Zimbardo on the Nature of Man

Is humankind inherently good or evil? We have pondered this timeless question too often to count. It is a question that Philip Zimbardo, the internationally renowned psychologist, has been working on throughout his illustrious career.

Zimbardo, who has taught at Stanford University since 1968 (now Emeritus), is perhaps best known for his controversial and revolutionary study on the nature of human nature – The 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment – that was held in the basement of Stanford’s very own psychology building. Zimbardo’s experiment scrutinized the effects of prison life on not only prisoners, but also prison guards and prison administrators.

As part of Project Compassion at Stanford, The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education invited Professor Zimbardo to speak about the human condition, both in the context of his infamous Stanford Prison Experiment and his current research endeavors. On Thursday, January 14, Zimbardo addressed a large crowd of eager students, admirers, and scholars in Cubberley Auditorium.

In his talk, Zimbardo pointed out flaws in the adage “A few bad apples,” which has been used to explain incidences of a wide spectrum of evil behavior in history – the Holocaust, Abu Ghraib abuses, the Stanford Prison Experiment. Rather, Zimbardo declares that actions depend much on circumstances; the bad apples aren’t to blame, but rather, the apple barrels – external influences – and, by extension, the apple barrel makers – systemic or cultural forces responsible for given environments.

To elaborate on this idea, Zimbardo cited another perception experiment done around the famous violinist, Joshua Bell. By changing the performance environment of the same incredible musician – from a concert hall to a subway station platform – the public’s perceived value of the same musician decreased dramatically.

That Bell’s instrument, physical presence, and musicianship stayed constant didn’t change the astonishing fact that a simple change in circumstance drastically altered the performance. The idea is that manipulating a person’s circumstances, from one of normalcy to one of unbridled power for instance, may cause a good person to “become” evil very quickly. In Zimbardo’s words, circumstances shape our behavior and prove that humans have equal capacity to do good or evil.

Zimbardo mentioned his colleague Stanley Milgram, who also performed a controversial social psychology experiment that looked at obedience and authority. Milgram tested how much electrical shock an average citizen would administer – in increments of 15 volts – to a fellow human on the orders of a perceived authority.

To the surprise of psychologists and experts in social behavior, Milgram found that average “decent” Americans would administer shocks of up to 450 volts, enough to gravely injure the experimental victim. In the wrong conditions, such as the high-pressure environment of Milgram’s Obedience Experiment, good people will gradually commit acts of evil and remain unaware of their transformation. “All evil begins with 15 volts,” concluded Zimbardo. He dubs this phenomenon the Lucifer Effect.

To end the presentation, Zimbardo turned to the more optimistic subject of heroes. While a villain is “[someone who] exercises power to intentionally harm people,” he defined a hero as, “someone who does something good for others or morality without thought to personal reward for said action.” Just as individuals have the capacity to do dastardly deeds, Zimbardo asserts that an equal capacity for heroism resides within each person. Regardless of whether Zimbardo’s theories on human nature endure, his idea that we all have the power to choose good or evil remains a comforting thought.

I asked the famous psychologist for an interview directly following his address.  He graciously allowed me to interview him on the way to his car, parked at the Oval. Down dim Lasuen Mall, I walked with Professor Zimbardo and two escorts back to his car after the actual event.  Fatigued from 90 minutes of talking, he put his arm around my lower shoulder like a wise sage who is imparting pearls of wisdom to a naïve whippersnapper.

I asked a series of questions: “How do we change people for the better? Is it government’s responsibility to decide and enforce ‘moral’ behavior? If the ‘bad barrel makers’ (i.e. bad culture) is to blame for ‘bad apples,’ what can we do to improve the way culture affects people?” Zimbardo replied that a large portion of the responsibility lies with the family; it is up to parents to properly instill virtuous behavior in their children.

Zimbardo added that upgrading the “barrel maker” requires work in other areas of society aside from within homes. The government ought to enact just laws that reflect good moral standards: “Government never – well, often – doesn’t determine positive values. [But] we have to work at all levels and use traditional ideas of reeducation therapy. How do you stop evil [cultures] like the KKK? Use laws to promote just behaviors – use laws to influence people to do good deeds.”

As we neared his car, Zimbardo sighed with relief and concluded with a few final words of wisdom: “People need to be held to a higher order morality. To say ‘I was only doing what I was told’ should never be sufficient justification [for evil deeds].”

The ideas of the evening were provocative at least. I feel ecstatic to have met such a memorable character. Even in retirement, he continues to contribute to our clearer understanding of our natures. Zimbardo argues that while not easy, improving our culture of apples is possible. We can all be heroes if we shape our thoughts and culture accordingly.

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