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No study of psychology would be complete without mentioning Philip Zimbardo. In addition to his status as Professor Emeritus at Stanford, he has served as the president of the American Psychological Association, published upwards of 50 books (including the oldest actively used psychology textbook), and starred in his own PBS television series.
His research continues to shape the field of psychology and his accolades include the Lifetime Achievement Award and the Havel Foundation Prize for his contribution to psychology. Though he is primarily considered a social psychologist, there is hardly an area of psychology that hasn’t been advanced due to his work. When thinking of Zimbardo, there are certain findings that come to mind, namely his work regarding heroism and the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment.
Where does evil come from?
This is a question that has plagued humanity ever since we have had the mental capacity to ponder it. From the writings of Socrates to Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, humans have wrestled with what evil truly is, whether it is inherent in humans, and what prompts good people to commit heinous acts.
A young Philip Zimbardo was no stranger to these questions. Growing up in the Bronx, he saw many of his friends commit crimes completely uncharacteristic of their general moral character.
His hunch that a person’s situation predicts their tendency to act immorally was confirmed by his high school classmate, Stanley Milgram. Milgram conducted an experiment in which subjects were told to quiz another participant (whom they could hear and not see) and shock him/her when he/she answered a question incorrectly.
The voltage started a harmless 15 volts and increased with time. Though they could hear the participants scream in protest and beg the subject to stop, 65% of the subjects recruited would raise the shock to lethal amounts when the administrators told them to keep going and that they would not be responsible if something went wrong. Because the shock was raised so gradually, subjects did not resist to shocking participants.
Although the initial shock was light, Zimbardo warns “all evil starts at 15 volts”. Unbeknownst to the subjects, the participants were not actually being shocked and were acting as part of the experiment.
Soon after learning about the results of Milgram’s experiment, Philip Zimbardo conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which he recruited 24 physically and mentally healthy college students. He divided them evenly into two groups: prisoners and guards.
The students knew which group they were in and when the experiment would begin, but the prisoners did not know that they would be realistically arrested. They were taken from their homes by real policemen, dragged to makeshift cells in the basement of a police station, strip-searched, deloused, and put in prisoner outfits.
This realistic setting turned what started as an innocent experiment, where prisoners mostly ignored their fellow student’s orders, into a nightmare in which every person embraced their role fully, without question. The guards, given anonymity and lack of accountability for their actions, quickly began to degrade the prisoners and abuse them physically.
They made the prisoners clean out toilet bowls with their bare hands, forced some of them to sleep naked on the concrete floor, and more. As per the terms of the experiment, each subject was to receive $15 for each day of participation in the study. Even when these monetary incentives were removed, everyone continued to play their parts.
With time, the situation continued to escalate — guards voluntarily worked extra shifts to shut down prisoner riots, attacked them with fire extinguishers, and employed harsh manipulation tactics to get the prisoners to comply. Even Zimbardo himself had internalized his role as the prison warden and was blind to the severity of the situation.
The experiment was originally scheduled to last 2 weeks but was brought to a halt when Christina Maslach, Zimbardo’s then-girlfriend, and now wife, objected to what was going on and prompted Zimbardo to shut down the experiment after Day 6.
While most people think of the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments as examples of why we need research ethics committees, the implications of these experiments are much greater. Both experiments help us understand that it is not just a person’s inherent goodness that is responsible for whether or not they will do evil deeds.
Rather, there are many social factors, such as blind obedience to authority and group pressure, and systemic factors, such as politics and societal standards, that can be even more important. Perhaps more significantly, they shatter a belief that most people hold: I would never be capable of such inhumane actions.
As Zimbardo said in a recent article, “some people are on the good side only because situations have never coerced or seduced them to cross over”. Furthermore, these experiments provide a framework to understand similar circumstances in which these types of pressures are observed.
For example, the US government discovered pictures of our troops torturing and abusing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. While government officials sought to identify and punish the few “deranged” individuals who were responsible, Zimbardo recognized the parallels between this situation and his own experiment. He served as an expert witness in the trial and found that the social processes that give way to evil were all present in abundance during the time and place of these horrific acts.
In the time since the prison experiment, Zimbardo has dedicated much of his life to identifying and understanding the social processes that contribute to the existence of evil. His book, “The Lucifer Effect”, summarizes his findings. More recently, he has transitioned into looking at how we can use these findings to not only prevent the creation of villains but also to create heroes.
From Villains to Heroes
After spending several decades studying evil, Zimbardo found that many of the occasions that give rise to evil behavior are also opportunities for heroism. Joseph Darby, a former U.S. Army reservist, blew the whistle on the abuse occurring at Abu Ghraib, despite great risk to himself and his family.
Through his sacrifice, he ended torture that went undetected for years. Instead of being celebrated, he, along with his wife and mother, had to go into hiding for 3 years. Though Darby was just an ordinary man, Zimbardo claims that he is exactly the type of hero that needs to be celebrated and the kind of person Zimbardo seeks to recognize through his Heroic Imagination Project.
Rather than superheroes or sports icons, who are admired for their gifts, we need to encourage appreciation for those who are heroes because of their courage. They show that you don’t need wealth, special skills, influence, or superpowers in order to be a hero.
In addition to promoting everyday heroes, Zimbardo has created a wealth of research surrounding the topic of heroism. He has found common characteristics amongst people who have committed heroic acts, including being a volunteer, well educated, and having survived a prior disaster.
Zimbardo hopes that by training people to imagine being placed in difficult situations that help them mentally prepare to act while building the social habits of heroism (such as volunteering, etc.), these potential heroes will rise to the occasion and not succumb to evil, or worse, indifference.
In conducting his research on heroism, Zimbardo found that most people are neither good nor evil but are just neutral and passive. A large goal of Zimbardo’s project is to remove indifference, which allows evil to exist.
In his TED talk on “The Psychology of Evil”, Zimbardo features a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr., which states,
“We must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.”
Indeed, we can look at Zimbardo’s own prison experiment as a prime example. Only a third of the prison guards were observed to be sadistic while the majority was passively complying with the impulses of the sadistic guards. Many posit that if we were able to look at Nazi Germany, we would see this same trend amongst soldiers in Hitler’s regime.
As you can see, Philip Zimbardo has greatly advanced our understanding of morality and continues to do so today. In addition, he has contributed to other areas of psychology.
For example, through his work, he illustrates how changing our perception of time can help better promote success in our own lives. He has also shown that boys are starting to underperform academically and socially, when compared to girls, and has suggested how we can fix it.
This overview is by no means comprehensive, and I encourage you to learn more about one of modern psychology’s most influential members through any of the TED talk links below or through one of his books.