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....









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