Zimbardo on Evil

Star Psychologist in Masters Seminar at Webster Vienna

Fame comes in curious ways: In the early seventies, a young Stanford professor made national headlines with a social psychological study that went completely out of control. Informed students participating had been assigned the roles of prisoners and guards, and they adapted to their roles so thoroughly, created such excesses of authoritarianism and resigned submission that the two-week experiment had to be terminated after six days.

With his “Stanford prison experiment,” Philip Zimbardo proved convincingly to what extent regular, well-educated citizens can turn into sadists or victims.

Fame stayed with Zimbardo from then on. Born 1933 in the Bronx, New York, this son of Sicilian immigrants had always been interested in the social (rather than purely neuronal) forces that influence our minds, actions and memories. This naturally led him to the study of social psychology and made him one of the prominent scholars in the field worldwide.

This past May, Philip Zimbardo came to Webster University Vienna as the first Ortner-Chopin guest professor to hold a seminar covering the entire range of his research.

It went from the earliest studies on social pressure to the latest: the circumstances that made the practices of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad possible.

Abu Ghraib is also a major topic in Zimbardo’s new book, The Lucifer Effect, that was assigned reading for the more than twenty students attending the seminar.

As the Stanford professor pointed out, the events there were not a matter of “a few rotten apples“ but “an entire case of rotten apples,” the result of systemic forces and authoritarian structures within the military that made these inhumane acts possible. He turned, as he said, from academic observer to investigative reporter, to expert witness and finally, to a kind of prosecuting attorney that put the whole system on trial.

One of the topics he dealt with at length in his seminar was “time perspective“ – a title that may sound as exciting as memory, which Zimbardo calls “possibly one of  the most boring topics in all of psychology: I mean, imagine doing endless experiments where people have to remember meaningless syllables!“

Meaningless since the focus of psychological memory studies had always been based on experiments involving efforts to cleanse the memory of all connotations – until psychologists began to realize the extent to which context and social environment influenced the ability of people to remember.

Zimbardo found similar dynamics in the perception and evaluation of things past, present and future: What you remember with pleasure or pain, what you look forward to or dread, whether you enjoy what is currently happening – all this is co-determined socially and at the same time affects someone’s personality.

The hippies, for example, “were really a revolution in time perspective,” says Zimbardo, no more nine-to-five rush, a lot more time for meditation and all kinds of altered states.

(The Webster community, by the way, had already been in fairly close contact with the Zimbardian take on time pressure and social influences: The graduate student who had insisted that the prison experiment be terminated after six days was a certain Christina Maslach who went on to become the leading figure in research on burn-out and was the keynote speaker at the Webster Burnout conference in the Fall of 2006. She has also been Zimbardo’s wife since the 1970s.)

In his work on topics such as motivation or shyness, Zimbardo increasingly blurred the lines between “general” and “social” psychology, thus establishing productive new areas of research and – as in the case of shyness – practical application: He founded the Shyness Clinic in Menlo Park, California.

He also wrote a book on the subject as well as several general introductions to psychology that have become classics in the field. In German, too, “der Zimbardo“ is standard reading for psychology students.

Today, Zimbardo is a Stanford professor emeritus. This does not mean he is idle. On the contrary, he is as busy as ever, as teacher at the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology, as lecturer in many parts of the world, and as a prolific researcher. The students at Webster Vienna got more than a taste of the man who psychiatrist David Spiegel called “a legendary teacher (who) has changed the way we think about social influences.”

Seeming to improvise, but probably following a well-rehearsed and didactically successful script, Zimbardo combined details of his research with current news.

Episodes from Candid Camera illustrated data about group pressure. Anecdotes from his trip to Camerata in Sicily (where about one hundred related Zimbardos reside) led to the topics of hedonism, lack of perspective and the chances of international exchange.

Clips from the Beatles animated cartoon “Yellow Submarine” were a beautiful visual accompaniment (and soundtrack) to the theme of time perception.

It worked, and not because of fame alone: Even when Philip Zimbardo exceeded his lecture time by almost half an hour, the students did not even look at their watches. This must be the highest praise that can be bestowed on a teacher.



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