Big crowd attends farewell lecture of Philip Zimbardo

L.A. Cicero Philip Zimbardo

Philip Zimbardo joined the Stanford faculty in 1968.

Psychology Professor Emeritus Philip Zimbardo bowed out in style March 7, capping a 50-year-long career with a memorable lecture on the psychology of evil, a discussion that previewed his forthcoming book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.

Zimbardo, 73, who is busy with television appearances on ABC's 20/20 and Comedy Central's The Daily Show, as well as a promotional book tour, last week announced plans to stop studying evil—the subject he is best known for as a result of his groundbreaking 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment—to focus on what he calls "the banality of heroism."

"I'm never going to study evil again," he said.

Although Zimbardo retired from Stanford in 2003, he returns to give guest lectures in the Psychology One Program, a flagship course headed by Associate Professor James Gross that enrolls up to 600 undergraduates a year. But last Wednesday Zimbardo passed the baton—in the form of an American Indian talking stick—to Assistant Professor Benoit Monin, who teaches the course during winter quarter. In return, Monin referred to Zimbardo, who has taught Introduction to Psychology since he first arrived at Stanford in 1968, as the department's "fairy godfather" and presented him with a black fedora, which the professor promptly donned to applause from an overcapacity audience of present and former students, colleagues and fans.

"God did a Zimical—a Zimbardo miracle—by taking a non-tenured assistant professor from New York University in the Bronx and making [him] a full professor at the number-one psychology department in the universe," said the distinguished professor, with a touch of characteristic showmanship.

Psychology Professor Lee Ross, a longtime colleague, afterward praised Zimbardo's contributions as a teacher and researcher as "probably unmatched by anyone—not only at Stanford, but throughout the world." He said Zimbardo's books and films "make our science come alive and show its relevance to pressing social issues and everyday problems and phenomena." These include more than 350 articles and 50 books, including Psychology and Life, the oldest current textbook in psychology, now in its 18th edition. The 26-part PBS television series, Discovering Psychology, which Zimbardo hosted, also has attracted large audiences since its premier in 1990. And as president of the American Psychological Association in 2002, he launched "Psychology Matters," a jargon-free website that highlights the impact of psychological research on everyday life.

"While he has done important work in many areas, including attitude change, shyness, time perspective, deindividuation and emotion, he will forever be known as the man behind the Stanford Prison Experiment—a study whose real-world implications concerning the power of the social situation to induce ordinary people to do extraordinary evil deeds will forever command the attention not only of academicians but of policymakers and ordinary citizens," Ross wrote in an e-mail. "For countless Stanford students, Dr. Z will always define what it means to be a brave and charismatic lecturer and a committed humanistic psychologist."

Jeff Wachtel, special assistant to President John Hennessy, said Zimbardo was his undergraduate adviser and that he attended his freshman seminar on shyness. "Phil Zimbardo has been among the most influential people in virtually every aspect of my life," Wachtel wrote in an e-mail after the lecture. "He introduced me to the field of psychology, to what it means to do research and to create new knowledge, and to help me develop a sensitivity to the feelings of those around me." Wachtel said Zimbardo helped inspire his decision to work in academia and at Stanford. Wachtel's daughter, Jenna, also studied with Zimbardo. "His influence spanned two generations," Wachtel said.

Notwithstanding the celebratory nature of Zimbardo's farewell campus event, the veteran professor elicited gasps from a hushed audience as he presented a graphic and haunting lecture on evil that drew direct comparisons between the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Iraqi detainee abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004. The two-week experiment at Stanford, in which college students assumed the roles of prison guards and prisoners, had to be canceled after only six days because the "guards" became sadistic and the "prisoners" became depressed and severely stressed.

Decades later, Zimbardo applied this social psychological analysis to address the abuses committed by U.S. military police guards on the night shift at Abu Ghraib. In a lively PowerPoint presentation, Zimbardo highlighted the report by James Schlesinger, chairman of an independent advisory panel appointed by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in May 2004 to investigate the scandal. "The potential for abusive treatment of detainees during the Global War on Terrorism was entirely predictable based on a fundamental understanding of the principles of social psychology coupled with an awareness of numerous known environmental risk factors," the report stated. "Psychologists have attempted to understand how and why individuals and groups who usually act humanely can sometimes act otherwise in certain circumstances. … The landmark Stanford study provides a cautionary tale for all military detention operations."

In 2004, Zimbardo testified as an expert witness in the court martial of Staff Sgt. Ivan "Chip" Frederick, the highest-ranking officer implicated at Abu Ghraib. Zimbardo argued that Frederick's sentence should be lessened because the Stanford experiment had shown that few people could resist the situational pressures that may exist in a prison. Despite Zimbardo's testimony, Frederick received a maximum eight-year sentence for abusing and humiliating Iraqi detainees.

Zimbardo concluded his lecture by praising Army Reservist Joe Darby, the whistleblower who stopped the abuse by exposing the "trophy photos" of the abused detainees and their tormentors. As a result, Darby received death threats, and was forced to live under protective custody, leave the military and his hometown and live in an undisclosed location. But Darby also was a hero to many, including Caroline Kennedy and U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who gave him a "Profile in Courage" award in honor of the late President John F. Kennedy.

Just as some situations may induce ordinary people like Frederick to turn evil, they also can prompt others such as Darby to perform selfless acts of heroism. Understanding and promoting such positive influences is the focus of Zimbardo's latest research. "Psychological science can help us understand these complex human issues," he said. Quoting Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, he concluded, "The line between good and evil lies in the center of every human heart."