We can be creatively evil – author of Stanford Prison Experiment
Humans are neither good nor bad. It’s life situations that make us behave one way or another. We hear it all the time, but is it true? What makes us rise above circumstances nevertheless? We asked Philip Zimbardo, psychologist, professor emeritus at Stanford University, and author of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Philip Zimbardo, psychologist, professor emeritus at Stanford University and author of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment. Dr. Z, it’s really great to have you with us today. Hi, welcome.
Philip Zimbardo: Greetings. I'm happy to be with you. And we are broadcasting to Moscow?
SS: We're broadcasting to Moscow and actually all over the world, not only to Moscow.
PZ: Or really? Well, okay.
SS: Yes, we're globe-wide. So let's talk about the famous Stanford Prison Experiment. It continues to be one of the most controversial in the history of psychological studies, being constantly revisited, reinterpreted. You stand by the results, saying that the social roles imposed on us and external pressures can influence our actions, even without us knowing. Are you saying that humans are powerless against the circumstances?
PZ: Oh, no. So what I should mention from the beginning is that on August 14, 2021, in six months, my study will be 50 years old, it'll be the 50th anniversary. So in fact, there are two film companies, each separately making documentaries about my study, and trying to relate it to current events in America, police brutality, and other things, and brutality in American prisons. So the reason for doing this study, and the reason it's both controversial and still important is that it demonstrates the power of social situations, and playing roles that can lead healthy good ordinary people to do really bad things, in fact, to do creatively evil things in that situation. So my study, which is part of this whole social-psychological approach is that we overestimate how much our behaviour is influenced by free will, by our choice, by our personality. And we minimise the fact that we're always in different social situations, and that those situations bring out the best or worst in us. So that's the main thing. Now, I should say, when you say controversial, there have been a lot of people critiquing the study, actually recently. But the reason they are critiquing it is they ‘discovered’ things in my study, but where they discovered is, everything in my experiment is available on the Stanford historical archives, all 14 hours of videos, 30 hours of audios, every single record is there. And Stanford has digitised it, and they make it available to anyone — any media. And so when they say they ‘discovered’ it, they discovered what I put there.
SS: Okay, so let's go step by step. Let me ask you this. Does absolutely anyone can fall prey to circumstances, do atrocious things if the situation implies that? In other words, is there a potential Adolf Eichmann in any of us? Or does one have to have a certain inclination to it?
PZ: Well, I mean, again, the situational thesis doesn't say ‘everyone,’ it says most people most of the times can fall prey to situational forces. But most of the time, those situational forces are good. I mean, we are in families, we are in schools, we are staying home because of the pandemic. But again, in many times, the situation changes. There are revolutions in every country, including Russia, including before in America. Now actually, on January 6, Americans did horrendous things attacking the Capitol, killing American civilians, killing American policemen. Let's take that one example. So on January 6, the world saw thousands of American citizens attacking the Capitol, going to attack the congressional leaders who are about to certify that Trump lost the election and Biden won the election. And Trump who is now really like a lunatic, still saying, no, he won the election, he actually told those people to go and protest. And you know, essentially what he said is ‘by all means necessary.’ Well, that now gives them permission to do things they ordinarily would not. So here's a very powerful man, he had been the President of the United States for four years, also powerful because he's a billionaire, and he is now telling, let's say, ordinary good people to do evil things, and many of them did it. Now, again, if you are there, maybe you just went to protest and now you're caught up in this – mob, people all around you yelling and cursing and screaming. You get caught up in that situation, and when you're in that situation your usual normal rational analysis gives way to being part of the mob, being part of the crowd. So that's the mob mentality.
SS: All right. You onсe said actually that giving people power and anonymity is the recipe for disaster. Power abuse seems to be as old as humanity itself and you’ve just given us an example. How can you explain from the psychological point of view that humans tend to abuse power when given one? Does it have to do with exploring the boundaries of our own nature, like, ‘How far can I go? How far can I push it?’ Or is it something else?
PZ: No, that's a very good point. All of us need a certain amount of power to survive. So in a broad sense, we need the power of speech to say what you need, need the power vision to see where you're going. But again, there are people who get blind, there are people who lose the ability to talk, and sometimes we also need physical strength to oppose an attacker. So we need to have a number of skills, abilities, talents, and an active brain in order to deal with everyday challenges. And usually, most people most of the time are rational, kind and caring... But now, but it's not always, there are parents who abuse their children, there are husbands who abuse their wives. And apparently, during the pandemic, it's been much worse. There’s much more physical and verbal spouse abuse of husbands against wives.
SS: But if we get back to our original question of the power of power over human nature and why it makes you do things that it makes you do, do you agree that there's this thing about the ultimate test, – fame, money and power, – and if you pass those three, and if you stay an intact human being without abusing others with your fame, money or power, that means that you're just like a really strong, ultimate human? Do you agree with that?
PZ: Yeah, well, again, many rich people use their money to make life better for other people. They set up foundations to give money, like William Gates, Soros, and others. So they use their money and power, and the fame just gives them attention so that they can use that in really positive ways to change the world, where if you're just an ordinary middle-class person, you donate a few dollars to a charity, that doesn't change anything. Now, the other rich man in America, I think he's the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, who started Amazon, he has not done anything up to now, anything altruistic, he's just hoarded all that money. And now he's stepping down from being the head of the Amazon and the question is, is he going to start charitable foundations to give away some of his money to do good for the world? So money corrupts, power corrupts, absolute power could corrupt but not necessarily. The question is what are the limits of that? So it's like when there's a revolution, all revolutions are by a small group of people who think that the current people who are running the government, are corrupt, are inept, and they can do a better job. But, as we know from many, many Russian revolutions, when the once good people come in, they often get seduced to do evil things as well, corrupt things.
SS: Professor, if a situation makes people do bad things to each other, and they conform or at least do not rebel, can we really judge those people on account of not being heroes? I mean, the majority of people aren't made for heroics. I mean, I'm not like that, I know for sure. That's the definition of heroism – it's a unique quality, isn't it? It's like being mad at your kids for them not being geniuses or something.
PZ: What I have done recently is to turn around my orientation 180 degrees, and essentially, in the last chapter of my book ‘The Lucifer Effect,’ the subtitle is ‘Understanding How Good People Can Turn Evil,’ I flipped it to say, is it possible for ordinary people, any of us to become heroes? Question mark. Now, first of all, we have to challenge the usual definition of heroes are extraordinary people who give their whole life to a moral cause. Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Madame Curie – these are the names that pop into your mind. But, on the other hand, it's ordinary people who help others. So my definition is a hero is anyone who is willing to come to the aid of someone in need, to help them in need when they are in need. And they do it. Sometimes there's a personal risk when you're helping somebody in an accident and you could get hurt as well. Or in some cases, you blow the whistle. So heroes are also whistleblowers. You work in a company and you realise the company is a corrupt, fraudulent, they're cheating people out of money, and you blow the whistle, you go public. Well, you know that you're going to lose your job, or you're definitely not going to get promoted. But still, you're willing to do it. So heroes are ordinary people who take extraordinary action to make the world better for either some individual or for many individuals. And so again, I have a program I started called the ‘Heroic Imagination Project’ in San Francisco and now it's global. We're in 12 countries around the world, not yet in Russia. I hope, I get invited to Russia and I will present my program. But the program is to teach people how to understand social situations. I give them all the knowledge I have in interesting lessons, with videos, with a question-answer, with critical thinking programs. And we have evidence that it works, it reduces bullying and reduces prejudice, and increases leadership. And so I'm excited, the program is now 10 years old. It's been in America, but now in Hungary, in Poland, in Italy, in Czech Republic, in many, many places.
SS: So, Dr. Z, we are very conforming social species. And we usually go along with the crowd, because, you know, that's how nature made us. And standing out is a terribly anxiety-provoking thing. But this is exactly what heroic behaviour is about – standing out, saying no when others say yes, and vice versa. Would that be too far-fetched to say that heroism and non-conformism that it acquires are, in fact, in contradiction with human nature?
PZ: Well, I would say that for most of us the phrase is ‘we go along to get along,’ we try to be agreeable. If we have a difference of opinion, we bargain, we come halfway. But sometimes we're in situations where what we see is someone or some group are harming others and no one is defending those others. And so heroes, first of all, I mean, potential heroes, in a funny way have to become social psychologists, little Dr. Z's meaning a) to have to analyse the situation and saying, ‘What's happening here? But what is wrong? What needs to be done in order to correct it? Do I have the ability to make that correction? And am I willing to take a risk, to be the one to do that, be the one to challenge corruption, be the one to help somebody who has been in an accident?’ So what I'm saying is, we all have the potential to be compassionate, to be empathic. And what I'm saying is that most of us are egocentric, we always say, you know, ‘What's in it for me?’, we always say, you know, ‘I don't want to do anything which will harm my reputation, I could lose my job, I could get hurt’. And heroes are sociocentric. Heroes always think, ‘What can I do to make life better for you?’ And now, the idea is, suppose everybody saw that in the world, so I'm trying to help make life better for you. At the same time, you're working to make life better for me. And so again, in the course of life, normal, healthy, powerful, middle-aged people become old because time passes. And when you become old, there are many things you can no longer do, that you used to be able to do when you were younger. And so old people need younger people to help them survive, not in a war, but every day. So again, a hero is somebody who, during the pandemic, will buy groceries for a neighbour, go out of their way to call a neighbour to say, ‘I'm going to go to the grocery store, can I buy you anything you need?’ It doesn't mean you're going to pay for it necessarily, except if they're poor and have no money, then you would ‘loan’ them something. But heroes are always thinking about ‘what can I do to make your life better?’ And then when I do it, I feel pride that I did something good today.
SS: Our culture traditionally feeds us this image of heroes who are unreal half-men, half-gods, man-like creatures with supernatural powers. Real-life heroism exists, no doubt about that. But is it still seen as exceptional behaviour rather than ordinary one? I mean, does that mean those conventional images of heroes need to be maybe reviewed or replaced?
PZ: Yeah, well, I mean, every nation has conventional heroes. But if you think about them, more often than not, they are military leaders, men almost always on horses, all the statues you see, again, all over Moscow, when I visited, all over in America, you see men on horses with a sword or a gun, you know, who won a battle. So they protected your nation. But how do they do it? They did it by killing the enemy. So that's one definition of heroes that is, they preserve the freedom of their people by being willing to die in battle against a powerful enemy. But a) we want to stop having wars, we want to stop having adversaries, that's what the whole United Nations is about, that's what UNESCO is about, trying to create a world filled with peace and understanding. So, therefore, we're not going to have those military heroes anymore. And in fact, what we really want to do is have ordinary people, not on a horse, but statues of ordinary people sitting in a park bench, helping a blind child, you know, to walk, to see things.
SS: Right. Dr. Z, we often see heroism as something that implies self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice goes against self-preservation, an ancient mechanism wired in us on the genetic level. So why do we still do heroic actions, in your opinion, if it means going against our evolutionary program?
PZ: Usually, the kind of everyday ordinary actions I'm talking about, are not threatening to your life. Clearly, we believe in self-preservation. But, in fact, the Carnegie Foundation in America honours heroes. In almost every case, their heroes are people who have died helping others and these are always soldiers, policemen, etc. And so that's one kind of hero, so these are people who do just opposite to what you said. Instead of being focused on how can I preserve my life, in a battle, they say, ‘What can I do to help my fellow partner?’ And so in many cases, they are willing to die, protecting someone else in their platoon, in their battalion. But I'm saying, my sense of heroism is not that at all, it's that you're not going to take a bullet rather than have somebody else die for you. What you're going to do is, you're going to make the world better, not in terms of helping them survive physically, but survive psychologically, to survive socially, to make the world better for other people. Simple thing – giving a compliment, I mean, it should be in every situation you go into, in every school, every party. When you go to the office, the first thing is in your mind, ‘What can I do to make somebody in this room feel special?’ Well, you give a compliment. You say, ‘Wow, I really like your hairstyle, and your blouse goes so well with your hair.’ And then I would say, ‘Where did you buy that blouse, I'd like to get one for my wife.’ So when people get a compliment, they always feel good about it, especially if it's justifiable. We stopped thinking about what we can do to show our appreciation to someone else or our parents or teachers, to our bosses, for making our lives better.
SS: Dr. Z, it's been such a pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much for this wonderful insight. And I wish you all the best of luck. I hope to see you in Russia very soon.
PZ: I hope so. Thank you.
SS: Take care. Bye.