Tag Archives: The Lucifer Effect

Beneath the Golden Arches

By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.                                             – Cormac McCarthy, The Road


In his book The Lucifer Effect, psychologist Philip Zimbardo maps out what he construes as scientifically identifiable behavioral patterns running through examples that range from his own signature experiments with role playing cruelty in a Stanford University basement, to the imposition of a brutal regime of enhanced interrogation within the military prison of Abu Ghraib.

Along the road to his lengthy chapter on Abu Ghraib, under the sub-heading “Sexual Obedience to Authority”, Zimbardo recounts his version of a particularly repellent incidence of torture and sexual assault that took place inside the back office of a Kentucky McDonald’s franchise on April 9, 2004. Unfolding exactly three weeks before the photograph of a human pyramid of naked and hooded Iraqi prisoners would be published on the New Yorker magazine website, a homeland teenager was tortured and sexually assaulted for over three hours beneath the golden arches.

The torture was initiated by a telephone caller who identified himself as a policeman named Officer Scott. The caller told assistant manager Donna Summers that he was investigating a theft by a young woman wearing a McDonald’s uniform. He described her as a young Caucasian with dark hair and a slight build. Summers decided that this generic description fit her employee Louise Ogborn, a high school senior and Girl Scout with a stellar employment record. In Zimbardo’s account:

In a case in which I was an expert witness, this basic scenario then included having the frightened eighteen-year-old high school senior engage in a series of increasingly embarrassing and sexually degrading activities. The naked woman is told to jump up and down and to dance around. The assistant manager is told by the caller to get some older male employee to help confine the victim so she can go back to her duties in the restaurant. The scene degenerates into the caller insisting that the woman masturbate herself and have oral sex with the older male, who is supposedly containing her in the back room while the police are slowly wending their way to the restaurant. These sexual activities continue for several hours while they wait for the police to arrive, which of course never happens.

As an expert witness in a criminal trial and indeed as a consultant to McDonald’s, Zimbardo certainly would have reviewed the McDonald’s office surveillance videotape, and would therefore be expected to have a firm grasp on the facts of the “basic scenario” to which he alludes. Yet from watching merely the brief video excerpts that were included in an ABC television report released on November 10, 2005,  it soon becomes clear that while Zimbardo’s account may well serve the central thesis of his book, it does not serve the truth, nor does it do justice to the victim. Among the highly relevant facts omitted in his account:

1. The older McDonald’s employee that Summers asked to guard the teenaged Ogborn was named Jason Bradley, age 27. After a brief exchange with the caller, Bradley refused to participate, telling Summers it was “a lot of BS”. Though he did not intervene on Ogborn’s behalf, he refused to play along in her torture and assault.

2. The man Summers next called was not a McDonald’s employee at all, but rather a professional exterminator named Walter “Wes” Nix, who also happened to be her fiancé. In the video, he is shown to be a pudgy and balding middle-aged man; ABC television reported a weight of 230 pounds.

3. When the terrified Ogborn refused to address Nix as “sir”, the caller instructed Nix to spank her until she complied. Nix brutally spanked her for a full ten minutes, leaving numerous welts and bruises. Ogborn described her mental state to the ABC reporter: “My soul just left, my body just went numb to everything so I could just survive”. This is a classic description of survival dissociation, often experienced by victims of torture and sexual trauma.

4. Having received the ultimate reward of forced oral sex from a traumatized teenager, Nix suddenly became worried that he might have done something “very bad”, and told Summers he wanted out. The caller gave him permission to leave on the condition that Summers recruit someone else to take his place. Summers instructed the franchise maintenance man, Thomas Simms, to take over from Nix. After a brief exchange with Officer Scott, Simms – like Bradley before him – refused to participate. The scenario then quickly broke down, the caller hung up, and the line went dead.

With crucial facts that might interfere with his simplistic hypothesis conveniently omitted, Zimbardo asserts that everyone in the scenario is a victim of an authority in absentia behavioral pattern reinforced both by prevailing civic norms of obedience to the police and by the norms of a McDonald’s corporate culture that places strong emphasis on serving the needs of the customer, while also taking orders from above, without question.

As support for this superficial analysis, Zimbardo references a single book about the fast food industry written by a Canadian sociologist, which offers a fascinating account of certain aspects of the fast food industry, while shedding only the dimmest light on the extreme events that transpired inside this particular franchise. He also references Donna Summers, who said to a reporter, “You look back on it, and you say, I wouldn’t a done it. But unless you’re put in that situation, at that time, how do you know what you would do. You don’t.”


Yet Zimbardo’s situational dynamic actually explains very little of consequence in the torture and assault of Louise Ogborn, whose fearful obedience had nothing to do with encoded behavioral norms, and everything to do with the more visceral dynamics of power, violence, torture and survival. Using elementary techniques of manipulation, the man called Officer Scott placed a very deep itch into the ears of Donna Summers and Wes Nix and they ended up scratching it, with depraved abandon. Flooded with carnal stimulus, their reptilian brains took over. That was the “basic scenario”.

Nix pled guilty to sexual abuse, and was sentenced to five years in prison. Summers was fired from her job and placed on probation. Eventually, the police investigation resulted in the arrest of a corrections officer named David N. Stewart, who was married with five children. He was charged with impersonating a police officer and solicitation of sodomy. Even on such relatively minor counts, prosecutors were unable to secure a conviction. While the bodies in the office could be forensically established as facts, the voice on the telephone remained obscure and elusive. Nobody saw him in the phone booth, and there was no recording of the call, for definitive voice identification.

One small victory: a long line of similar calls appeared to end with the public outing of David N. Stewart as a sadistic disembody who preyed on the young work force of retail fast food. Yet despite this temporary lull, we are quite sure the idea of Officer Scott still vibrates somewhere inside an imagination that has yet to express itself, and where the idea lives, another voice will eventually follow, incarnate, as surely as the banished sun circles the earth.


Awesome Strangers


He looked not at himself, but at an awesome stranger.                                                                        – William Golding, Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies was published in 1954, and languished in obscurity until the 1960s,when it became an international best seller. In 1963, a film version was released, directed by Peter Brook. Golding’s tale of British choir boys transformed into a band of murderous hunters by the stresses of their situation captured the imagination of a young American psychologist named Philip Zimbardo. He was particularly taken by the chilling transformation in the persona of Jack Merridew after painting his own face:

He began to dance and his laughter became a bloodthirsty snarling. He capered toward Bill, and the mask was a thing on its own, behind which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness.

In 1969, strongly influenced by the work of Stanley Milgram,  Zimbardo devised an experiment to evaluate the effect of social deindividuation (more than simple masking) on a specific behavior – the propensity of a person in a position of arbitrary power to inflict pain on a stranger. Female students at NYU were told they were participating in a study that would measure the ability of humans to remain creative when placed under stress, in this case their sudden subjection to electric shock, via switches controlled by the volunteers. The two shockees were also young women, one of whom was depicted to the shockers via tape recorded interviews as “very nice”, the other as “bitchy”. Half the participants were highly individuated via name tags and referred to by their names. The other half were hooded, and given numbers, with names unknown.

Each participant was then placed in separate cubicles, so as to eliminate peer pressures. Both groups were then given multiple opportunities to shock the two creative subjects, and observe their response to the inflicted pain through a one way mirror. They were also able to see Professor Zimbardo himself, through the observation window. The subjects had been trained how to convincingly simulate the pain of the shock. There was no actual delivery of electrical current, though as far as the volunteer participants knew, the situation was fully wired; the subjects, entirely at their mercy.


As Zimbardo reports in his rambling catalogue of awesome strangers, The Lucifer Effect:

The behavior of interest was the duration of shock administered – how long each student continued to hold down the shock button after the shock-ready signal appeared. Their decision was not whether to press the shock switch but how quickly to pull their finger off the switch or to keep pressing it down  and deliver longer shocks to the victims.

The hooded and nameless volunteers delivered twice the duration of shock, and did not differentiate between the very nice woman and the bitchy one. The named and visible group still delivered the shocks, though for half the duration as the nameless hoods, and delivered significantly more pain to the designated bitch. Not a single volunteer refused to deliver any shock, though that option was never specifically ruled out in advance by the research team.

Zimbardo and his colleagues concluded that the infliction of pain does not derive from perverse interior sadistic motivations, but rather from the structure of the situation. When the situation offers the ability to inflict pain on a helpless victim, the “energizing effect” of exercising that power becomes self-reinforcing, and takes on a life of its own.

Elsewhere in 1969, an awesome stranger working for the US Department of State arrived in Uruguay. His name was Dan Mitrione, an experienced specialist in advanced counter-insurgency. A Cuban double agent, Manuel Hevia Cosculluella, later claimed that Mitrione built a soundproof room in the basement of his house in Montevideo for the teaching of advanced torture techniques to Uruguayan police officers. In 1970, Mitrione was captured by the Tupamoros, interrogated, and killed. His body did not show any signs of having been tortured.

In 1971, Zimbardo’s findings regarding power, individuation and character transformation were further amplified in the Stanford Prison Experiments, which took place in a university basement.

In 1972, the film director Costa-Gavras released his masterwork, State of Siege, based on the interwoven stories of Dan Mitrione, Uruguayan death squads, the US embassy and the Tupamaros; in 1973, Zimbardo’s work became much more widely known through publication of an article in the New York Times magazine,”The Mind Is A Formidable Jailer”, in which he lays out his case for a situationist perspective when evaluating certain behaviors in prisons and other closed systems. The article is subtitled: “A Pirandellian Prison”.

Following a military coup led by Augusto Pinochet in September 1973, a network of more than 1,130 secret detention and torture centers was established in Chile. Estimates of victims range between 40,000 and 400,000, including at least 1198 disappeared. The overwhelming majority of those detained were also tortured, often involving electric shock. Thousands of the victims were women, many of whom were creative artists or intellectuals. While some of the torturers were trained professionals, there were also numerous enthusiastic volunteers. Their degree of individuation is unknown.

The year 1973 also saw the first publication in English of George Bataille’s Literature and Evil, which as far as I know has never been cited in the voluminous work of Philip Zimbardo. It first appeared in French as La litterature et le mal in the year 1957, and does not include a discussion of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, nor of the works of Luigi Pirandello. Bataille writes:

Literature is not innocent. It is guilty and should admit itself so. Action alone has its right, its prerogatives. I wanted to prove that literature is a return to childhood. But has the childhood that governs it a truth of its own?


The Delta Depository


Somewhere in the darkest neighborhood of the Shining City there is a place called the Delta Depository, a processing facility for a special category of package: citizens recently detained as part of the Permanent Emergency. Behavioral algorithms, motion analysis and communication filters have ascertained with mathematical certainty that these citizens will at some point in the future conspire to attack the Shining City. As a preemptive measure, these citizens are thus registered as packages, and sent to the Delta Depository.

The Delta Depository is not a place for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is a place designed to rip open the package, so as to reveal the criminal and violent actions latent within the behavioral matrix, as measured and confirmed by the algorithms. The Delta Depository always succeeds in this endeavor, always succeeds in extracting the evidence necessary to construct the legal basis, after which the registry of the package will become as permanent as the Emergency that required the design and construction of the Depository.

Packages registered inside the Delta Depository will never return to general circulation within the Shining City. They have joined the ranks of the Disappeared. Permanent Emergencies always require a parallel category of the Disappeared, a category designed both to terrify and to justify, that is, to extract by torture the legal framework required for the preemptive rendering of citizens as packages, as dead letters, meaning they will never be heard from again; they cannot be delivered nor returned.

Now consider the case of a young man with initials A. M., or Alpha Mike. Alpha Mike is a good apple, a patriot, a man who loves the Shining City. Consequently, and with every good apple intent, he enrolls in the military to defend his country during the dangerous time of the Permanent Emergency. He expects deployment to Persia, yet during basic training his superiors tell him that he is too intelligent for battle duty. They tell him that he is uniquely qualified for special service in a special place called the Delta Depository.

Alpha Mike has daily contact with the registered packages. At first, he finds them confusing. They speak intact variations of his own language. They look like his neighbors, like his friends. He cannot see their dark algorithms; he cannot see the criminal violence against the state predicted as their future with absolute mathematical certainty. All he sees are young men and women, normal citizens like himself. Might there have been some mistake?

From the corrective training he receives daily, he learns that such doubts are a breeding ground for a potentially lethal illusion. He is reminded that the packages are dangerous treasonous murderers, time bombs ticking off until their latent future becomes their violent present. He must not be fooled by superficial evidence of a common humanity; the criminality of the packages has been mathematically certified. The game being played is a deep one, unfathomably deep, even for someone too intelligent for battle duty.


So the packages must never be permitted to sleep; the packages must eat cat food; the packages must use toilet paper that has been soaked with pepper spray; and the packages must be subjected to relentless humiliation around the clock, because all these treatments will in due course combine to open the packages once and for all, to reveal their secret truth, the dark truth that will fully justify the treatments and thus fully exonerate Alpha Mike. Inside the Delta Depository, this is called the Circle of Ultimate Justice, a Circle that must be turned around the clock, never missing a tick, or else Ultimate Justice will never arrive.

Good apple Alpha Mike believes in the Circle of Ultimate Justice, and so he does terrible things to the packages. Bad apple things. Rotten apple things. As his suspicion that the packages are no more dangerous than his neighbors fruits like a fungus inside his chest, his actions become even more corrupt. The packages insist on pretending to be normal humans, and this ticks off Alpha Mike. Soon he is feared by the packages as the most merciless of their torturers. Even the other guards fear Alpha Mike; they fear him, and then they emulate him, creating a second Circle: the Circle of Infinite Pain.

No matter the extremity of his rotten apple actions, the fungus continues to fruit inside his chest, and the day soon comes when Alpha Mike begins to suffer crippling chest pains. Another day, he bleeds from his eyes. Another day, a large bump appears on his forehead which, when lanced, releases a black beetle. The attending physician at the Delta Depository captures the beetle and places it in a jar for further study. Alpha Mike is sent away on leave, to a beach without beetles. After three weeks, he is redeployed to Persia and never heard from again. He thereby joins the swollen ranks of the Disappeared.