selected case studies I wish to pursue, both fictional and real;

Snyder, Ickes(1985) Handbook of Social Psychology. Oxford University Press

Milgram, S(1974) Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper & Row

Milton, J(1667) Paradise Lost. England:     Samuel Simmons

Golding, W. (1999). Lord of the Flies. New York: Penguin Books.

Strasser, S. (2004). The Abu Ghraib Investigations: The Official Reports of the Independent Panel and the Pentagon on the Shocking Prisoner Abuse in Iraq. New York: Public Affairs.