Philip Zimbardo: The Hero of Evil

Philip Zimbardo

No study of psychology would be complete without the teachings of Philip Zimbardo.

Besides his status as a professor emeritus at Stanford University, he also served as president of the American Psychological Association, published more than 50 books (including the oldest actively used psychology textbook), and starred in his own television series.

His accolades include the American Psychological Foundation’s lifetime achievement award and the Dagmar and Vaclav Havel Foundation Vision 97 Award for his contribution to psychology.

His research continues to shape the field. Though he is primarily considered a social psychologist, there is hardly an area of psychology that hasn’t been advanced by his work.

However, Zimbardo is perhaps best known for architecting the infamous and unethical study known as the Stanford Prison Experiment.


Where Does Evil Come From?

Stanford prison experiment

This is a question that has plagued humans for millennia. What prompts good people to commit heinous acts?

In works ranging from the writings of Socrates to the music of rapper Kendrick Lamar, humans have pondered whether evil is inherent in humans.

A young Philip Zimbardo was no stranger to these questions. Growing up in the Bronx, he saw many of his otherwise moral friends commit uncharacteristic crimes. His hunch was that a person’s environment influences his or her tendency to act immorally.

This theory was confirmed by Zimbardo’s former high school classmate, Stanley Milgram, who led an experiment in which subjects were paired with other people (whom they could hear but couldn’t see) and were told to quiz them. The subjects were told to press a button each time their partners got a question wrong and were told that pressing the button administered an electric shock to the other person.

The subjects were told that the voltage started a harmless 15 volts and increased with time. Unbeknownst to the subjects, the other people were not actually being shocked and were acting as part of the experiment.

Though they could hear the people scream in protest and beg the subjects to stop, 65% of the subjects continued shocking the other people, even when the voltage reached lethal levels and administrators told them to keep going.

Because the voltage was raised gradually, the participants were not resistant to following orders. Although the initial voltage was harmless, Zimbardo concluded that “all evil starts at 15 volts.” 


The Stanford Prison Experiment

Soon after learning about the results of Milgram’s experiment, Zimbardo conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment where 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 arrested in a realistic way: 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 prison uniforms.

This realistic setting started as a typical study—where prisoners mostly ignored their fellow student’s orders—into a nightmare in which every person fully embraced their role without question.

The guards, lacking accountability for their actions, began to mentally and physically abuse the prisoners. That abuse included guards forcing prisoners to clean out toilet bowls with their bare hands and ordering some prisoners to sleep naked on concrete floors.

The terms of the study included that each subject was to receive $15 for each day of participation, but even when those 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 riots, attacked prisoners with fire extinguishers, and employed harsh manipulation tactics to get the prisoners to comply.

Even Zimbardo began to internalize his role as the prison warden and did not understand the severity of the situation.

The experiment was originally scheduled to last two weeks but was brought to a halt when Christina Maslach, Zimbardo’s then-girlfriend (now his wife), objected to the abuse.

Zimbardo shut down the experiment after Day 6.

While the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments are common examples of why we need committees to oversee the ethics of psychology research, the implications of these experiments are much greater.

stanford prison
Image Retrieved by URL, Courtesy of Creative Commons 2.0

Both experiments help show that someone’s inherent goodness does not alone determine whether he or she will commit evil deeds.

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 in determining people’s actions.

Perhaps more significantly, the experiments shatter a belief that most people hold: that they would never be capable of such inhumane actions; perhaps in certain contexts, everyone is capable of evil. 

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.”

These experiments provide a framework to understand similar circumstances in which these types of pressures are observed.

For example, the US government discovered in 2004 pictures of U.S. troops torturing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. While government officials sought to identify and punish the few “deranged” individuals who were responsible, Zimbardo identified the parallels between this situation and his own experiment.

He served as an expert witness in the criminal trial against the U.S. soldiers and found that the social processes that promote evil were all present during the time and place of these horrific acts.

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 2007 book, The Lucifer Effect, summarizes his findings. He has transitioned into studying how we can use these findings to prevent the creation of villains and instead, create heroes.


From Villains to Heroes

Philip zimbardo heroes and villains

After spending several decades studying evil, Zimbardo found that many of the occasions that give rise to evil behavior are also opportunities for heroism.

For example, Joseph Darby, a former U.S. Army reservist, blew the whistle on the abuse at Abu Ghraib, despite the great risk to himself and his family.

Through his sacrifice, he ended the torture that went undetected for years. Instead of being celebrated, Darby and his family had to go into hiding for three years.

Unlike appreciating superheroes or sports icons, who are admired for their gifts, Zimbardo says we need to encourage an appreciation for those who are heroes because of their courage, like Darby.

They show that you don’t need wealth, special skills, influence, or superpowers in order to be a hero, according to Zimbardo.

Courageous heroes are the type Zimbardo promotes through his Heroic Imagination Project. This project centers around the idea that:

“the opposite of a hero is not a villain – it is a bystander.”

In addition to highlighting everyday heroes, Zimbardo has created a wealth of research surrounding the topic of heroism. He found common characteristics amongst people who have committed heroic acts, including a history of volunteering, being well-educated, and surviving a prior disaster.

In conducting his research on heroism, Zimbardo found that most people are neither good nor evil, but are instead just neutral and passive. A large goal of Zimbardo’s project is to reduce indifference, which Zimbardo says allows evil to exist.

In his TED Talk titled The Psychology of Evil, Zimbardo features a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr., which states how:

“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.”

We can look at Zimbardo’s own prison experiment as a prime example. Only one-third of the student prison guards were observed to be sadistic, while the rest passively complied with the minority’s sadistic impulses.

Many posit that if we to go back in time to Nazi Germany, we would see this same trend among soldiers in Adolf Hitler’s regime.

Philip Zimbardo has greatly advanced our understanding of morality and continues to do so today.

On top of that, he has contributed to other areas of psychology. He recently researched how changing our perception of time can help us better promote success in our lives. He has studied why boys are underperforming academically and socially compared to girls and how we can fix that imbalance.

This overview is by no means comprehensive, and you can learn more about one of the most influential researchers in modern psychology by watching any of the TED Talks embedded below, or by reading one of his many books.

Do you think Zimbardo has balanced his own contribution of good, neutrality, and evil? We would love to hear your comments below.  


TED Talks

The Psychology of Evil

The Demise of Guys

The Psychology of Time

About the Author

Asif Dhanani is a web developer who is currently transitioning towards becoming a Positive Psychology coach. His interest in Positive Psychology developed as a student at UC Berkeley, where he studied cognitive science and worked in a lab that studied fear and anxiety.

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