Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, October 29, 2003

Psychology professor reflects on a life studying violence and evil


As a young boy born into poverty in New York City, psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo lived through two experiences that have helped shape his life.

In 1939, Zimbardo spent six miserable months in a charity hospital with other contagious children. Isolated from his family, the 5-year-old learned the importance of making and sustaining human relationships. Later, when Zimbardo first stepped into the clean, orderly environment of elementary school, he discovered that education could help him escape the filth and chaos he associated with being poor.

"What I love is good teaching and education ... and always reaching out to people," he said during a well-attended talk Oct. 22 in Memorial Church that was sponsored as part of the noontime series "What Matters to Me and Why."

Zimbardo, an expert on violence and evil, also detailed what he despises.

"I hate the arrogance of power and control; I hate deception and lies and secrecy," he said. "Combining that -- that's the Bush administration. I deplore what the Bush administration is doing to destroy basic American values."

During a discussion that extended well beyond the usual hourlong time slot, Zimbardo told stories about his humble beginnings. Holding up a shoeshine brush and an old-fashioned safety razor that once belonged to his Italian immigrant forebears, Zimbardo said that without education he would be shining shoes and giving haircuts today. "Because of the gift of education, I am here," he said. "Education gives people the opportunity to rise from any status."

The fundamental difference between poor people and the middle class is a sense of time, Zimbardo said. "When you're poor, you live in the present, you live in survival mode," he said. "To be middle-class -- to be us -- you give up that present orientation for a future [one]. None of us would be here if we were not future oriented." Zimbardo credited his schoolteachers for showing him the value of delayed gratification as a way to organize one's life. "Those school teachers [taught] me you have to be future oriented if you want to succeed," he said.

Since Zimbardo joined the university faculty in 1968, he has worked mostly with undergraduates. "My job is to get students excited about psychology and excited about learning. You have to be passionate about communicating," he said. "That's my motto."

Much of Zimbardo's groundbreaking research has come out of undergraduate class discussions, he explained, including the renowned 1971 "Prison Experiment." Zimbardo said he wanted to learn what happens when good people are put in an evil place. The results were chilling: A planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended after only six days because the student "guards" quickly became sadistic while the student "prisoners" became depressed and extremely stressed.

During the talk, Zimbardo related the Prison Experiment to his broader work on the psychology of evil. Although Western societies take a dispositional approach in looking to bad people as the fundamental source of evil, Zimbardo said, it is more critical to understand "the crucible of human nature in which anyone of us could do any evil deed under the right or wrong circumstances."

Psychology Professor Al Bandura refers to this phenomenon as "moral disengagement," Zimbardo said, a situation where otherwise moral people are able to neutralize their morals to allow them to carry out and justify horrific actions they would never commit under ordinary circumstances. For example, he said, later research on Nazi concentration camp guards found them to be "perfectly normal" before and after the period when they were responsible for the deaths of millions of Jews during World War II.

Zimbardo argued that taking a dispositional approach -- finding the source of evil and eliminating it -- only creates more evil. The Bush administration's reaction to terrorism, he said, is to find the perpetrators and remove them. "My argument is, you have to understand what [is in] the hearts and minds of suicide bombers ... and terrorists; what are the conditions that make someone a terrorist?" he said. "Only then can you say how you can begin to change those conditions."

During the talk, Zimbardo referred to what he calls "the politics of fear" and how both terrorists and the Bush administration have taken this basic human emotion and turned it into a weapon. "One of the terrible things about our current environment is that we are living in George Orwell's 1984 world," he said. "Everything that happens, day by day -- what you read and see in the media -- is prophesying George Orwell."

Zimbardo recounted that at a recent lecture at Boston University, a student asked whether he was concerned about repercussions related to his public criticism of the Bush administration. Zimbardo responded that a faculty member shouldn't be afraid to dissent. Otherwise, he continued, "that's called fascism, that's not democracy." Zimbardo said there is virtually no dissent on college campuses today. "For me, that's a shame; that's embarrassing," he said.

Zimbardo said his mother always told him to treat America well because it had been good to his family. "My sense is the way to be good to America is by publicly voicing my outrage about what these people are doing to our country," he said.


Philip Zimbardo