Ten Questions with Dr. Philip Zimbardo
Dr. Philip G. Zimbardohas been a Stanford University professor since 1968. Zimbardo’s career is noted for giving psychology away to the public through his popular PBS-TV series, “Discovering Psychology,” along with many text and trade books, among his 300 publications. He was recently president of the American Psychological Association.
Dr. Zimbardo conducted the (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiment in the summer of 1971. He recently published a book called The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil in which he discusses the Stanford Prison Experiment, its relevance to Abu Ghraib, and the “banality of heroism.”
Question: What are the sequence of events of the Stanford Prison Experiment?
Answer: The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) was my attempt to determine what happens when you put good people in an evil place: Does humanity triumph or do situational forces come to dominate even the best of us? My Stanford Psychology graduate students, Craig Haney and Curt Banks, and I created a realistic simulation of a prison-like environment—a “bad barrel” into which we placed twenty-four highly selected college student volunteers for a two-week experiment.
On the basis of the assessment from a battery of psychological tests and interviews we had selected them from among seventy-five who had answered the ad we placed in the city newspaper. By a flip of the coin of chance, half were to role-play guards, the rest took on the role of prisoners. Naturally, the prisoners lived there 24/7 while the guards worked 8 hour shifts. Initially nothing happened the first day as these college students from all over the U.S. were awkwardly getting into their roles.
But on the second morning, the prisoners rebelled; the guard’s crushed the rebellion and then instituted stern measures against these now “dangerous prisoners.” From then on, abuse, aggression, and eventually sadistic pleasure in degrading the prisoners became the daily norm. Within thirty-six hours the first prisoner had an emotional breakdown and had to be released, followed in kind by similar prisoner breakdowns on each of the next four days.
Good, normal young men had been corrupted by the power of their role and by the institutional support for such a power differential with their humbled prisoners. The Bad Barrel had proven to have a toxic effect on our Good Apples. Our projected two-week long study was terminated prematurely after only six days because it had escalated out of control.
Question: What brought the Stanford Prison Experiment to an end?
Answer: The guards were beginning to enforce sexually degrading “fun and games” against the prisoners. Obviously, I should have ended the study on my own after witnessing the emotional breakdowns and sexual abuses, but I did not because I had taken on the second role of Prison Superintendent added to that of Principal Investigator, and prison officials are not bothered by such reactions. Fortunately for me someone was bothered, bothered enough to force me to shut down this “little shop of horrors.”
I had invited a number of “outsider” young faculty and grad students to interview everyone connected with our experiment to give me a fresh perspective on what they discovered. One of them was a recent Stanford PhD who as about to be a new assistant professor at Cal Berkeley named Christina Maslach; I had just begun dating her. She came down to our dungeon on the fifth night of the study, and after observing what had become the “normal” final toilet run of prisoners each night, got really distressed.
She saw them with bagged heads, ankles in chains, hands on each other’s shoulders moving along the corridor like a zombie parade as guards shouted abuses at them. “It is terrible what YOU are doing to those boys,” she yelled at me, adding something like, “I’m not sure I want to continue a relationship with you if this is what you are really like!” That double slap in the face was the catalyst for my realizing that the study had worked too well, that those powerful situational forces had also corrupted me. After making all the necessary logistical arrangements, I pulled the plug on the Stanford Prison Experiment the next day.
In The Lucifer Effect, I detail for the first time the full day-by-day and night-by-night chronology of the events that had such a transformative impact on virtually everyone who got immersed in that setting. It is only by seeing the creatively evil ways the guards invented to break the will of the prisoners to resist that one comes to appreciate how a host of situational forces can combine to make good people do bad things.
I believe that such understanding puts us all in a better position to appreciate what the Lucifer Effect really means. Lucifer, God’s favorite angel, was cast out of heaven into hell for his sin of disobedience against God, and became the Devil, Satan. My book analyzes lesser human transformations of ordinary, good people as they are seduced by a set of situational forces to take the first steps down evil’s slippery slope.
Question: How would you apply what you learned with the Stanford Prison Experiment to what happened at Abu Ghraib?
Answer: Three decades later, the scenario of the SPE was reenacted with chilling similarity in another prison by other American prison guards. The images flashing across TV screens around the world of the abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military police men and women were shocking, but not at all surprising to me.
I had seen their counterpart in my basement prison at Stanford, naked prisoners, bagged heads, sexually humiliated. It was inexcusable behavior, but not inexplicable once I discovered that the beyond the visual parallels were the same set of psychological principles operating in that Bad Barrel of Tier 1A, Abu Ghraib, night shift.
My sense of the sickening similarities between the mock prison of the SPE and that all too real prison dungeon in the middle of a controversial war was also highlighted in one of the investigations into the causes of this human tragedy.
The investigation by the former Defense Secretary James Schlessinger and his committee concluded that the “landmark Stanford experiment” should have been a cautionary tale for the military. That report indicts the untenable situation created in that prison dungeon for creating the volatile environment that became a catalyst for abusive behavior. Good Apples turned sour in a few weeks on duty in that Hell hole of a Bad Prison Barrel embedded in the Bad Barrel of War.
Question: Is there a difference between “good commanders” and “good professors” letting something bad happen?
Answer: The worse abuses in both prisons occurred on the night shift, when there was least surveillance by me, the good professor, and by them, the good commanders. In both cases, guards were allowed to have too much unrestrained power without top-down oversight.
In Abu Ghraib I believe the top brass intentionally designed that setting to give permission for these lowly Army Reservists, “weekend soldiers” without mission specific training, to “prepare detainees for interrogation,” to “take the gloves off,” to “soften them up” for interrogation.
Tier 1A was the interrogation, “soft torture” center where 1000 detainees were housed, men and boys whom the commanders believed held the key to the insurgency’s success. But most knew nothing, and those that might have some worthwhile information had only cold, stale information after being confined for months. Pressure from Donald Rumsfeld went down the military chain of command and ended up with military intelligence in charge of Tier 1A soliciting the seven MPs on the night shift to step over the line of protecting their prisoners to breaking them down.
Question: If it’s possible, how would you allocate “blame” to the three factors of disposition, situation, and systemic conditions?
Answer: The Lucifer Effect makes evident that blame for such abuse should not be limited to the few grunts at the end of the food chain—the so called “rogue soldiers.” If their immoral actions were fueled by the horrible situation they were forced to work in then we must also put in the docket those who helped to create that situation—the Power Boys running that sorry show. It must include “Command Complicity” of the architects of the conditions that led to such abuses—those in the Bush administration, and the Military commanders who should have know what their subordinates were doing for three long months.
In the book I invite readers to act as jurors judging each of a number of military and civilian personnel for their crimes against humanity in that place. My new web site [www.luciferEffect.com] goes further by providing visitors with a virtual voting booth to judge the guilt or innocence of CIA former head George Tenet, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, VP Dick Cheney, and our Commander in Chief of War, President George W. Bush.
Question: How would you re-engineer the “system” to prevent a reoccurrence?
Answer: Such abuses do not occur where there is responsible leadership; where commanders and leaders of all institutions make crystal clear that they will not tolerate doing harm; that personal dignity will always be respected; that the rules of engagement will be known by all; that everyone is ultimately personally responsible for their actions; and that any violations of such protocol will be meet with public censure and punishment.
In addition, it is imperative for all leaders to appreciate the psychological dynamics operating in situations they create, and to have psychologically trained personnel who are charged with making them work positively not destructively.
Question: Are people inherently and consistently good or bad?
Answer: I begin my book with John Milton’s classic statement about the power of the human mind, that it is its own place, and can “make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” I follow with a psychological celebration of the mind’s infinite capacity to make any of us villains or heroes by enabling us to be caring or indifferent, selfless of selfish, creative or destructive.
People are not born evil, but rather with survival talents, and remarkable mental templates to be anything imaginable — just as infants readily learn to speak and understand any of a thousand languages in an instant in their development. We get a push from nature in various directions, such as being more inhibited or bold, but who we become is ultimately a complex process of cultural, historical, religious, economic and political experiences in familial and other institutional settings.
Most of us fail to appreciate the extent to which our behavior is under situational control, because we prefer to believe that is all is internally generated. We wander around cloaked in an illusion of vulnerability, mis-armed with an arrogance of free will and rationality.
Instead, few of us really know ourselves or most others in our lives. We can hardly have confidence in assertions of what we would do in a new or alien situation because we chose to live in familiar, safe, predictable situations. And we play the same roles over and over in each of our various behavioral settings, as do those we think we know.
Those roles come with scripted actions and dialogues that soon are familiar to our audiences, since we are rarely taxed to improvise but say the lines as stated. Another illusion we cherish is that the line between good and evil is impermeable, with those bad people on the other evil side and we and our kind and kin are forever located in the realm of goodness.
A body of psychological science puts a lie to such an illusion by dramatically demonstrating the ease with which ordinary people can be seduced or initiated into the ranks of the other by blind obedience to authority, mindless conformity, diffusing responsibility, dehumanizing, adherence to norms and rigidly playing our assigned roles. That line between good and evil is not an abstraction but “cuts through the center of every human heart,” according to poet and former Stalin era prisoner, Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Question: What makes people go wrong?
Answer: There are many reasons why people go wrong; it all depends on the situation – excluding those with mental disorders that can trigger rage and violence. They are hired guns in the mafia or the military or in children’s rebel militias. They mindlessly follow seemingly just ideologies that encourage any means necessary to realize their noble ends. They want to be “team players,” “to get with the program,” “to be in the popular click,” to not be rejected and cast in the out-group.
They go wrong by doing nothing, by being guilty of the evil of inaction, doing what their mothers urged them—not to get involved, to “mind their own business,” and let bad shit happen by looking the other way and holding their noses. Good people don’t rush in to do evil where angels fear to tread, instead they start by straying only a small way away from their moral center, and each successive step down is hardly different, barely noticeable, until it is too late and their behavior is shocking and may even be awesome of awful.
Question: How does a person resist undesirable influences?
Answer: Situational forces can make good people do bad things, but that does not translate into either suspending personal accountability or endorsing pessimistic determinism. We are ultimately responsible for the consequences of any of our behavior that is enacted intentionally; however, now we add to the accountability mix those responsible for creating and maintaining evil-generating behaviors.
I am advocating a revolution in legal theory that expands on the narrow individualistic focus by adding situations and systems to calculations of guilt and sentencing. Further, I advocate replacing the traditional medical model of individual disease and cure, which has spilled over into law, psychiatry, religion and most of our institutions, with a public health model.
The presence of pathology in a society alerts the search for the “disease vector” which when found enables inoculation against its toxicity and environmental modifications to prevent its spread. Finally, I must add the obvious recognition that people create situations and thus with wisdom and good will can change them to work for us rather than against us.
The last chapter of Lucifer lays out a basic program of central actions designed to increase our resistance potential. It is expanded in my web site to offer specific strategies and tactics of resistance geared to various types of influence—group conformity pressures, persuasive communications, compliance eliciting by influence professionals, cult recruiting, and more.
Question: Using the same factors that make people do bad things, can you make people do better and better, even heroic, things?
Answer: My new mission in life, my new calling, emerged as I was writing the final chapter of Lucifer. In rethinking Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” as a kind of every normal person’s situationally specific but temporary excursion into the realm of evil, I realized is counterpart was missing.
The “banality of heroism” describes ordinary people who engage in extraordinary deeds of service to humanity—in particular, usually once- in- a lifetime situational setting. Like those doing monstrous deeds that look “terrifying normal,” these ordinary heroes look “delightfully normal.”
So I argue that the very same situation that can inflame the “hostile imagination” in those who become perpetrators of evil can inspire the “heroic imagination” for the first time in any of us. To become a hero involves only two steps on humanity’s path:
One must act; moving away from the passivity of the mass of silent observers of evil or threats to life by somehow being catalyzed into action in that setting.
That action is taken on behalf of others; it is a socio-centric act against the evolutionary imperative of being ego-centric, of not taking risks or putting those precious genes in harm’s way.
My concern is how to promote in our children this heroic imagination, to make them accept the mantle of being a hero-in-waiting for a situation that will come along sometime in their lives when others are following the paths toward evil or toward indifference, and instead, they elect to act on behalf of another person or group or ideal without thought of personal gain or even recognition.
I have to believe that by creating a generation of such ordinary heroes is our best defense against evil, whether on the battlefield, in prisons, or corporate headquarters.