Profile of a psychologist: Philip Zimbardo

Philip Zimbardo, Psychology

Philip Zimbardo, Psychology

Philip G. Zimbardo is world renowned for his controversial study, the Stanford Prison experiment. In more recent years he has become known for his theory known as the “Lucifer Effect,” in which he investigates the question “What makes good people do bad things?” A Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University and currently still teaching, Zimbardo also holds the title of two-time past president of the Western Psychological Association and past president of the American Psychological Association. As a social psychologist, Zimbardo constantly questions how we interact and influence others in our society; however, most notably, he seeks to discover how our environment is and will remain our strongest influence.

Philip Zimbardo was born in 1933 to a Sicilian-American family in New York City, New York. His academic career landed him classmates with another future social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, in James Monroe High School. Next he merited a BA from Brooklyn College and a PhD from Yale University. After several years of teaching a universities all across the United States, he finally started his professorship at Stanford in 1968. Since 2000, Zimbardo has been on a mission to bring psychology to the forefront of research and also the public eye by presenting a TV series on “discovering psychology” and lecturing at TED, to name a few.

zimbardo2Inspired by Stanley Milgram’s obedience studies in 1963 that demonstrated the moral aberration people are willing to commit to obey authority, Zimbardo aimed to discover what makes people concede their moral compass when put in a place of power. Zimbardo wanted to uncover under what circumstances people would “willing use (or abuse) power granted to them.” In light of this curiosity, he carried out the Stanford Prison experiment in 1971. His subjects were twenty-four, mentally healthy, American, university students. The similarity of subjects attempted to control for all dependent variables. Randomly, the students were assigned the role of “guard or prisoner.” Then one morning the “prisoners” were arrested by real police officers whom booked to them be transferred to the mock prison built in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department.

zimbardo3Once transferred into the “prison,” the “prisoners” were “stripped, searched, deloused, and given uniforms and bedding.” The prisoners were then stripped of their identify and dehumanised by the “guards” who were told to  refer to them by assigned numbers. To heighten their lack of freedom, the “prisoners” also had a chain bolted around one ankle. The “guards” wore military inspired uniforms, sunglasses (to prevent eye-contact) in addition to carrying keys, whistles, handcuffs and clubs. The “guards” patrolled 24 hours a day and where given full control of the “prisoners” to maintain order. It did not take long for the environment to quickly turn “threatening” forcing the experiment to end prematurely after only six days.

Every single “guard” became “abusive and authoritarian; prisoners were denied food or bedding, hooded, chained, and made to clean toilet bowls with their hands.” The “prisoners” were used as playthings to take part in the “guards” degrading games. One prisoner had to be released after only thirty-six hours after suffering a nervous break.

Zimbardo’s findings, the basis for the Lucifer Effect showed the world that good people can be induced to evil by “immersion” in “total situations.” Total situations have an “apparently legitimizing ideology and approved rules and roles.”  Zimbardo served as an expert witness in the defense of a guard during the Abu Ghraib trails, which as Zimbardo discusses in his TED video, showed many parallels with the Stanford Prison Experiment. The Abu Ghraib prison abuse against Iraqi prisoners by American soliders gathered wide controversy. Please view the TED video for further information. The scary thing Zimbardo explains is that “any deed that any human being has even done, however horrible, is possible for any of us to do – under the right or wrong situational pressures.” However, as Zimbardo discusses in his final chapter of The Lucifier Effect, his book, these situational pressures not only shows human capacity for evil but also for heroism.

Citations:

Collin, Catherine. The Psychology Book. New York: DK Pub., 2012. Print.

“Philip G. Zimbardo.” Philip G. Zimbardo. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Aug. 2012. <http://www.zimbardo.com/&gt;.

Zimbardo, Philip G. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New York: Random House, 2007. Print.