Huffington Post Features Dr. Philip Zimbardo, Famed Revealer of Systemic and Situational Factors Involved in the Emergence of “Evil” and Heroism
Last week, The Huffington Post featured someone whose name should always be in the mix when discussing ponerology: Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D., a man who has spent much of his life investigating the science of what makes people act in ways we might deem “good” vs. “evil.”
In our recent piece about Dr. James Fallon, we discussed the three ingredients that Fallon believes are required for the creation of a psychopathic killer.
- Certain structural and functional characteristics of the brain
- Certain variants of particular genes
- An environment that triggers the expression of these biological predispositions
While psychopathic killers can cause great harm to a certain number of people, they are relatively rare. The greater danger, from the perspective of society at large, is the emergence of “evil” on a broader scale within systems. And, as Andrew M. Lobaczewski makes clear in Political Ponerology, for that to happen, not only must people with disorders other than psychopathy be drawn into harmful activities, but so must some percentage of biologically healthy, normal people.
Zimbardo’s work has primarily focused on investigating how this latter event occurs – how everyday, average people can end up participating in destructive events.
Zimbardo has been a psychology professor at Stanford University for over forty years. He is best known for leading the team that conducted what has come to be known as the Stanford prison experiment back in 1971.
The study was actually funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research because they wanted to understand more precisely why military guards and prisoners come into conflict.
In the study, part of the basement of the Stanford psychology building was set up to resemble a dungeon. 75 participants were considered and, out of these, 24 male college students who were assessed as the most psychologically stable and healthy of the bunch were chosen. They were then randomly assigned to one of two roles – prisoner or guard.
Once divided into these roles, the participants were treated very much as their assigned role would normally entail.
- “Prisoners” were suddenly arrested by actual city police at an unexpected time, taken to the mock prison, fingerprinted, photographed, searched and dressed in uniforms, just as might take place in a real prison.
- “Guards” were dressed in professional uniforms, complete with batons, and instructed to do what it takes to maintain order.
Then the drama was allowed to unfold.
Zimbardo’s original hypothesis was that the conflicts in the scenario would arise due to the inherent personalities of the “guards” and the “prisoners.”
But instead, the study showed that these relatively healthy, normal participants quickly and deeply internalized their assigned roles within a system that justified and supported them in doing so.
- “Guards” began to treat prisoners poorly, with a third of them acting in genuinely sadistic ways.
- “Prisoners” became subdued and submissive, even turning against fellow prisoners who resisted the guards’ abuse.
Even Zimbardo himself was surprised by how extreme some of the situations became.
At its inception, the study was expected to last for two weeks. But some participants were so upset that they quit early and, after only six days, the entire experiment had to be shut down because of the excessive emotional trauma being manifested.
Decades later, during the Iraq War, when the abuse of prisoners by American personnel at Abu Ghraib prison came to light, many recognized the relevance of Zimbardo’s research to the case. So did Zimbardo himself. In fact, so much so that he became an expert witness for the defense of one of the accused Americans, Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Chip Frederick. In that role, he attempted to show that Frederick and some of the other perpetrators were not inherently evil people, but that, just as in the Stanford prison experiment, the systemic and situational forces involved played a significant role in generating the horrific activities that took place.
Zimbardo discusses the lessons of the Stanford prison experiment and his experience with the Abu Ghraib trials in his book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. The book uses the story of Lucifer, God’s favorite angel who fell and was transformed into Satan, as an allegory about how good people can, in certain situations or if intoxicated with power, become corrupted.
Zimbardo’s work is somewhat controversial. Some have criticized his methodology, while others have conducted similar studies using different methodologies and come to different conclusions. But Zimbardo himself is a strong advocate for the need to take into account systemic and situational factors when analyzing why harmful activities occur.
Now, the reason that all of this came up at this time is that, as mentioned earlier, Zimbardo was just featured by The Huffington Post.
The page, posted last Friday, features his 2008 TED talk entitled “The psychology of evil”, seen below:
The talk’s relevance to ponerology is immediately evident, as it begins with Zimbardo telling the audience:
“Philosophers, dramatists, theologians have grappled with this question for centuries: what makes people go wrong?”
while standing in front of an image of an ominous looking face superimposed with the words “Evil: What Makes People Go Wrong?”
In the talk, he discusses:
- How his early life experiences taught him that the line between a “good” and an “evil” person is not as fixed as some would like to believe
- His view that the world will always be filled with a yin/yang mixture of good and evil
- The paradox of the fact that, mythologically, God created Hell as a place to store evil, including His once favorite angel, Lucifer
- His definition of “evil”
- His experience working as an expert witness for the defense of Abu Ghraib perpetrator Staff Sgt. Chip Frederick
- The individual (dispositional) vs. situational vs. systemic factors involved in the abuses of Abu Ghraib
- The famous Milgram experiment, in which a surprisingly large percentage of participants were – if told to do so by a supposed authority figure as part of an ostensible “learning experiment” – willing to administer shocks to another person, even up to a dangerous degree of voltage. This experiment is often paired with the Stanford prison study as a famous example of the power of situational factors in the generation of harmful behavior.
- The relevance of the Milgram experiment to the Jonestown tragedy, in which hundreds committed suicide or were murdered as a consequence of their obedience to the People’s Temple founder and cult leader Jim Jones
- His Stanford prison study
- How anonymity changes behavior amongst warriors
- “7 social processes that grease the slippery slope of evil”
- Why harmful behavior must be studied using a public health model that assesses systemic and situational aspects rather than just focusing on individuals
- How we can promote heroism, especially by recognizing everyday heroes
The video is accompanied by a blog post written by Zimbardo entitled “Journeying From Evil to Heroism,” in which he covers much of the same material, but also tells the story of the TED talk itself, which was, apparently quite dramatic. Zimbardo says he ran over the strict time limit just as he was about to launch into the uplifting conclusion of his speech. Only after a special exception was made for him, because of the moderator’s belief in the importance of his message, was he able to complete his talk, explaining why it is so important that we not only study evil, but also focus on the other side of the coin, heroism, so as to better understand and promote it.
The enthusiastic response to this conclusion of his TED talk helped inspire and support Zimbardo in scaling up his current endeavor, the Heroic Imagination Project. This is a non-profit organization, of which he is president, “dedicated to promoting heroism in everyday life.” They also conduct investigations into how reformed people, who were previously involved in violent activities, were motivated and able to change.
Few people have made more of a name for themselves when it comes to the study of “good” and “evil” than Dr. Philip Zimbardo. And even at almost 80 years old, he is still continuing to do so. His work does not focus as much on the very important biological aspects of ponerology. But when it comes to thinking about the non-biological influences relevant to the field, Zimbardo has given us a lifetime of work to consider.
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Tags: abu ghraib, abuse, andrew m. lobaczewski, authority, brain, chip frederick, dispositional factors, environment, evil, genetics, god, good, hell, heroic imagination project, heroism, iraq war, james fallon, jim jones, jonestown, killers, lucifer, milgram experiment, philip zimbardo, political ponerology, power, prison, psychopathy, public health, reform, sadism, situational factors, stanford prison experiment, systemic factors, ted, the huffington post, the lucifer effect, trauma, violence
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