Philip Zimbardo

How Good People Are Transformed into Perpetrators Of Evil

5 Lessons From The Stanford Prison "Experiment"

Philip Zimbardo - How Good People Are Transformed into Perpetrators Of Evil.
5 Lessons From The Stanford Prison "Experiment". Portrait picture.

Introduction To Philip Zimbardo

Philip Zimbardo is a psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University, where he started teaching in 1968 and has taught for over 50 years, and continues to conduct research.

His profile on the the American Psychological Association shows that:

"He has authored more than 300 professional articles, chapters and books representing his broad and varied interests in topics ranging from exploratory and sexual behavior in rats to persuasion, dissonance, hypnosis, cults, shyness, time perspective, prisons and madness"

His books and textbooks for college students include “Psychology and Life,” “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil” and “The Time Paradox.”

Philip Zimbardo is a dedicated educator who has dedicated 50+ years to continued lecturing, teaching and mentoring and for which he has earned a well deserved reputation.

He is a social activist and has championed prison reform and other  causes thoughout his career.

In this and the acompanying articles on Stanford Prison Experiment [SPE] and The Lucifer Effect I am critical of some of his work.

Before undertaking the research in preparation of these articles I had always held Philip Zimbardo in the highest regard and in many ways I still do, but I have to say that I was shocked and dismayed by what I found when I examined the public domain information on the SPE and his much later follow up book prompted in no small measure by the Abu Ghraib atrocities.

As a direct consequence of this research and review of the available material, I can only present in truth what I have found.

Not withstanding my observations and commentary on these subjects I still believe Philip Zimbardo to be an extraordinary man and an honorable man. I also believe he has contributed much to our understanding of the situational dynamics of how ordinary people can react when experiencing extreme pressure to do the wrong thing, although with regard to the SPE this contribution may not now be seen in the way in which he originally intended.

For a very interesting insight into the man, his early years and formative experiences that have shaped his research and career I commend this interview he gave to Dr George M. Slavich of the University of California in 2009:

On 50 Years of Giving Psychology Away: An Interview With Philip Zimbardo






Philip Zimbardo - Early Influences On The Adoption Of A Situationist Perspective

In his own words Philip Zimbardo explains how his early life and the tough environment in which he grew up shaped and influenced his adoption of a situationist perspective:

"My bias is admittedly more toward situational analyses of behavior, which comes both from my training as an experimental social psychologist, and also from having grown up in poverty in a New York City ghetto of the South Bronx.

I believe that dispositional orientations are more likely to correlate with affluence, since the rich want to take full credit for their success, while situationists arise more from the lower classes who want to explain away -- onto external circumstances -- the obvious dysfunctional life styles of those around them.

But I am primarily concerned with understanding the psychological and social dynamics involved when an ordinary, "good" person begins to act in anti-social ways, and in the extreme, behaves destructively toward the property or person of other people.

I have seen first hand my childhood friends go through such transformations, and always wondered how and why they did, and whether I could also change like that.

I was similarly fascinated with the behavioral transformation tale of Robert Louis Stevenson’s good Dr. Jekyll into the murderous Mr. Hyde. What was in his chemical formula that could have such an immediate and profound impact?"



    "But then even as a child, I wondered, were there other ways to induce such changes, since my friends did not have access to his elixir of evil before they did such bad things to other people.

    I would later discover that social psychology had recipes for such transformations." [Philip Zimbardo]


Philip Zimbardo's comments above are taken from a detailed and fascinating chapter that he contributed to a chapter in: "The social psychology of good and evil: Understanding our capacity for kindness and cruelty". [Arthur Miller. New York: Guilford. Publication date: 2004].

In the abstract to this article/chapter Zimbardo sets out his stall:

"I endorse a situationist perspective on the ways in which anti-social behavior by individuals, and of violence sanctioned by nations, is best understood, treated and prevented.

Unique to this situationist approach is using experimental laboratory and field research as demonstrations of vital phenomena that other approaches only analyze verbally or rely on archival or correlational data for answers.

The basic paradigm to be presented illustrates the relative ease with which "ordinary," good men and women are induced into behaving in evil ways by turning on or off one or another social situational variable."

He states that his view of the situationist perspective is grounded in:

  • Laboratory and field studies on deindividuation, aggression, vandalism, and of course the Stanford Prison Experiment
  • A process analysis of Milgram's obedience studies
  • Bandura's analysis of “moral disengagement”
  • The evil of inaction by considering bystander failures of helping those in distress.

He proposes that:

"This body of research demonstrates the under-recognized power of social situations to alter the mental representations and behavior of individuals, groups and nations. "

...and concludes:

"Finally, I explore extreme instances of “evil” behavior for their dispositional or situational foundations – torturers, death squad violence workers and terrorist suicide-bombers."



    I commend this chapter to you as:

    1. An excellent and readable insight to the subject of situational influence on personal moral choices and, of equal interest and importance...
    2. A good primer on Zimbardo's research, analysis and thinking on this subject, together with extensive references and resources.


You can download this article in full in PDF format:

A Situationist Perspective on the Psychology of Evil - Understanding How Good People Are Transformed into Perpetrators











The 3 Key Themes Of Philip Zimbardo's Long Career


[1] The Stanford Prison Experiment [1971]

The Stanford Prison Experiment

The now world-famous Stanford Prison Experiment [SPE] prison simulation study to demonstrate the power of social situation to influence people's behaviour. The study had to be terminated after only six days - of a scheduled 14 days -  because allegedly the behaviour of the participants role-playing prison guards got completely out of hand leading to several distressing outcomes and the alleged emotional and psychological breakdown of some of the participants

The Greatest Showman

Philip Zimbardo has established a fine and well deserved reputation as a researcher and an educator and the full spectrum of his research interests are extensive. But it is this now infamous study which made his name and brought him into wider media and public consciousness.

The narrative and drama of the SPE Study lends itself for popular consumption and this study along with the equally famous Millgram Experiment focusing on obedience to authority figures now ranks as one of, if not the, most talked about social psychological studies.

The theme of the SPE study caught the popular mind with the concept that ordinary "good" people can be subverted and perverted into performing acts of evil by the situational forces impacting them and thus in my view providing a convenient and acceptable explanation for what would otherwise be a far more challenging interpretation, namely that we all have an inner heart of darkness.

Philip Zimbardo has a very good run off of the back of the SPE and in many ways it has been the "gift that keeps on giving" throughout his career. He is a great communicator and has utilised his presentational and communication gifts to the limit as he has spun the SPE study every which way over the past 50 years.

Stanford Prison Experiment Debunked

The SPE study has been reviewed extensively and has to a large extent been debunked. This is a controversial subject and there are extensive resources now in the public domain.

In a sense, this study is one of two bookends to his career. The second bookend is his message of hope espoused in recent years with his work on heroism and the counter-balance between an evil choice with the choice to act heroically.

Thus, the subversion of a "good" ordinary person through the pressure of situational dynamics can be transmuted by the exercising of a choice to resist the evil environment and the moral decision to act heroically (for example as a whistle-blower) and thus make a stand for what is morally right.

Abu Ghraib Atrocities and Revisionism in "The Lucifer Effect"

In between these two bookends we have his work on "The Lucifer Effect" in which he discusses more recently released material from the Stanford Prison Experiment and draws a direct line between that and the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, in Iraq,  in 2003.

Zimbardo was an expert witness for Ivan "Chip" Frederick one of the soldiers convicted of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison Iraq. Zimbardo's testimony was rejected by the judge.

I am going to discuss the SPE debunking arguments and the subsequent revisionism and more contemporary "Lucifer Effect" extrapolations by Zimbardo in two separate articles:

Stanford Prison Experiment

The Lucifer Effect













[2] The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil


This book, published in 2007,  which for the first time includes Zimbardo's full detailed, written account of the events surrounding the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment including the psychological and social factors which result in immoral acts being committed by otherwise moral people. It also includes examination of the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib in 2003 and the subsequent trial at which he was an expert defence witness for one of the guards.

Zimbardo says: "Good people can be induced, seduced, and initiated into behaving in evil ways. They can also be led to act in irrational, stupid, self-destructive, antisocial, and mindless ways when they are immersed in 'total situations' that impact human nature in ways that challenge our sense of the stability and consistency of individual personality, of character, and of morality." [The Lucifer Effect, p. 211]


Video [graphic images]: Zimbardo on The Lucifer Effect


Further Reading: The Lucifer Effect







[3] The Heroic Imagination Project


Philip Zimbardo is also president of the Heroic Imagination Project, which teaches people how to overcome the natural human tendency to watch and wait in moments of crisis.

Commenting in an interview for "The Greater Good" on "The Banality Of Heroism" Zimbardo reflects:

"...because evil is so fascinating, we have been obsessed with focusing upon and analyzing evildoers.

Perhaps because of the tragic experiences of the Second World War, we have neglected to consider the flip side of the banality of evil: Is it also possible that heroic acts are something that anyone can perform, given the right mind-set and conditions?

Could there also be a “banality of heroism”?

The banality of heroism concept suggests that we are all potential heroes waiting for a moment in life to perform a heroic deed.

The decision to act heroically is a choice that many of us will be called upon to make at some point in time.

By conceiving of heroism as a universal attribute of human nature, not as a rare feature of the few “heroic elect,” heroism becomes something that seems in the range of possibilities for every person, perhaps inspiring more of us to answer that call."








Further Reading - Download PDF: The Banality Of Heroism





How Does Philip Zimbardo's Work Align With The Themes Of This Site?

I believe that Philip Zimbardo has contributed greatly to our understanding of the situationist perspective as to why people can change and choose to exercise bad/evil behaviour in response to the pressures and demands of the environment upon them. For this reason alone, I personally regard him as an inspirational person.

Directly, and more indirectly, the revised understanding of the Stanford Prison Experiment  further expands the situationist perspective.

In his subsequent analysis of SPE in The Lucifer Effect Zimbardo challenged the prevailing systemic view that this bad behaviour is just the result of a few "bad apples in the barrel" and suggests that it is the "barrel" itself that is the problem.

He then expands this idea and suggests that responsibility and culpability sits with the political and military leaders who he frames as "the barrel makers".

In my analysis of the The Lucifer Effect I have identified a further, and I believe major, additional factor in what affects the choices people make when being impacted by situational factors and that is what I have termed Persons of Direct Influence [PODI].

The relationship between the individual and the PODI can be formal as in the traditional line or matrix management role or informal [i.e. non-official] in the role of mentor, guide or informal leader.

On the basis of the work of Zimbardo (and many others) and from my own lived and observed life experience there is a lot of evidence to suggest that a PODI can significantly influence how the individual frames the circumstance affecting them and the choices made.

Finally, I want to add two further perspectives, both of which relate to the emotional dimension in terms of: firstly, the impact of peer-to-peer "emotional contagion"; and secondly, the impact of "primal leadership" - how the leader's emotions are contagious from the top down and infect the "barrel".

  1. Social Contagion - The tidal swirl of other people's emotional turbulenceElaine Hatfield Professor of Psychology (University of Hawaii), and co-author of a pioneering academic book Emotional Contagion defines “primitive” emotional contagion as the:  “...tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally.”
  2. Primal Leadership - How a leader's emotions infect an organisation. In 2001 Daniel Goleman introduced the concept of what he termed "Primal leadership" and outlined research that he and his team conducted in a study of 3,871 executives and their direct reports and it showed that the leader’s style determines about 70% of the emotional climate which in turns drives 20-30% of business performance. Daniel Goleman says:  "Emotions are contagious, and they are most contagious from the top down, from leader to followers."

Conclusions

The purpose of this site is to show you how to cope in tough times, and to provide you with the tools to do this successfully.

In your experience of tough times there are  - or will be - situations where you experience overwhelming pressure to conform and comply with things that are just plain wrong or intrinsically evil.




    The 5 lessons from Philip Zimbardo's story, and the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, to be aware of:

    1. Your capacity for self-deception and for deluding yourself into doing bad things for good reasons.
    2. The power of the emotional impact of a difficult situation to cloud your better judgement, and especially a situation which drags on for a long time.
    3. How much you can be effected by  "primal leadership" - the top down emotional impact of a leader.
    4. How the impact of a person of influence, who is direct to you [PODI], can be a major determinant of how you choose to think and behave in this tough situation.
    5. Whether you hold power, or are on the receiving end, always factor in that power corrupts and the greater the situational power that you hold, or receive, the greater the likelihood of corruption.







Philip Zimbardo - Further Recommended Reading On This Site


Stanford Prison Experiment

Yes you can fool most of the people for over 30 years. A masterclass in self deception.


The Lucifer Effect

Understanding how good people do bad things and how persons of direct influence can appeal to the better angels of our nature, or not....









Return from "Philip Zimbardo" to: Home Page




English Chinese (Traditional) Russian French German Italian Spanish Vietnamese


LATEST ARTICLES

  1. Situational Communication - Different Strokes For Different Folks

    Situational communication is about taking account of 3 often ignored factors about the other person. You are a situational communicator when you recognise that effective communication is not an event…

    Read More

  2. How To Influence Without Authority - 6 Key Tips

    The secret to how to influence without authority is that you get what you really want by giving other people what they really want. We live in an interconnected world and knowing how to influence with…

    Read More

  3. Change Questions To Change Your Outcomes

    Asking The Right Questions Is Critical For A Successful Change. Every time we initiate a significant change - whether in our personal life or in an organisation - we will most likely over-estimate our…

    Read More

  4. Group Culture - The Invisible Software That Rules Your Life

    Group culture is: "How we do things round here". We like to see ourselves as free agents making our own choices and living authentically but the reality is that The Matrix has many layers and we are u…

    Read More

  5. Why Getting From A to B Is Not Aways A Straight Line

    In circumstances of significant change, the progress from A to B will not be in a straight line. We run our lives largely on auto-pilot. In most circumstances your experience of getting from A to B is…

    Read More

  6. The Art Of Persuasion Planning For Success - Here's How To Do It!

    To be successful in the art of persuasion you must ensure that certain things happen. To be successful in the art of persuasion you must establish a framework of what has to happen to get you to that…

    Read More

  7. The Art Of Persuasion Advanced Communication Skills - Gaining Buyin

    Create The Environment Where They Want To Buyin to Your Proposal In order to build the win-win you have to uncover what it is that the other person really wants or needs, and to do that you have to as…

    Read More

  8. The Art Of Persuasion The One Fundamental Principle - Create A Win-Win

    The art of persuasion is based on the simple idea that you get what you want by enabling the other party to get what they want. Being a nice friendly person with good inter-personal skills may be a go…

    Read More

  9. Communication Persuasion And Change - Key Skills To Survive & Succeed

    It's not the strongest that survive, nor the most intelligent, but those who are most responsive to change, the most persuasive, and the best communicators. We are living in an age of unprecedented ch…

    Read More

  10. The Eisenhower Box - What Is Important Is Seldom Urgent

    What Is Important Is Seldom Urgent And What Is Urgent Is Seldom Important. The Eisenhower Box is a time management and decision-making model devised by President Dwight Eisenhower to help him prioriti…

    Read More

  11. Zen Enlightenment [Satori] - The Stink Of Zen

    Lost In Our Delusions About Enlightenment. There is something in human nature - a desire to glamorise, sanctify, objectify and idolise – that elevates people who have offered deep insights to the huma…

    Read More

  12. 5 Zen Mindsets For Mastery - In Any Area Of Your Life

    The Wisdom Of A Person Who Masters In Any Art Is Reflected In Their Every Attitude. The state and quality of your mind has a very large bearing on the quality of your performance in any area of life t…

    Read More

  13. Dealing With The Toxicity Of Online Dating - 6 Key Tips From A Clinical Psychologist

    Toxicity Is The Price Tag Of Accessibility. In the early days of online dating, users were vetted and had to go through a registration process and agree to comply with a code of conduct designed to en…

    Read More

  14. Why Understanding Ergodicity Is Critical To Your Long Term Survival

    How Not To Be Fooled By Randomness. Ergodicity is an ugly word from the world of mathematics. It is an umbrella term for two sets of conditions of probability and outcome. These two conditions form th…

    Read More

  15. Dealing With Imposter Syndrome - Ego Is The Enemy

    How You Frame A Situation Has A Profound Impact On How You Respond To It Emotionally. Imposter syndrome is a psycho-emotional experience of a fear of being found out as incompetent despite ongoing evi…

    Read More

  16. The Challenges Of The Road Less Traveled

    Issues You'll Face When Playing The Long Game. The challenges of the road less traveled is loosely based around the phrase popularised by M.Scott Peck with his book "The Road Less Traveled". This arti…

    Read More

  17. How To Benefit From the Unseen Margins - 5 Key Tips For Success

    These Unseen Margins Can Have A Very Dramatic Impact On Your Life. To understand how to benefit from the unseen margins we need to start by understanding what they are and where we find them. In this…

    Read More

  18. The Art Of Thinking Clearly - How To Do More Than Just Survive And Reproduce

    3 Key Tips The art of thinking clearly starts with the sobering realisation that our brains are designed to achieve two things: Survival and Reproduction! 98% of our thinking is unconscious, automatic…

    Read More

  19. Algorithms to Live By - 5 Useful Rules Of Thumb

    5 Useful Heuristics From Algorithms To Live By The thesis of the book "Algorithms to Live By" is that algorithms developed for computers can be used by people in everyday life in a wide range of situa…

    Read More

  20. Finding Signal In The Noise - How To Avoid The Noise Bottleneck

    The Art Of Being Wise Is The Art Of Knowing What To Overlook. We are blessed and cursed to live in the digital age. We have access to more information than we can possibly handle yet we struggle to fi…

    Read More

  21. The Checklist Manifesto - Your Personal Safety Net

    A Checklist Is A Safety Net That Encourages Better Results And Prevents Avoidable Mistakes. The volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correc…

    Read More

  22. How Not To Be Stupid - 4 Key Tips

    How To Avoid The 7 Causes Of Everyday Stupidity. We are all capable of everyday stupidity as we undertake routine tasks in our business and working lives and also in our personal lives. This is not ab…

    Read More

  23. Beginners Mind And The Voice Of Experience

    Only The Experts Survived Evolution. "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." These are the famous words of Shunryu Suzuki in "Zen Mind, Beginner's Min…

    Read More

  24. The Art Of Being Alone Is A Skill

    Let's Make Today A Good Day. You may not have chosen the condition of being alone, and it may have been imposed upon you by circumstances beyond your control, but your response to the situation is wit…

    Read More

  25. Intuition & Anxiety - Are There Angels Or Devils Calling Here?

    How To Tell The Difference Between Intuition and Anxiety. How do you know whether the voice of your intuition is real or just the product of your inner anxiety? We all struggle with these inner voices…

    Read More

  26. Like A Prayer - Life Is A Mystery

    It Isn't The Process Of Prayer That’s The Problem, It’s The Way It’s Framed. Regardless of what we feel about Madonna or her song the topic of prayer often arouses strong reactions. Usually, it is som…

    Read More

  27. Fear Of Missing Out - "I'll Have What She's Having!"

    We Follow The Herd - We Mimic Other People's Choices. Fear of missing out - or FOMO as it is popularly referred to - is the feeling that everyone else in your peer group is having much more fun than y…

    Read More

  28. Free - Self Improvement Resources

    Exercising Balance and Discernment. I have just updated these self improvement resources with a number of additional sources of material that are practical and can help you change your life. Check it…

    Read More

  29. Your Higher Self - Your Hardwired Portal To The Universe

    This Is The You That Is Beyond Your Thinking Mind. This is the big you, the transcendent you, the you that is often referred to as your higher consciousness or higher self. This is the you that acts a…

    Read More

  30. The Power Of Gratitude - It's Good For You!

    Gratitude And Attitude Are Not Challenges, They Are Choices. The power of gratitude quite simply is that it is good for you! Many of us were raised by parents who instilled in us the social niceties o…

    Read More



Get new posts by email:









Zen-Tools.Net





Support This Site