Philip Zimbardo says that heroes are just everyday people.
But, he adds, so are villains.
It all depends on the situations they're put in. And that knowledge, Zimbardo says, can help to explain some of the apparently inexplicable things that people do, ranging from Abu Ghraib and the Holocaust to feats of heroism and self-sacrifice.
Zimbardo is the creator of the infamous Stanford prison experiments. In 1971, he took a group of student volunteers and put them in a simulated prison environment. They were randomly assigned to the roles of prisoners and guards.
The experiment had been planned to last for two weeks, but Zimbardo had to end it after only six days. The students began to live the roles too seriously. The "guards," with little or no checks on their behavior, began abusing the "prisoners," who started to internalize their roles as well.
The questions that the experiment was designed to ask, says Zimbardo, were: "What happens when you put good people in a bad place, good apples in a bad barrel? Do the apples change the barrel, or does the barrel change the apples?"
'Situations Corrupt Most People'
That the experiment had to be shut down early only emphasized the message that Zimbardo took from it. "The sad conclusion is that powerful situations corrupt most people," he says.
As the creator of the experiment, Zimbardo presumably had a personal interest in its success — perhaps itself a reason for not shutting it down earlier. But Zimbardo takes his analysis a step further: he believes that he was blinded by the role he was playing within the experiment. He now says that it was a mistake for him to act as the prison superintendent. "Once I got into that mindset, I got corrupted by the situation," he says. "I was not feeling compassion for the prisoners because prison superintendents care about their institution and their guards — they don't care about the prisoners."
"I wanted to keep my prison going," he says. "I really switched my mentality from focusing on the experiment to focusing on the prison."
It took the outrage of a graduate student who visited five days into the experiment to convince Zimbardo to put an end to it. He says that she acted as a heroine, but his definition of a heroine — a heroine who, incidentally, later became his wife — might surprise some people. Zimbardo says that she was able to argue against the experiment because she walked in on it unprepared; she hadn't been seduced by the situation as had everyone else who had been involved in it.
As unethical and as wrenching as the experiment was, Zimbardo says that some of the participants were influenced positively in ways that could not have been predicted. The first student who broke down wrote his dissertation on the interaction of prisoners and guards, did an internship at San Quentin and has worked for the past 30 years as a psychologist at the San Francisco County Jail.
Zimbardo recently helped to support a "situational defense" in the trial of Chip Frederick, an Army sergeant convicted of abusing inmates at Abu Ghraib. He says Frederick and others who were accused of torture all worked at night, when he says there was no oversight or military discipline. "When he got down to this place, he got corrupted like everybody else who was on the night shift," Zimbardo says. He thinks that his testimony helped to reduce Frederick's sentence from 15 to eight years.
Zimbardo says he's now trying to turn away from studying evil, which he says he's been wallowing in since he was a kid in New York's South Bronx — where, incidentally, he went to high school with Stanley Milgram, whose "Obedience to Authority" experiments at Yale mirrored Zimbardo's own prison study. "I'm focusing on heroes," he says. "Most heroes are ordinary people; the act is extraordinary. They act when most other people are frozen."
Like his wife did, back in 1971, when she stepped in to put an end to his grueling experiment. But even though he married her, he maintains no illusions about any innate heroic qualities she may have. She became a heroine by circumstance: "Christina is a wonderful woman, but it's unlikely she's ever going to do another heroic deed, just because the situation is unlikely to present itself."