Philip Zimbardo: Why Do Good People Do Bad Things? Philip Zimbardo knows how easy it is for nice people to turn bad. In this TED talk, Zimbardo explores the nature of evil and how easy it is to be a hero.
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Why Do Good People Do Bad Things?

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Why Do Good People Do Bad Things?

Why Do Good People Do Bad Things?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today we're going to hear from TED speakers who are all defined, in some way, by thinking about, or even experiencing violence. And at some point, they've all asked the question you've probably asked as well, the question of whether somewhere hidden deep inside is the capacity to commit violence. So let's start with some old audiotape that we came across a few weeks ago.


PHIL ZIMBARDO: Testing 1, 2, 3. Prison study August the 18th.

RAZ: This is an old recording made in August of 1971, and the man on the tape ...


ZIMBARDO: My name is Phil Zimbardo. I'm a professor of psychology here.

RAZ: ... Phil Zimbardo was a young professor at Stanford at the time when he made this recording.

ZIMBARDO: I will work on being concise, which is not my long suit.

RAZ: And this is Phil is now when we interviewed him a few weeks ago.

ZIMBARDO: I am a psychologist. I just retired recently from Stanford University, where I taught for 40 years and before that ...

RAZ: Anyway, the reason we got in touch with Phil Zimbardo was because of this experiment he did at Stanford 40 years ago. And he wanted to explore this really controversial question, a question with no clear answer ...


ZIMBARDO: What makes people go wrong?

RAZ: ... and in his TED Talk, Phil Zimbardo tried to answer it ...


ZIMBARDO: I asked this question when I was a little kid. When I was a kid growing up in the South Bronx, inner-city ghetto in New York, I was surrounded by evil. And I had friends who were really good kids, who lived out the Doctor Jekyll-Mister Hyde scenario, Robert Louis Stevenson. That is they took drugs, got in trouble, went to jail, some got killed, and some did it without drug assistance. That line between good and evil, which privileged people like to think is fixed and impermeable, with them on the good side and the others on the bad side, I knew that line was movable and it was permeable.

Good people could be seduced across that line. In rare circumstances bad kids could recover, with help, with reform, with rehabilitation.

And that tells us several things. One, the world is, was, will always be filled with good and evil because good and evil is the yin and yang of the human condition. It tells me something else, if you remember, God's favorite angel was Lucifer. Apparently, he disobeyed God and so Lucifer descends into Hell, becomes Satan, becomes the devil. The force of evil in the universe begins. So this arc of the cosmic transformation of God's favorite angel into the devil, for me sets the context for understanding human beings, who are transformed from good ordinary people into perpetrators of evil ...


ZIMBARDO: Let me start officially then.

RAZ: And that takes us back to Phil Zimbardo's story. Stanford, 1971.


ZIMBARDO: My name is Phil Zimbardo, and I'm ...

RAZ: Remember, at the time, Phil was a young professor of psychology at Stanford, and he recorded an audio diary of an experiment. Okay now, before I go on I should say that the next seven minutes or so of the show have a few pretty disturbing moments, but important to hear if you want to understand what Phil Zimbardo set out to prove. Anyway, to do the experiment he needed volunteers.

ZIMBARDO: And these people answered an ad I put in the city newspaper. Wanted - college students for a study of prison life that would last up to two weeks.

RAZ: And the students would live and work in a mock prison in the basement of Stanford's psychology department, just to see how it might change them. So Phil got about two dozen students together.

ZIMBARDO: Who were the most normal, most healthy, physically, psychologically.

RAZ: No history of crime, none of them violent ...

ZIMBARDO: And then I randomly assigned them. Half was going to be guards, half were going to be prisoners. The ones who going to be prisoners, gonna live there 24/7. The guards were going to work eight-hour shifts.

RAZ: So here's some tape of Phil during an orientation for his 12 guards, and he's explaining what's about to happen to the 12 other students, the ones picked to be the prisoners.


ZIMBARDO: So, what's going to happen tomorrow is we tell the students to wait in their houses or rooms or whatever, squad car's going to pull up.


RAZ: A squad car was going to show up, at some unexpected time at their houses.

Did they know they were going to be prisoners?

ZIMBARDO: No, no. We simply said, at that point, you know, wait at home, the study will begin this weekend.

RAZ: So, the next day? Here's a description of what happened and the voice you're going to hear on this old recording belongs to one of Phil's volunteers. This volunteer was known as Prisoner 8612.


BILLY WHITLOW: Police car pulls up in front and a cop comes to the front door, knocks, and says he's looking for me.

ZIMBARDO: And says, is Billy Whitlow there? And the mother says, here's Billy. And he says, Billy Whitlow, you're wanted for violation of penal code 456, whatever, you have the right to remain silent. Reads the Miranda rights ...


WHITLOW: So they, right there, they took me out the door, they put my hands against the car ...

ZIMBARDO: ... and drives them to the station. Photographed them, fingerprinted them, and put them in a holding cell.


WHITLOW: They locked me in there, in this degrading little outfit.

ZIMBARDO: And then, they're blindfolded. They didn't know where they were going. They simply bring them down to the basement of the Stanford psychology department, strip them naked, and then take the blindfold off. And they're standing naked and the guards are all around, humiliating them. And then, we put them in a humiliating uniform which is really a smock with numbers on, to reduce their individuality. You're essentially anonymous. You are a number. You are a number. You are a number ... and we have a chain on one foot, to remind them at all times of their lowly position. ... number. You are a number. You are a number ...

See the whole point, I wanted the authorities to take away their freedom. So then once you're in my prison, only the authorities give it back to you. The other thing is we, obviously we bugged the cells, and at first, it's 1971. These are hippies. They were not taking it seriously. They were laughing, kidding.



STUDENT: Make me care...


ZIMBARDO: The problem was, on the morning of the second day the prisoners rebelled. They ripped off their numbers, they took off their stocking caps. They barricaded themselves in their cells. They didn't want to be dehumanized. And they made a mistake. They started cursing the guards from the safety of their cells. And the guards came to me and said, what are we going to do? And I said, it's your prison, what do you want to do? And the key was the guards then said, these are dangerous prisoners. We have to show them who is in control.


GUARD 1: Are those pushups, 5486?

GUARD 2: He's pushing his ass around!

PRISONER: You told me to do pushups.

GUARD 1: Are those pushups?

ZIMBARDO: And they broke down the doors. They stripped all the prisoners naked.


GUARD 1: They are not pushups.

PRISONER: They are not pushups.

ZIMBARDO: And I said no physical force, but I didn't limit psychological force.


GUARD 1: Prisoners must eat at meal times, and only at meal times ...

PRISONERS: Prisoners must eat at meal times, and only at meal times ...

RAZ: Each day that passed, the guards would find new ways to humiliate the prisoners. For example on one of the days, one of the prisoners had a birthday. And the guards made the other prisoners sing happy birthday, not once ...


GUARD 1: Ready?

RAZ: ... Not twice ...


PRISONERS: Happy birthday to you...

RAZ: ... But dozens of times. The same song, using only that prisoner's identification number.


PRISONERS: Happy birthday 574, happy birthday to you ...

RAZ: Imagine doing this completely naked, blindfolded, with total strangers for 36 hours.

ZIMBARDO: And what happened within 36 hours, the student who was the ringleader of the rebellion, Prisoner 8612, had an emotional breakdown.


PRISONER 8612: Dammit! (Bleep) up! You don't know. You don't know. I mean, God. What is this (bleep), I just can't take it!

ZIMBARDO: Screaming, crying, irrational - irrational thinking.


PRISONER 8612: I'm (bleep) up. I don't know how to explain it. I'm all (bleep) up inside. And I want out. I want out now!

ZIMBARDO: And I had to release him. But obviously I thought, well, we made a mistake in our selection procedure, he must have been, in quote, defective. The problem was, each day thereafter another prisoner broke down in a similar fashion.

RAZ: This made those men who were pretending to be guards in their uniforms, it kind of made them sadistic.

ZIMBARDO: Oh no, it's no question about it. I mean, one of the powerful motivations for evil is boredom. You are a guard, you have nine-hour shifts, especially in the night shift, this was even worse at the prison in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, where guards had 12-hour shifts. And what do you do to relieve boredom? You have to do something exciting, something novel, something different. And the problem is, with men on men it always goes in the sexual dimension. And this is exactly what happened in the prison at Abu Ghraib, making them simulate, in Abu Ghraib, fellatio. In my study, the guards got their prisoners to simulate sodomy within five days.


ZIMBARDO: So how do psychologists go about understanding such transformations of human character, if you believe that they were good soldiers before they went down to that dungeon? People are the actors on the stage but you'll have to be aware of what the situation is. Who are the casts of characters? What's the costume? Is there a stage director? And so we're interested in what are the external factors around the individual, the bad barrel? Does it make a difference if warriors go to battle changing their appearance or not? Does it make a difference if they're anonymous in how they treat their victims? We know in some cultures they go to war, they don't change their appearance. In other cultures, they paint themselves like "Lord of the Flies." Anthropologist John Watson found 23 cultures that had two bits of data. If they don't change their appearance only one of eight kills, torture, mutilate. The key is in the red zone. If they change their appearance, 12 of 13, that's 90 percent, kill, torture, mutilate. And that's the power of anonymity. The power is in the system. The system creates the situation that corrupts the individual. The system is the legal, political, economic, cultural background and this is where the power is of the bad barrel makers. So you want to change a person, you got to change the situation. You want to change the situation, you got to know where the power is in the system.

RAZ: So where was the power in the Stanford prison? Well it was with Phil Zimbardo. And one night his girlfriend, who was a PhD student at the time, she came to visit him in the lab and she saw the guards doing horrible things to the prisoners.

ZIMBARDO: And she says, it's terrible what you are doing to those boys. They're not prisoners, they're not guards, they're boys and you are responsible. And I'm saying, don't you see how incredible this is? This is human nature in-vitro. And then she stops me cold and says, if this is the real you, I don't think I want to continue my relationship with you. The situation has changed you.

RAZ: Was that true?

ZIMBARDO: That's the whole point is that I was transformed into being the prison superintendent. That was the shocker that was like shaking me down and saying, think about who you are. And I said, I stepped back and I said, you're right. I have to end this study.

RAZ: But you're saying that all of us have the capacity to do evil, to commit violence.

ZIMBARDO: All of us. Now see, but the key is, that's what makes the study of human nature so fascinating. We are blessed with this incredible brain which gives rise to this even more dynamic mind, which gives us the possibility to do the most wonderful, kind things and the most awful, cruel things, to be caring or indifferent. And it pushes some of us to be villains, to do horrible things, to be perpetrators of evil. But in every one of those evil situations there's always some people who are able to step back and do the right thing.

RAZ: Stanford psychologist, Phil Zimbardo. You can find all of his TED Talks, including the one you heard here, at By the way, Phil's girlfriend who stopped the study...

ZIMBARDO: So I had to deal with this affront to my authority, and the best way I could deal with it is I married her, actually a year later, in the Stanford chapel.

RAZ: They celebrated their 40th anniversary last year in that same chapel.

ZIMBARDO: But the Stanford Chapel is actually not far from the Stanford prison that I created.

RAZ: I'm Guy Raz. This episode, the violence within us. More TED Radio Hour in one minute, from NPR.

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