American Psychological Association
122nd Annual Convention
Washington, D.C., August 7-10 2014
Transforming Evil Into Heroic Good
Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D.
Dr. Phil Zimbardo, known widely for his 'Stanford Prison Study' and his explorations of 'why good people do evil things', began with a brief overview of his current projects (encouraging 'heroic imagination') in Sicily, Poland, and elsewhere. He recapped some of his thoughts on 'good versus evil', to the sound of Zimbardo's theme song - Santana performing 'You've got to change your evil ways'. Zimbardo has long focused on systemic causes for those evil ways; His mission these days, and perhaps since the time he called off the Prison Experiment, has been exploring ways to 'change those evil ways' and inspire people everywhere to develop good barrels through support for heroic imagination. Fueled by his observation that while maybe 90% of his subjects gave in to the pressures, 10% refused. Zimbardo asked: What if even 10% of the general population were prepared to engage 'heroic' principles and help resist evil, or help its victims? Zimbardo explained that he has expanded beyond the study of "How do you create an evil situation" to "inspiring people, everyday people, to become heroes." Still he remains fascinated by the issue of "what makes good people go wrong", though he noted that psychological research most often breaks down such issues into "precise questions we address experimentally" but not necessarily getting at causes.
Looking at the larger context, some of the causes and effects are well known: "Poverty is a systemic evil" and even in the U.S. today, "at least 20% of children are growing up beneath the poverty level." What difference does it make? For starts, mortality: Impoverished children tend to die up to 2 years earlier than the non-impoverished. "Poverty kills". Aside from the developmental and social influences contributing to moral development, Zimbardo shared how he was also intrigued by 'the good Dr. Jekyll and the bad Mr. Hyde'. With no clear guidance or prohibitions from a human subjects committee at the time of the Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo was struck by the seeming malleability of people, good-bad... and "I wanted to know about the line."
Zimbardo wondered also whether possibly 'being good' acts for some as a 'security blanket'. For others, "it's all about power, [to] hurt, kill...racist and sexist jokes, lynching..." And, also exerting a powerful influence, "big corporations are also evil". For the banks who ruined so many lives, what was the consequence? "Bank of America is going to pay a 17 Billion Dollar fine [after they] made *trillions* selling bad loans." So, in terms of his perspective, Zimbardo reflected "I think one of my contributions has been to expand on the nature of evil."
Zimbardo (a social psychologist) continues to observe the social context which pulls for group norms, behavior, and conformity. "People are never alone, without an audience, real or in your mind." He repeated his 'bad barrel' metaphor: the notion of "The Bad Barrel, in which we put the bad apples and see if it will change a good apple." He still feels strongly that behavior is often ignored at the systemic level, including within political, legal, and organizational domains. Why do ordinary people 'turn evil'? One of the factors is clearly dehumanization, which we can see on television (e.g., war atrocities) and as was seen in both the Prison Experiment and at Abu Ghraib. [See this presentation for more on this aspect.]
Aspects of dehumanization often seen in systemic evil include:
- Diffusion of Responsibility
- Obedience to Authority [E.g., Milgram]
- Group Pressure
- Disengagement [E.g., Bandura]
Systemic evil may also be nationalized, for example China's encouraging tobacco addiction among men (54% of whom smoke profusely), earning the state-owned tobacco industry 605 Billion Yuan, and killing one million citizens a year. There are many examples of 'systemic evil' globally:
- Slave Labor
- Sex Trafficking ("the most profitable business in the world")
- Inaction/Indifference (E.g., climate change and industry responses that 'we can't afford it')
Zimbardo underscored that, as his high school classmate Stanley Milgram can attest, the 'shocking' answer to the question of whether we can elicit 'bad' behavior easily from normally 'good' people is, YES. Zimbardo reviewed the Milgram design (Subjects giving into the pressure to deliver painful shock even at high dosage with feedback suggesting the imposition of pain). He noted how Subjects responded to experimenter prompts to continue, and "almost all obey". Perhaps 1 percent of Subjects would impose shock up to a 'sadism level', it has been suggested. Aside from coercive or group pressure, Zimbardo notes how such situations have something else happening: the 'fundamental attribution error' whereby we over-estimate the authorities' power and under-estimate our own. The actual finding was that 65% of 1000 Subjects administered the maximum voltage. Was it the influence of the experimenter? The 'systemic power of Yale' exerting influence to cooperate? To test the latter, similar studies (when they could be done) were conducted in smaller university settings. The findings? Sixty to Ninety percent complied with the task demand of delivering ostensibly painful shock. So for Zimbardo, the question now becomes, who are these 10 % who held firm against 'evil'?
Turning his attention to the few who resisted the powerful evil task demand: Can these people serve as models or offer us something from which we can learn? It seems that those who lead or take heroic actions do create a 'positive ripple', whereas others will follow a good samaritan once a situation happens and it's not possible to ignore (as people did, say, with Kitty Genovese). As for giving in, instead, to the evil, Zimbardo cited the Milgramian motto: 'All evil begins with 15 watts', noting that a first step of the Nazis was dehumanizing too, requiring the yellow star to be worn by Jews.
Zimbardo recalled some of the highlights of the Prison Experiment [For more, see his presentation on the 40th anniversary of the The Stanford Prison Experiment.] Dr. Zimbardo highlighted some of the things which seemed important: the selection of 'normal' students and how they began to de-compensate within 36 hours, spurring others to 'act crazy' to 'get out of jail' despite their initial consent to participate. "No one said 'I quit'" but expressions of anger and unhappiness were common. The guards, meanwhile, also moved 'into character', one even emulating 'Cool Hand Luke' in his smooth but sadistic style. Over time the guards started thinking of themselves as 'puppeteers' with the Subject/Prisoners routinely denigrated to the role of 'puppets'. They were clearly (psychologically) tortured, with humiliation, sexual and otherwise, and soon the prisoners formed rebellions, while some became 'snitches' and guards started playing one against another. All in a condensed period of time, only days. It took 5 days to see results (paper bags on head, etc.) similar to what took weeks to emerge in Abu Ghraib. Wrapping up the look-back at the Prison Experiment, Zimbardo said that all the materials related to the Stanford experiment are now archived at Stanford, and available to scholars.
Addressing the 'thin line' between accountability vs. giving into 'situational power', Zimbardo noted that in researching events at Abu Ghraib he found that in 3 months, there were no incidents at all during the day, but the 'night shift' of reservist soldiers were the ones who approached a 'frenzy' of prisoner abuses in their pursuit of 'actionable' information. Meanwhile, Rumsfield (Sec. of Defense) was signing off on acceptance of torture methods including water-boarding and suspensions over water, wired to electricity. Soon General Miller was proclaiming "We know this is not systemic", blaming only a few 'bad apples'. (Sound familiar?) Zimbardo found himself defending one of those 'bad apples' on the basis of his having been immersed into the bad barrel, "the power of the situation" The 'problem' is that he was tried in Baghdad, as opposed to a jury of peers, and far from the normal circumstances where one might note a base rate of 'what any person would do'. Instead, the system tried itself and the winner was what Zimbardo terms 'The Lucifer Effect: How ordinary people go bad' and cross the line. The effect appears to be worse, the younger one is. Situational power. After many grim findings of this Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo finds some 'good news' in a 2014 study of 1200 children, which found that some may yet become heroes, this group of people with 'the power to resist' evil.
Turning from how evil is nurtured to how those with resistance might become heroes or simply focus on 'good' deeds rather than bad, Zimbardo identified 12 types of heroes. But what can be done to identify and promote the mechanism which inspires heroism when called for? "The answer is: We do not have a clue!" He cited Seligman's notion that 'heroism is not a virtue, it's an action", agreeing with the importance of action but seeing that having heroic inclinations is in fact a virtue, and noting that Ghandi observed how 'the line shifts in each of us'. Are heroes modeled as cartoons? No, said Zimbardo, because "cartoon characters have super powers. We have brains. "
Also, there are different kinds of courage and heroic behavior. But "moral courage is at the core of heroic action".
Why do we need heroes? And what evil should be targeted? There is "evil of action and evil of inaction.... Heroes are ordinary people whose actions are extraordinary." (Zimbardo quipped that President Obama "stole some of my lines, but it's O.K.".) An example of heroic action may be an act of defiance, such as Rosa Parks, arrested for her act of defiance. And there is Zimbardo's 'Number One Hero', Irena Sendler [ Poland - see www.irenasendler.org ] whose actions saved 2500 Jewish children of the Warsaw Ghetto from certain extermination. The 'positive ripple' from this one woman's heroic action: Now the children she saved have given birth to over 10,000 descendents. "That's a powerful ripple effect!" Other heroic acts of note include 9-year-old Lin Hao, who saved classmates in his school in the aftermath of an earthquake. Asked why he put himself at risk to save the others, he responded in essence, "I was a hall monitor. I did my job." How does this happen, and how can we encourage more positive ripples? Other inspirational examples abound, such as the man who jumped onto New York City subway tracks in the face of an oncoming train to save a man who had fallen onto the tracks. (They both survived.) Wesley Autrey. Hero. It turns out that he had learned how to bury into the track between the rails, as a child, his mother calling him 'the black Evil Knievel'. But what prompted him to do this, now, for a stranger? Zimbardo describes this particular example, 'impulsive heroism'.
Returning to questions of morality and how it can be warped, Zimbardo returned to the story of his life at the time of the Stanford Prison Study, and how his girlfriend (now wife) forced him to stop the experiment, after seeing the hellish 'lab' with paper bags on heads, psychological torture, and guard cruelty. "It's terrible what you're doing to these boys... I don't understand... You're a stranger to me... I'm not sure I can have anything to do with you if this is the real you." So profound was this jolt back to reality that the experiment was halted. And he changed. Today he is married to both his girlfriend and his mission to not only personally focus more on heroism than evil, but to instill 'heroic imagination' as an element of daily life, along with the already common elements of 'evil'.
** ANNOUNCEMENT ** - "You are hearing it first". [8 Aug 2014] On August 20th, at Burbank Studios in Hollywood, filming begins on a film titled 'Stanford Prison Experiment'. Zimbardo said there are some great actors portraying both prisoners and guards, and only the role of himself remains to be casted. His suggestion would be Johnny Depp, though he said he'd be fine with, say, Brad Pitt.
So now, for the past 8 years Zimbardo has been working to develop educational modules (6 to date) highlighting areas such as 'mindsets', 'situational blindness', the 'bystander effect', 'peer pressure', and 'adaptive attribution'. He shared some of the program, which consists of video training sessions. At the end of the lessons there are some interactive, conceptual questions, such as naming '3 things you learned today'. A goal is that 'nobody leaves the room until everybody knows everything'. Once people are tuned in, the focus expands from 'what did you learn from Zimbardo?' to 'What would you tell others?'. He stresses 'the evil of inaction', framing the issue as, 'It's not enough to know something. You are a social change agent. Every day.' Zimbardo mentioned a relevant video which can be found on YouTube, entitled 'The Science of Situation'`.
Zimbardo traced notions of the 'Good Samaritan' back to the Bible, and the road to Jericho. He noted how the Golden Rule "promotes the notion of social responsibility". In real everyday life, however, when action might make a difference, 'people just watch'. What if they were primed to think, 'Would I help? Would I intervene? What keeps me from acting? Here he showed some short video clips showing various (confederate) actors posed as derelicts in a doorway, on the ground. Subjects included unkempt, poor-looking males, well-dressed males, and females, some seemingly in bad straits, some possibly OK but passed out. The interesting thing was how many times people of all sorts just walked by. The better-dressed the fallen actor, the more likely and more quickly a response was. Interestingly, once one person made an effort to help, others joined in. But it took that first act ('heroic imagination') before anyone seemed to notice or find the situation a compelling call to action. Also interesting: "No one raises an eyebrow" when the person looks decrepit, but the exact same scenario, where the 'victim' wore a suit, ended up taking only 6 seconds before someone asked, 'Are you O.K., sir?'. Sir. Yet when a shoddily dressed male called out for help repeatedly, nobody at all responded. And consider how a casually dressed woman had 34 people pass by, notice her, and not one person offered help for 4 minutes. Then the 'temporary rule' of not engaging strangers gave way when someone else initiated helping behavior. Others joined in. So what is the new rule, and how do we promote scenarios when people DO help? One technique may be the educational modules with follow-up discussions, asking such questions as 'does it work?', and activities such as 'think of a time when you could have helped, but didn't'. Often, he has noticed, this elicits memories of watching or experiencing bullies, but doing nothing. Zimbardo advises that first we need to 'understand yourself and understand the situation' if one is to change that situation. Showing some more clips as illustrations, Kitty Genovese was highlighted as an example of doing nothing. The answer is in both the awareness and in 'behavioral intervention... you want to show a reduction in bullying [or whatever]'
Zimbardo finds this an exciting as well as important area of study. At a time when most educational discussion is about STEM curriculum, he is gratified to see programs emerging from California's Psi Beta (honor society) to Sicily, Budapest, Sweden and Capetown, and is hoping to set up a training program at Stanford to work with NGO's in South Africa.
What can you do as ONE PERSON, asks Zimbardo. You can form Hero Squads, or practice being a 'positive deviant' with like-minded partners. ("Heroes are socio-centric, not ego-centric.") "Do something positive every day. Give a compliment - nobody gives a compliment any more!" Here he stopped to praise someone's scarf and go on to compliment the entire outfit. "You gotta challenge rules!" He ended up with a slide of assembled Nazis of the Third Reich. The vast crowd had their arms out straight in a salute to Hitler, all except one, with his hands folded in front of him. The power of conformity can be resisted. One can resist evil, and it is possible to turn our heroic imagination into genuine positive acts of kindness, humanism, 'good' actions and behavior....
Aaron T. Beck at 93: The 'father of cognitive therapy' discusses 'therapy', humanism, schizophrenia, belief and peace.
2010 Convention Highlights:
Online Support Groups & Applications |
Evidence & Ethical Practice | Opening Ceremony | Sir Michael Rutter: Resilience
Group Memory | Psychology in the Digital Age | Steven Hayes: What Psychotherapists Have that the World Needs Now
2011 Convention Highlights:
2011: eHealth Odyssey | Googling, Twittering, Poking | Zimbardo: Reflections + Enduring Lessons from 40 Years Ago: Stanford Prison Experiment
Opening | Avatar-based Therapy |
Canine Cognition: Chaser | Aaron T. Beck @90
| Cavanagh: Computerized CBT | Seligman: Flourish
PsychTech: Virtual & Augmented Reality |
Relationships 3.0 | POKE ME: Social Networks & Kids | Telehealth & Telepsychology Licensure - Barriers and Possible Solutions
2012 Convention Highlights:
Transmedia Storytelling |
Opening | 2012: Virtual Reality Goes to War
| DSM5: Q&A | Drew Westen: Dysfunctional Democracy
Howard Gardner: Multiple Intelligences
| Zimbardo: Anatomy of a TED Event
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