Breaking Down Prison Walls

Dr. Zimbardo shares insights into our capacity for good & evil

News | Laurence Doering | June 2011

"We’re going on a journey," Philip Zimbardo warned his audience, convened by the Webster University Psychology Department at the Amerikahaus May 31, before embarking on a meandering, two-hour lecture.

And yet, everybody stayed on board. In part, this is because Philip Zimbardo, aged 78, is one the most famous psychologists alive: His controversial Stanford Prison Experiment, which he conducted as a young researcher in 1971, has become a classic of social psychology. But it is also because of the continuing urgency and insightful content of his talk.

In fact, Zimbardo traced the overlapping stories of his research and biography: The question "What makes some people go bad?" has preoccupied Zimbardo since he was a boy growing up in poverty in the Bronx. While some of his peers became drug addicts or killers, Zimbardo went to Brooklyn College, and from there to Yale.

His subsequent research gave him an answer to that early question: Our brain has the same capacity for good and evil (or, altruism and sadism), yet circumstances decide which will prevail.

Zimbardo became a "situationist" psychologist, opposing "dispositionists" who claimed that a "sadistic" personality was the cause of evil acts.

The Stanford Prison Experiment had shown that university students who were hippies and anti-war activists could, in certain circumstances, become torturers. Instructed to "maintain order"  in an improvised prison installed in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department, students acting as "prison guards" soon resorted to psychological and sexual harassment to force the compliance of their fellow students in the roles of "prisoners".

While an outcry from ethics boards made a repetition of the experiment impossible, history itself has recreated the same conditions: In 2006, pictures from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison showed young American soldiers engaging in the same kinds of abuse observed by Zimbardo at Stanford. While the Bush administration blamed a few "bad apples", the psychologist saw "good apples spoilt by a bad barrel": the soldiers were under pressure from the military intelligence service to "break the will" of detainees ahead of interrogation, while higher ranking officers looked the other way.

Understanding how people can be prevented from slipping into sadistic and indifferent roles is the converse side of Zimbardo’s work. If his original message was "everybody can be evil," he is now arguing, equally vehemently, that "everybody can be heroic" and show solidarity even at a cost to oneself.

Zimbardo wants no less than to start a social revolution triggered (how else?) by the Internet: People will be able to sign up online and receive encouragement and advice to, say, speak out against racism, or help a relative stop smoking. The idea is that arming people with a basic knowledge of social psychology will enable them to break through the pressures towards conformity and obedience. Albeit, those pressures may be more than psychological: When the military investigator James Schlesinger accused the army command of complicity in the Abu Ghraib events, he was fired.

The system protects itself, perpetuating situations that turn good apples into bad ones, Zimbardo said. Will you be the one to blow the whistle?

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