Philip Zimbardo’s “The Lucifer Effect” – How to Resist Questionable External Influences in Everyday Foreign Language Classroom Practice


posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlruhe University of Education, Germany

Social psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo is perhaps best known for his “Stanford Prison Experiment”, a world-renowned simulation study of the psychological and behavioral effects of imprisonment carried out in 1971. The study had to be terminated after only a few days because the situation in the basement of Stanford’s psychology building created inhumane and unacceptable dynamics between the male college students who participated voluntarily as either guards or prisoners. As is well known, the experiment showed that students participating as guards became increasingly authoritarian, cruel and sadistic, while their ‘prisoners’ became increasingly depressed and rebellious, showing signs of extreme stress. In The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo (2008) attempts to unearth “how good people turn evil” by coupling a detailed review of the “Stanford Prison Experiment” with a rigorous analysis of the real-world situational dynamics and the appalling, inexcusable behavior of some of the American soldiers and military police officers that became apparent in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq a few years ago. Zimbardo argues convincingly that the destructive or ‘evil’ instances or patterns of behavior surfacing in Abu Ghraib were to a large degree predictable, and, more generally and rather worrying, that certain social settings and situations are likely to influence and transform normal, everyday people in ways that are detrimental, or as was the case in the Abu Ghraib prison, even scandalous and barbarous.

In my view, this book is a ‘must-read’, especially (though, of course, not only) for educators, school administrators and education policy makers, because it provides readers with a number of eye-opening insights into the origins, dynamics and sometimes extremely negative and occasionally even fatal consequences of human behavior in complex social settings and situations, especially in high-pressure contexts. As Zimbardo (2008: 445) points out, “[…] human behavior is always subject to situational forces. This context is embedded within a larger, macroscopic one, often a particular power system that is designed to maintain and sustain itself.” In order to fully understand how and why people behave and act the way they do in a certain (institutional) context, it is therefore essential to view not just the individual person, but the specific situation and the power system in the background, as these factors determine behavior in a number of often subtle ways as well (see also Kurt Lewin’s field theory).

How does this relate to foreign language education in the 21st century? It would be absurd, of course, to compare classrooms with prisons, teachers with prison guards, and learners with ‘inmates’, etc. But does this mean that what teachers do to foster foreign language learning is not subject to situational forces, and not influenced by the political / administrative system of the day? And should we not keep in mind that particularly from the point of view of the pupils, there is by definition an asymmetrical distribution of power in any classroom setting?

Research on foreign language teaching and learning has been dominated by psycholinguistic paradigms for many years, focusing primarily on the cognitive processes involved in target language instruction, but the foreign language classroom is much more than just a ‘society of individual minds’ (see Minsky 1986). It is an institutionally organized social microcosm which is also embedded in a larger setting – in a macrocosm of the socio-political, socio-economic and educational ‘systems’. This ‘mega-system’ is extremely powerful, and in recent years has wielded a massive influence on individual teachers that increasingly (at least partially) runs counter to the promotion of Bildung and Erziehung in foreign language classrooms, i.e. to academic and personal development in a holistic sense. Teaching to the test is just one example (for a more detailed discussion see my personal view on foreign language education in Germany today on this blog).

Zimbardo’s most recent book which deals with contexts and aspects of human behavior that are definitely not comparable to foreign language classroom settings is nevertheless thought-provoking. He encourages readers to think about “how to resist influences that we neither want nor need but that rain upon us daily.” (2008: 446). “Learning to resist unwanted influences” (2008: 446) is probably a recommendation too vigorous with regard to foreign language education, but teachers need to be aware of the influences exerted by the ‘mega-system’. They should distinguish carefully between what is based on research and what is predominantly politically and/or economically motivated by influential stake-holders and specific interest groups, and then rather base their foreign language instruction on scientific facts and expertise.

Minsky, Marvin (1986). The Society of Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Zimbardo, Philip G. (2008). The Lucifer Effect. Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New York: Random House.

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2 responses to “Philip Zimbardo’s “The Lucifer Effect” – How to Resist Questionable External Influences in Everyday Foreign Language Classroom Practice

  1. The German translation of Philip Zimbardo’s book will be published in July 2008 under the title “Der Luzifer-Effekt. Die Macht der Umstände und die Psychologie des Bösen” (Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, Heidelberg).

  2. Certainly there are the, let’s call them, models of behaviour in a classroom setting which are more and more firmly entrenched in everyone’s consciousness by actions both of the teachers and the students. Here in Serbia (and I believe the situation is not that different in many parts of the world), throughout both primary and high school, the methods of teaching are one-way communication, and in many a class almost any sign of keenness to participate is seen by the other students as showing off – it is ridiculed and generally looked down on. The teachers don’t know how to create an atmosphere which fosters participation, and the students have even less of an idea how to change the negative perception of active participation in class.

    I remember my first class in high-school, where our class warden (difficult to translate, it is a teacher who is “in charge” of a class of students – he represents them in the school bodies and generally “takes care” of a class) told us that the most important thing is to study on time, as the sooner we pass the oral test, the less we have to study (if I remember, oral testing can go on for 2 or even more months, where after a lecture 1 or 2 students are tested orally, and when they get a mark they are not tested for another few months. The more time passes, the more often the students are tested, and the more material has to be studied. This system encourages studying for tests, and not for knowledge, as the sooner a student is tested, the less he has to learn.)

    I was amazed by a brilliant language teacher in my Faculty of Philology who was authoritative enough to create a very different atmosphere in class. One instance which I believe none of the students will forget in a hurry is his reaction to a student who chuckled arrogantly at his colleague for making a mistake. In a slow, chill-inducing voice he said: “If you, or any other student, ever again laughs or makes one negative remark about someone else’s mistake, I will immediately throw you out of this class and you will be barred from ever again participating in my classes”.

    Unfortunately, such dedication to creating a true learning environment is very rarely encountered here. In college there is less of looking down on participation, but the 12 years of primary and high school take their toll in that regard, and classes where there is a positive, productive atmosphere are seldom encountered.

    However, one can still try going against the flow. I am in the process of creating an experimental language teaching classroom in which I would like to, among other things, create a new set of values when it comes to learning and participation. Any of your comments and suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

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