American Psychological Association

119th Annual Convention
Washington D.C., August 4-7 2011

Phil Zimbardo and Wade Pickren
Interview with Phillip Zimbardo, by Wade Pickren (Toronto)

Before the event I had a chance to chat briefly with Dr. Zimbardo (f2f) and I was impressed how he seemed so calm and healthy. He looked well. I was thrilled to see this, and to hear him reflect on his life experiences and influences. Tomorrow, on the 40 year anniversary of the Stanford Prison Experiment, he will present for 2 hours on that now-classic psychology experiment, with co-presenters who were crucial players in that event.

Zimbardo was introduced and encouraged to reflect on various key events in his academic or personal life. And Zimbardo, who has often reflected on growing up in the South Bronx and breaking all kinds of molds and odds, spoke in detail about early family life, his journey from thinking about people as single systems rather than parts of social systems, etc.

Zimbardo had been teaching at NYU – in 1960. Earning $6000 a year. Why NYU. Students could get great educations for free at City College, or head towards Judaic studies at Yeshiva, or got to NYU – “for people in therapy and mothers who didn’t’ want their children to go away”. (I went there! And find it funny, not offensive. Fwiw) - Everyone seems to be speaking about Woody Allen today….

Back to the 60’s. Zimbardo was poor despite teaching, as he couldn’t live in NY on that salary even then. So he moonlighted at Barnard, and began thinking he didn’t want to spend his entire life in the Bronx (where NYU had a campus at the time). At the same time, “It is life in the trenches which has done me well….”

Question – How did he end up at Stanford – is it true Leon Festinger picked him up in a gold-wing Mercedes?

A: Not exactly, but he was actively wooed by Festinger and NYU was being unresponsive to his pleas for promotion – “publish more, teach more, research more. And I did.” [skipping some detail] He didn’t actually even apply to Stanford but ended up being courted – in New York. He was in awe when they told them they really wanted him although he didn’t apply: “This is the way we do it…. What do you want?” His reply: “Give me a ticket and sunglasses. I’m there.”

And “that’s what transformed me from a little kid in the Bronx to the big leagues.

Zimbardo grew up dirt poor, with a father who wanted to be a hedonist but found it hard with 4 kids. Especially as he wasn’t working, best friend’s kid’s a prostitute, etc.

It shaped him in several ways. “In general I think poor people and immigrants are typically situationist [*Keynote on this topic] We believe that social factors have a powerful impact.” As opposed to dispositionalism – free will: everything comes from within”.

Moving back in time again – it’s 1938/39. “I’m a very popular kid. I worked very hard to be popular.” But he was sickly. He spent lots of time in hospital, with serious illness himself (whooping cough?) and (being poor) in places where there were all types of diseases around him. He was in hospital for 5 months and was feeling lonely, this popular youth, because “poor people don’t have telephones” and few friends visited. He learned he was unable to depend on the doctors, or family, or friends. Really he didn’t know what would become of him as he was a victim of “genetic roulette”. Over 5 months “all my muscles atrophied”. He was tall and blue-eyed and skinny and (although being of Italian descent) people were calling him “dirty Jew”. He determined he was going to show the world and be successful. He kept changing schools though, going from popular to shunned, and ended up in college captain of the track team, class president, and then later APA president. “It’s all part of the big plan”.

He was shunned? Yes, “I endured it by developing asthma, so severe we moved back to the dirty Bronx (from N. Hollywood High school where the family briefly moved). He attended several schools in the Bronx too, one where the little boy next to him turned out to be Stanley Milgram. (?)

"There we are, 2 situationalists doing research at Yale, on attitude change and [Festinger’s] dissonance theory." He did his doctoral study on this topic.

Meanwhile, before becoming a luminary among Ivy league psych departments, back in the Bronx “my audience was essentially always my mother. Nobody else in my family finished high school much less college. She didn’t want to know about dissonance theory [but listened]/

In 1953 his first paper as a junior was on the integration of blacks versus Puerto Ricans in the South Bronx (think 1950’s, Sharks & Jets!)

Flash forward to Stanley Shacter (?) arranging a meeting in NY for a quick interview (Yale), a formality…. “He had 3 questions: 1. Can you run rats? [He had some wise-guy answers ready but did not say them.] 2. Can you build equipment? [Yes] 3. Can you start this summer?” He was shocked (no pun intended). A year later he published a paper with Neil Miller, as lead author.

Years later Zimbardo learned that the faculty was in fact split on hiring him. (at Yale). They declared him “likely to fail” and “embarrass his race” . He grew incensed – Suma cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa – why would he fail? They assumed he ws black because he was captain of the track team. True story.

Meanwhile he goes home to his mother and tells her the story of his being hired to run a rat lab and she is horrified. Actually she had a rat phobia. “We had them in the apartment. She told me, ‘you’re supposed to exterminate them, not make them smart!”

Final question (for now) – Can he speak to his thinking now, 40 years later, about the prison experiment?

A: Actually tomorrow there is a 2-hour session with videos and the woman Zimbardo married, after she made him stop the experiment.

Social issues are all around us, and in the 60’s there were turbulent things happening, Nixon was lying about leaving Vietnam ‘with dignity” and then bombed Cambodia….

As a professor he taught a course where the first half semester students had to offer up social topics and he would work with them the second half on designing studies. The students chose prisons, and one proposed building a mock prison in the dorm. The class role-played how it might go. There were some strong reactions (about cruelty and naturally cruel personalities), an attempted seduction of a guard, and once again Zimbardo found himself confronting both a person and a situation.

Warp speed… back at NYU “what I really got out of teaching…was… I had to cheat. I’d say ‘I wonder what would happen if ….” And then do a study to find out. “Like the Lord of the Flies phenomenon”. He still uses some slides he made for that class, to “use teaching to get ideas for research and then use research to get ideas for teaching”….

[One of my mantras in grad school was “Research informs practice while practice informs research”. ]

As The Lucifer Effect: Why Good People do Evil Things (paraphrasing maybe?) describes, Zimbardo believed that when actually doing the prison study it was important for there to be an arrest – a sudden surrendering to “the system”. “He was and is interested “in what situations do people give up freedom voluntarily?”

Answer: “Shy people”. He became really interested in this phenomenon (and I read his books on this as a grad student – at NYU!). Zimbardo thinks that “a shy person is their own prison guard”. Furthermore, “as long as the punishment for rebellion is high enough, ultimately you give in”.

In 1972 Zimbardo did a lit review on shyness and found no research beyond age 13 (in pediatric literature), nothing on shy adults. So he organized a ‘shy student class” of 12 which met at night. He developed questions and encouraged the students to help with the lit review by reaching out to find information. “We can’t do it; we’re shy!” he was told. But it got done, along with help from his wife at Berkely, and their findings have been replicated many times since, suggesting that of 10,000 people, 40% of people are in some way shys, highest among Asians, lowest among Israelis.

So Stanford opened a “shyness clinic”. It became an even better example of “intellectual cheating” than what he did at NYU – “Out of research comes educations and out of the education comes research.”

QU – Quick thoughts on the Heroic Imagination project?

A- (smiles) I have obviously become known as Dr. Evil”. The Lucifer effect was ‘really about evil. Why good people do evil things. It was grim”. As a witness in the Abu Ghraib prison torture investigations, he had access to 1000’s of reports and images. It was “an example of the Stanford Prison Study, exponentially worse.” What happened to people at Stanford? “What happened to… me – as superintendent of the prison, not just collecting data.” He found himself taking notes in the manner of prison talk, “little actual psychology – what does that say about me, down in the dungeon?” He referenced Chapter 15: “The system”

“What and who creates the change? It’s the system. The power is with the system. During the prison experiment, I was too close to it. But then Abu Ghraib drove it home.” He’d see notes with orders to “treat prisoners like dogs”, etc.

But in focusing on the evil side, “we’ve been ignoring the “good side”. How to resist evil. How to promote health. There is little systematic research and heroism is not about some trait but “it’s an action”, made by people who make sacrifices on behalf of others. And they do it. (“Altruism is heroism lie – no real risk or cost.”)

So now "I’d like to leave evil behind and become like the good witch of the East – or West".

Final thoughts: “My whole life has been a conflict between being future oriented – which is why I’m here – and present hedonistic, which is fun!”

His site:

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2008 Convention Highlights:

Grand Theft Childhood | Opening | Malcolm Gladwell | College Success, Love, Hate, More | My Life With Asperger's

My Space, You Tube, Psychotherapy, Relationships... | Aaron T. Beck - 2008 | The Mind and Brain of Voters

2009 Convention Highlights:

Internet: Pathway for Networking, Connecting, and Addiction | Opening | Virtual Psychology & Therapy | Q&A with Zimbardo

Seligman: Positive Education | Future of Internet Media | Sex, Love, & Psychology | How Dogs Think

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

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