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Book and Media Reviews
September 19, 2007

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

JAMA. 2007;298(11):1334-1340. doi:10.1001/jama.298.11.1338-b

Situationism, which underlines the susceptibility of human behavior to the influence of situations, is an important field in social psychology. According to this theory, situational pressures are mostly to blame for the horrifying acts committed by apparently normal people. In contrast, the dispositional view of social psychology emphasizes the importance of dispositional factors in predicting behavior.

The situational perspective has received support from notorious experiments in social science. In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram showed how simple orders invalidated moral quandaries with little effort under certain circumstances. In this experiment—designed to probe the effects of punishment on memory—healthy participants were asked to administer electric shocks to a person sitting in an adjacent room. The participants were asked to administer increasingly severe shocks for incorrect answers, and eventually most of them went 5 steps beyond the “Danger, Severe Shock” level (equivalent to shocks of more than 450 V).