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An interview with Philip Zimbardo

Greg Ross

Philip Zimbardo has led a 50-year career as a social psychologist, a bestselling author and a professor. But he's still best known for a singular event in 1971, when a social experiment he was running at Stanford produced an unexpected glimpse into the human capacity for evil.

In The Lucifer Effect (Random House, 2007) Zimbardo gives his first detailed account of the Stanford study and its implications—and he draws disturbing parallels to the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal of 2004. Both incidents, he says, reveal a "Lord of the Flies-type temporary transition of ordinary individuals into perpetrators of evil."

American Scientist Online Managing Editor Greg Ross interviewed Zimbardo by telephone in April 2007.Philip ZimbardoClick to Enlarge Image

You write that in the Stanford prison experiment "good dispositions were pitted against a bad situation." Can you describe what happened?

In one sense, the Stanford prison study is more like a Greek drama than a traditional experiment, in that we have humanity, represented by a bunch of good people, pitted against an evil-producing situation. The question is, does the goodness of the people overwhelm the bad situation, or does the bad situation overwhelm the good people?

We put an ad in the Palo Alto city newspaper: wanted, college students for a study of prison life for two weeks. We got more than 75 people applying. We gave them a battery of psychological tests and interviews, and we picked two dozen of the most normal, most healthy young men we could find. I should say these were kids from all over the United States who were in the Stanford area finishing summer school. Then we did what's basic to all research: We randomly assigned half to be guards and half to be prisoners. They were going to play those roles in a fairly realistic prison-like setting in the basement of the psychology department. The prisoners were going to live there 24 hours a day, and the guards were going to work eight-hour shifts.

Nothing happened on day one—in fact, I was going to end the study because it was boring. On the morning of the second day, the prisoners revolted against being hassled, having their freedom limited. It's 1971—the big thing was freedom, "down with authority," "don't trust anybody over 30," "don't trust the military-industrial complex." But once the prisoners rebelled, then the guards changed their perception. They said, "These are dangerous prisoners, not college students." And every single day it got worse and worse. The guards escalated their aggression against the prisoners, stripping them naked, putting bags over their heads, and then finally had them engage in increasingly humiliating sexual activities. After six days I had to end it because it was out of control—I couldn't really go to sleep at night without worrying what the guards could do to the prisoners.

Did the guards understand that what they were doing was wrong?

It wasn't a matter of wrong or right, it was that the prisoners were dangerous, the prisoners had to be brought into line. But essentially it's all about power, and that guards need to assert as much power as they can and suppress the power of prisoners to rebel, to riot, to escape. It's not that much different from power in families, power in summer camp, power in psychiatric hospitals or most hospitals. Nobody had training in how to be a guard or prisoner, but what I'm arguing is that we learn that, not only from movies but in seeing power relationships between parents and kids, teachers and students, doctors and patients. And we understand that it's all about power.

As I was reading about this, I kept thinking, "What about conscience?" We're taught that we have an innate sense of right and wrong.

That's the critical thing. What keeps us from going wrong? It is a sense of conscience, a sense of personal accountability. It's a combination of what things are in us that we bring into a situation and what things in that situation do we feel we are accountable for, that there's oversight, that the teacher will find out, that our parents will find out, that the boss will find out. And what happens is, in this particular situation, conscience was set aside, and there was minimal oversight. Most times, for a whole day, it was only prisoners and guards. I and two graduate students and one undergraduate tried to have as little impact on the prisoner-guard interactions as possible. So the guards began to feel it was their prison, and essentially the students playing the role of guards began to feel like, act like, become, prison guards. One of them said, "You put on the uniform, you put on the sunglasses, you take the billy club, and you step on the yard, and you become a guard. When you take those things off and hang them up, you go back to your old self." The interesting thing is that in much of our lives, we actually go in and out of these roles, and when we're in the role long enough, the role becomes us. We become a prison guard. "I am a teacher." "I am a parent." But none of those are who we are, they're just a set of roles that we play, really like actors on the stage of life.

As you mentioned, the Stanford experiment took place in 1971. What led you to write about it today?

Almost three years ago, on August 28, 2004, I saw the horrible pictures emerging from the Abu Ghraib prison about military police abusing, torturing Iraqi detainees, and I was just struck by the visual similarity of prisoners naked, prisoners with bags over their heads, prisoners forced to engage in sexually degrading activity, and I just flashed right back to 1971 and said, "Wait a minute—those are the same images that I saw in my study." But the question is, is it just a visual similarity, or are the psychological dynamics the same?

If you remember, what happens in all such scandals is that the people at the top say it's just a few bad apples, a few rogue soldiers. President Bush gets on and says, "We're going to get to the bottom of this," which parenthetically always means "We're never going to get to the top of this." And I was just curious, because I knew in my study I had put good apples in a bad place; it was the barrel that was bad. And fortunately for me, I got invited to be an expert witness for one of the guards, Sergeant Chip Frederick, who was supposed to be in charge of the night shift, where all the abuses took place, in a place called Tier 1A in the Abu Ghraib prison.

Tier 1A was the interrogation/soft-torture center. There were up to 1,000 Iraqi detainees there who were thought to have information about the insurgency, which was getting out of control. All the abuses in the photos, by military policemen, were encouraged and solicited by military intelligence and the CIA who were operating in that particular place—to soften the prisoners up for interrogation, to take the gloves off, to facilitate getting information from these detainees that they needed to combat the insurgency.

Where do you think the blame for Abu Ghraib properly lies?

What I try to argue in the book is that trying to understand the causal dynamics of this or any situation never absolves the actor, never absolves the individual who performs the immoral or illegal deed. However, it's not sufficient to only put on trial the end product. It's like putting on trial the hit man for the Mafia and not the Mafia bosses.

I have a wonderful Web site, In it I have a virtual voting booth where I put on trial, from the top down, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, George Tenet, and then the particular generals, General Miller at Guantanamo Bay, General Sanchez at Abu Ghraib, who created the situation where enemy noncombatants are held indefinitely without charge, without legal representation, in horrible conditions, and you are giving permission for the soldiers to abuse the prisoners. I call that command complicity: If you are in command and your subordinates are behaving in immoral, illegal ways, and you should have known about it, then you are equally culpable. So essentially what I'm trying to do is say we have to expand our notion of guilt and culpability beyond the individual actor to those who create the situation that corrupts, seduces that person to do this action.

I understand you teach psychology of terrorism at the Naval Postgraduate School.

I've been teaching a course there for about five years, for fire chiefs, police chiefs, Coast Guard commanders. They're getting a master's degree in homeland security.

How do you approach that subject?

I've been interested in terrorism since 9/11. I was president of the American Psychological Association right after 9/11 and got involved with New York City firefighters who were at the scene, and then got involved in trying to understand who becomes a terrorist. What are these people like? Are they mindless fanatics? In fact, clearly they're not. That's what we say whenever there's something we don't understand—we say it's mindless, senseless. I'm trying to understand what's in the minds and hearts of terrorists, and how do you combat it other than just finding a terrorist and destroying them?

A lot of the course is about basic psychology. How do we go about understanding the motivations of anybody in different situations? What is the role the media plays in promoting terrorism? For me, terrorism is all about the psychology of a small group instilling fear in a larger group, fear of random, unpredictable attacks, where when it works, you undercut the confidence of citizens that their government can protect them. That was the thing about the anthrax scare we had—and by the way, we still haven't found that guy—and that was 9/11. The argument is that terrorism is really about the psychology of fear induction in a population through these random, unpredictable attacks.

And then the course goes into looking at different kinds of terrorism, suicide bombing, the use of torture as a terror device, in some countries the use of rape of women, not for sexual pleasure but again as a way to spread terror in a community. And we look at different examples of suicide bombings, or suicide bombing in what we know from Palestine against the Israelis, the role of the media in provoking and selling fear.

As a nation, as we set policy, are we conceiving of terrorism itself in the right way? The president calls it a struggle between good and evil.

What's interesting is that if you Google "Bush and evil" you get 2 million hits. There was a review of my book in the Sunday Times, and they said, "Evil is the operative word here." He started this. He started with the "axis of evil"—Iran, North Korea and Iraq. That tied into the Axis metaphor from the second world war. We were the Allies, the good people, and the Axis were the bad people. And then you narrowed it down to saying that Saddam Hussein was the evil dictator and we had to change his regime.

Now he says the insurgents and al-Qaeda are pure evil, so he's now refining it. It's interesting—whoever has the power to label others as evil is automatically, or reflexively, the good person. Good people label bad people as evil. And once you do that, then it demonizes them. You don't negotiate with evil. You don't sit down at the table with the devil and say, "Okay, let's work this out." What you want to do is destroy evil. Every Catholic kid every night says, or should say, "Lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil." And so you've got to go to God to help you deal with evil rather than your State Department or your negotiators. Our president's gone on record as saying we're not negotiating with terrorists, we're not negotiating with evil dictators, we're going to just destroy them. And obviously that's the wrong strategy to take.

What's the right one?

It's negotiation. It's trying to understand where they're coming from. It's trying to understand: What is bluff? What is reality? What is the face that every political leader has to put on? You don't do things that challenge them openly, you work behind the scenes. At one level it's all a political game, and everybody has a stake. It's like the James Bond poker game in Casino Royale. The present administration certainly is one that doesn't play that game. It simply says, "You're evil, we are good, you want to destroy our way of life, terrorists hate our freedom"—rather than try to understand where they are coming from, what's motivating their behavior.

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