The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil, by Philip Zimbardo

lucifer“The ‘Lucifer Effect’ describes the point in time when an ordinary, normal person first crosses the boundary between good and evil to engage in an evil action.”

Zimbardo is mainly (in)famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment. This book goes further, and explains how ordinary people are capable of evil acts. Zimbardo gave evidence at the trial of the Abu Ghraib torturers; this book explains his thinking on one of the most important psychological issues that there is.

“I summarize more than 30 years of research on factors that can create a “perfect storm” which leads good people to engage in evil actions. This transformation of human character is what I call the “Lucifer Effect,” named after God’s favorite angel, Lucifer, who fell from graceand ultimately became Satan. Rather than providing a religious analysis, however, I offer a psychological account of how ordinary people sometimes turn evil and commit unspeakable acts.”

The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker.

The-Better-Angels-of-Our-NatureSteven Pinker is one of those writers that everyone talks about but few people have actually read. He is one of the most well known proponents of evolutionary psychology, and if you call yourself a psychologist then you really have to know what he is about. Don’t just take my word for it. “This is one of the most important books I’ve read – not just this year, but ever.” – Bill Gates. “An astonishingly good book.” – The New York Times. “He writes like an angel.” – The Economist. This one is his most recent work (2011) but you might also look at How the Mind Works, which is a more general overview, and not at all out of date even though it was published in 1999.

Dark Rites by Dan Jones

This article in the New Scientist offers a psychological explanation for rituals like the Japanese tea ceremony, and religious rituals.

“Collective rituals are public signals that you are committed to the group, which facilitate co-operation with the group and create a sense of shared purpose.”

There is a description of an experiment in which children are copy ritualistic actions more accurately if they have previously been made to feel ostracised.

Another experiment compares two groups of children. One group worked together to make necklaces of beads based upon an invariant ritualised procedure: “first we add a green heart, then an orange square”, and so on. A control group simply made freestyle necklaces. After seven minutes the experimental group expressed greater feelings of affiliation and connection to their group than the controls.

“Children copy apparently aimless sequences of actions more faithfully than ones with a clear goal.”

New Scientist, No. 3004, 17th January 2015, p37-39.

Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.


This American psychologist recently won the Nobel Prize for his work on cognition. This book, published in 2011, is about how, when making intuitive decisions, we make mistakes that are highly predictable. It is an enjoyable read and it makes you think about how you think. I am personally convinced that in a few year’s time Kahneman’s name will be as widely known as Freud or Zimbardo or Milgram. Read it now and amaze your friends and teachers with your up-to-date knowledge.

Psychology, Mental Health and Distress by Cromby et al

pmhadWhisper it quietly, but the medical model of mental health is about to fall. For decades, the medical profession has been in charge of mentally distressed people. They have pigeonholed “patients” with “diagnoses”, stuffed them with drugs, and imprisoned them in secure institutions. For all of this expenditure of money, time, and suffering, outcomes for mentally distressed people are far worse in the first world than the third world. This represents the most astonishing failure on behalf of psychiatry. But the emperor has no clothes, and we may be on the threshold of a paradigm shift in this discipline. This book, published 2013, is the first mainstream textbook to propose an alternative approach. It is a massive and demanding read, but start with Chapter 5 “Diagnosis and Formulation”, and take it from there if you have the stamina. There are great chapters on eating disorders and schizophrenia. The chapters on the history of mental distress are also fascinating. Diagnosis is dead. You heard it here first.