Psychologist Investigates The Origins Of Evil If you put good people in a bad situation, they'll do bad things, says psychologist Philip Zimbardo.
NPR logo

Psychologist Investigates The Origins Of Evil

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/92021527/92021497" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Psychologist Investigates The Origins Of Evil

Psychologist Investigates The Origins Of Evil

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/92021527/92021497" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MIKE PESCA, host:

God's favorite angel fell from grace, and the light-bearer, Lucifer, henceforth became known as the Devil. "The Lucifer Effect," by Philip Zimbardo, is an examination not of theology, but of social psychology. "The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil," by Philip Zimbardo, creator of the landmark Stanford Prison Experiment, and Philip Zimbardo joins me now. Thank you for coming on.

Dr. PHILIP ZIMBARDO (Author, "The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil"): It's a great pleasure to be here, Mike.

PESCA: So the Stanford Prison Experiment is famous. You turned normal, ordinary, very nice-seeming college students into monsters. What was the thesis that you were testing when you designed the experiment?

Dr. ZIMBARDO: What happens when you put good people in a bad place? What happens when you put good apples in a bad barrel? Do the apples change the barrel? Or does the barrel change the apples? And the sad conclusion is that powerful situations corrupt most people, not all, but most people, most of the time. The study was about putting good, normal, intelligent college students from all over the United States in a basement prison I constructed at Stanford University.

And we randomly assigned these kids to be prisoners and guards. We only picked kids who were normal and healthy on all personality tests. And the study was supposed to go for two weeks. It had to end it in six days, because it was out of control. I mean, the guards were psychologically abusing the prisoners. They began by physically abusing them, which I prevented, and then five days - five of these young men who were playing the role of prisoners had emotional breakdowns, and so we had to stop the study prematurely.

PESCA: Among the interesting things about this is how you reacted to it. You should have been, I don't know, the overseer, the prison warden. Actually, that was the role you were playing, and you should have stepped in, but you didn't. You didn't recognize what was going on immediately, did you?

Dr. ZIMBARDO: No. See, when you say a situation is powerful, it really has an influence on everyone in it. I'm looking at - you know, I'm the outsider, as the experimenter looking at what the situation's doing to the prisoners and guards, but I made the mistake of being the prison superintendent in addition, and once I got into that mindset, I got corrupted by the situation, meaning I could observe guards doing terrible things to the prisoners, and not feel compassion or empathy for the prisoners, because prison superintendents care about their institution, care about the guards. They don't care about the prisoners.

PESCA: And you cared about your experiment? You wanted to keep the experiment going.

Mr. ZIMBARDO: Yeah, but more than that, I wanted to keep my prison going.

PESCA: Yeah.

Dr. ZIMBARDO: See, I mean, I really switched my mentality from focusing on the experiment to focusing on the prison.

PESCA: So then, what's it take for the person who walked in and said something going's wrong here?

Dr. ZIMBARDO: It's very hard to do if you're anything - if you're part of the system, so that anybody who is down there for any length of time began to see this as an interesting exercise. It was only after five days, when a young woman came down, who had been a graduate student of mine, who came in with fresh eyes and said, this is terrible what's going on here, this is, you know, a nightmare. You know, guards are dehumanizing prisoners, and you're allowing it to happen. That's really how I ended it. This young woman, Christina Maslach, you know, was the heroine of the study, because she forced me to see what was really going on, that it was dehumanization at its worst.

PESCA: And what do you do when you find such a woman?

Dr. ZIMBARDO: Oh, I married her the next year.

PESCA: That's called a leading question, but...

Dr. ZIMBARDO: Yeah, it's a leading question. No, what happened was, she had been a graduate student of mine, had just started teaching at Berkeley, and so - and we had just started dating, so, you know, so, in a sense, it's a very vulnerable position. I mean, she could have just looked the other way and said, well...

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Dr. ZIMBARDO: It's not my cup of tea, but instead, she said - the quote was, 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. She didn't say, you must end the study, but after we argued, then I realized, you know, she was right, and then we ended it the next day.

PESCA: Is there something different about Christina than, you know, most people?

Dr. ZIMBARDO: No. See, that's what's really interesting. In the last chapter of the "The Lucifer Effect," and what I'm doing now with the rest of my life, I'm switching out of the evil that I've been wallowing in since I was a kid in the South Bronx in New York. I'm focusing on the heroes and trying to answer that question, what is special about people who engage in heroic activity? And what is amazing is most of those people are ordinary in every way.

That is, they are not more religious. They are not more empathic. It's simply that in a certain situation, they act when other people don't, and they act on behalf of others and they suppress the egocentrism. So, Christina is a wonderful woman, but it's unlikely she's ever going to do another heroic deed, only because the situation is unlikely to prevent - present itself. Just like Joe Darby, the guy who blew the whistle on Abu Ghraib's abuses...

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Dr. ZIMBARDO: You know, he's the most ordinary guy in the world, GI Joe Darby. You know, people in his hometown were upset that he was a hero, because they said he's nothing, he's so ordinary, but most heroes are ordinary people. The act is extraordinary, and that they act when most other people freeze. Most people most of the time are guilty of the evil of inaction. You know when bad stuff is going on, you know bullying is going on, or racism, or prejudice, or, you know, your next door neighbor's being abused by, you know - and spouse abuse, and you look the other way.

PESCA: You spoke at trial in defense of Chip Frederick. He is the former staff sergeant in the U.S. Army who was tried and convicted, correct, in Abu Ghraib?

PESCA: Mm-hm.

PESCA: They, I guess, discounted your arguments, and you did that before a military and not a civilian court, am I getting that right?

Dr. ZIMBARDO: Yes. Correct.

PESCA: Do you think that played a role in why they - you know, there's such a message of accountability in the military, it seems to me like it would be harder to get an acquittal in that kind of court, than a civilian court. Or do you think it's just hard with any - to penetrate people's idea that, you know, people have to be responsible for their own actions and that you can't blame the system?

Dr. ZIMBARDO: Trying to understand any complex human behavior, it's not enough to end with focusing on the act of the individual, his personality, his genes, et cetera. You have to always focus on, what is the situation in which that person's behaving? And then you have to ask the third question, what is the system that creates and maintains that situation?

So in the trial, it was not a question of whether or not Frederick and the others were guilty. They put themselves in the picture, abusing the prisoners, so they were guilty. My situational defense was only to mitigate the severity of his sentence. They wanted to give him 15 years, because he was - should have been in charge, and I think, in part, my defense got it reduced down to eight years.

This guy I defended was a model soldier. I mean, he should have been the poster boy for the military. He had nine medals and awards. He had been a National Guard Army Reserve for 22 years, and he gets down to this place, and he gets corrupted like everybody who was in the nightshift. And why did it happen only in the nightshift? Because not once in three months did any senior officer go down to that dungeon. None of this happened on the dayshift, because there were senior officers there all the time. So you only get these abuses where there is an absence of military discipline, and an absence of oversight.

PESCA: Across societies, this tendency, or this susceptibility to, you know, "The Lucifer Effect," that we all have evil within us, have you studied different societies? Are different societies different? Because I think we Americans look at World War II, and we say to ourselves, we wouldn't have been "Hitler's Willing Executioners," to borrow the title of a nonfiction book about that.

Dr. ZIMBARDO: Right. No, no. But yeah - but see, everybody in every country wants to have that same what we call a self-serving bias. I would not have done that, you know? And we all think that. We all think we're on the good side of the line, because we all underestimate the power of those situations. There's a famous study by Stanley Milgram, who actually was a high-school classmate of mine at James Monroe in the Bronx, where he puts people in this situation where he shows the vast majority are blindly obedient to authority, are willing to give a painful electric shock to a stranger, enough so that the shocks might even have killed him.

PESCA: What? I have to interrupt. What were the circumstances like at James Monroe High School, if the two men who devised the most well-known torture experiments in American history both went there?

Dr. ZIMBARDO: No. No. You know - the common - what's common about Stanley and I was that if you're poor, you look around and you see failure, and you don't want to attribute it to people like your father or your grandfather. You know, you want to say, if the situation was changed, things would be better.

If you grow up privileged, you look around and you see success. So, you want to say, hey, this is in my genes. So, I - in general, I think minority people, people who are - you know, come from an immigrant background, or people who are generally are poor, tend to be situationist, tend to say, hey, the situation is what's to blame for my condition, don't blame me. Whereas, you know, if you grow up privileged, you, yeah, blame me for all this - the goodness.

PESCA: Yeah. Credit me, exactly.

Dr. ZIMBARDO: Yeah. Credit me, give me the credit.

PESCA: Yeah.

PESCA: Are you in touch with any students who participated in the Stanford Experiment?

Dr. ZIMBARDO: Oh, sure, yeah.

PESCA: And what happened to some of the students that you've kept in contact with? Did they go on to lead normal lives?

Dr. ZIMBARDO: OK. One of the most interesting things is clearly the Stanford Prison Study and the Milgram Blind Obedience Study, you know, are unethical, unethical in so far as people suffered...

PESCA: Yeah.

Dr. ZIMBARDO: And that's - it shouldn't be allowed. But in my book, I have a whole chapter focusing on the ethics, but the first kid who broke down in our study in 36 hours, prisoner 416, Doug Korpi, it changed his whole life in a positive way, because he had been an antiwar activist - remember, this is 1971.

PESCA: Yeah.

Dr. ZIMBARDO: And now he is a - the ringleader of the prison rebellion, but what the guards do to crush him, they punish his cellmates anytime he does something wrong, and pretty soon he can't deal with the hassling from his cellmates, from the guards, and he has a breakdown. What happens is, he goes onto get a degree in clinical psychology. He does a dissertation on the shame of prisoners and the guilt of guards, does his internship at San Quentin Prison, and for the last 30 years, has worked in the San Francisco County Jail as a prison psychologist, trying to elevate the dignity of prisoners and trying to contain the sadistic abuse of guards. You know, it's - that one thing - how many studies have ever been done where you could point to, here's a life-changing consequence of, you know, an unethical, suffering experience?

PESCA: One of the students who played a really brutal guard was nicknamed John Wayne. What about Eshelman (ph), the John Wayne?

Dr. ZIMBARDO: Oh, yeah, Eshelman is a happily married mortgage broker who lives in California, a model citizen. All the things those people did, students, guards, me, were really encapsulated in that unique situation. When you're wearing those uniforms, when you're down in that dungeon, you know, it really is what Hannah Arendt said about Adolf Eichmann. When he was in charge of orchestrating the ex - the murder of millions of Jews in Auschwitz, he was a monster, but everything we knew about him before and afterwards, he is normal. So she coined the phrase "the banality of evil," saying that most evil people, most monsters, look like your Uncle Charlie.

PESCA: Yeah.

Dr. ZIMBARDO: You know, because most of the time, they are ordinary people. It's only when you put them in a situation - you give them unlimited power, they're playing a role, they're following the rules, that then they stop across that line between good and evil. They go from being Dr. Jekyll to the, you know, horrendous Mr. Hyde.

PESCA: Philip Zimbardo is the author of "The Lucifer Effect." He's a professor emeritus at Stanford University. Thanks for joining us, Professor.

Dr. ZIMBARDO: Thank you so much, Mike.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: Did you hear that? Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram both went to James Monroe High School in the Soundview section of the Bronx. New York City schools always have that list of alum that you can't believe the collection of people, like at that James Monroe High School. Art Fleming, the original host of "Jeopardy!," also went there, as did Hank Greenberg, "Hammering" Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers. Now, that's James Monroe High School.

James Madison's High School - James Madison High School, they think it's the first time ever that three sitting senators, three current senators, all went to the same high school. Senator Coleman, who's now in Minnesota, though he has that great New York accent, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, also with the New York accent, Senator Schumer of New York, he's allowed to have the New York accent, and when you look - go to the Wikipedia page for high schools in New York City, and just browse through some of these.

What a dinner party! Like, if you went to John Adams High School, and you got Richard Parsons, the chairman of AOL-Time Warner, together with Ja Rule, Jack Lord of "Hawaii Five-O," Sean Bell, who was the NYPD shooting victim, and John Gotti, himself, responsible for many a shooting, and it just goes on and on.

Well, that is it for this hour of the BPP. As always, we are online at npr.org/bryantpark. I happen to be Mike Pesca. Thanks for listening. I'll be back with more news, information, et cetera, on the Bryant Park Project on NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.