Philip Zimbardo


Signs that inmate 819 wouldn’t last six days:
Hysterical weeping
Destruction of pillow and mattress
Upon release, expressed a wish to “go back and prove I’m a good prisoner”

Put yourself in the following situation. You’ve agreed to participate in a Yale University study that explores the use of punishment to aid learning and memorization skills. You’re randomly assigned the roll of “teacher”; the “learner” is strapped to an apparatus in the next room and given a series of memory exercises. Your task as the teacher is to press a lever that sends an electric shock to the learner every time he answers a question incorrectly. The shocks increase in intensity for every incorrect answer—up the scale from level 1 (15 volts) to level 13 (195 volts, marked “Very Strong Shock”) to level 25 (375 volts, “Danger—Severe Shock”), ending at level 30 (450 volts, marked “XXX”). The learner you’ve been paired with is not doing well. He’s making a lot of mistakes and has begun complaining about the pain from the shocks. You check with the experimenter and he assures you that it’s OK to continue. Still more mistakes. Now the learner screams in pain at every wrong answer. He begs you and the experimenter to let him out. He complains about a heart condition. You’re up to level 13 now, 195 volts, labeled “Very Strong Shock.” You don’t want to continue, but the experimenter reminds you that you agreed to do this and claims that he will take full responsibility for whatever happens. The learner screams that they have no right to keep him here. The experimenter asks you firmly to keep going.

What would you do in this situation? Would you take a stand and walk out? Or would you keep pulling the levers, all the way up the scale, past the point where the screaming from the other room has turned into silence….

Many readers will recognize this description as a portrait of the famous Milgram experiments. (For those unfamiliar with the study, the “learner” was really an actor, a confederate of the experimenter. The experiment was in fact a study of obedience to authority figures. The shocks were not genuine.[1]) Conducted in the 1960s, the Milgram experiments presented a deep challenge to American ideas about the power of individual character and free choice. In a follow-up study, Milgram asked subjects to predict how far up the shock scale they would go in this kind of situation. Subjects replied, on average, that they would refuse to continue after level 10. Nobody said that they would go as far as level 20, and when asked to predict the behavior of others, subjects imagined that only 1 to 2 percent would go all the way to level 30. A group of forty psychiatrists, after hearing about the experiment, agreed with this assessment. After all, only a sadist could repeatedly electrocute an innocent stranger just because a psychologist told him to, right?

Wrong. Both the psychiatrists and the subjects were way off. As it turned out, two out of every three subjects went all the way up to level 30, sending what they believed were 450 volts into the learner in the next room. And once they passed 330 volts, when the learner had stopped screaming and fell silent (unconscious or dead perhaps), almost no one stopped until the end. Either two thirds of the Connecticut population are sadists, or bucking authority is much more difficult than we imagine.

The Milgram study is one of the twin towers of experiments in the “situationist” tradition, studies that reveal the extent to which our circumstances and environment influence human behavior. The other is an equally controversial study known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971. A former classmate of Stanley Milgram’s at James Monroe High School in the Bronx, Dr. Zimbardo wanted to study the effects of a prison environment on human behavior. He gathered a group of college students, randomly divided them into “prisoners” and “guards,” and placed them in a simulated prison at Stanford University. What followed is discussed at some length below; for now, it’s enough to say that the behavior was so unexpectedly brutal and dehumanizing that the experiment—designed to last two weeks—had to be cut short after only six days. So when Zimbardo heard about the abuses at Abu Ghraib, and then saw the notorious photographs, he says he was not surprised. He had seen this pattern of abuse before—the sexual humiliation, naked prisoners with bags over their heads—in his own simulated prison! And when the Bush administration depicted the abuses as the actions of “a few bad apples,” Zimbardo could say with some authority that a “bad barrel”—the twelve-hour shifts without a day off, fatigue, stress, ambiguous orders from above, the systematic lack of leadership, and the prison itself—was likely the more important contributing factor. After hearing him interviewed on NPR about the scandal, the lawyer for Chip Frederick, one of the guards at Abu Ghraib, asked Zimbardo to serve as an expert witness for the defense. And this experience prompted him to write a book, The Lucifer Effect, about the Abu Ghraib abuses, the power of situational elements to influence behavior, and, for the first time ever, a detailed, reflective, and fascinating account of the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted almost forty years earlier.

Dr. Zimbardo is professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University. I met him at his house just off the zigzagged portion of Lombard Street in San Francisco. Over scones and tea, looking out onto the bay, we discussed the prison experiment and its implications for ethics, responsibility, free will, and social policy. This interview has been abridged from the full version, which will appear in A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain, to be published next month by Believer Books.

—Tamler Sommers

THE BELIEVER: At any point did you have a kind of awareness that “I’m getting sucked into it,” or did that only come afterward?

PHILIP ZIMBARDO: No, well—it came out partially when 819… he was beginning to have an emotional breakdown. When the chaplain was interviewing him among the others, he started crying, you know, hysterically, and at that point I thought the chaplain was going to say, “Blow the whistle, look, this is out of control.” In fact, he tells me later, he said, “Oh, that’s a first-offender reaction, that is, they’re all very emotional initially and they have to learn not to do that, because they’re going to look like sissies, they’re going to get abused.” But then 819 goes ballistic, he starts ripping up his pillow and mattress and shit, and they put him in solitary confinement. And his cellmates get punished for not limiting that. He’s now hysterical and one of the guards comes and says, “We think he’s breaking down.” So I bring him up to a recreation room for the cameramen and observers. When prisoners were going to be released we brought them there to settle down, cool down, before we took them to student health, whatever. So I bring this guy there, 819, and I’m saying, “OK, 819, look, time is up, we’re going pay you for the whole time,” and so forth, and just then the guards line up the prisoners and get them to chant: “[Number] 819 is a bad prisoner. Because of what 819 did my cell is a mess. I’m being punished for 819.”

Now this guy starts crying again and says, “I’ve got to go back!” “What do you mean?” He said, “I’ve got to go back and prove I’m not a bad prisoner.” And so that was a shock. And so I said, “Wait a minute, you’re not a prisoner, you’re not 819, this is an experiment, you’re a student, your name is Stewart.” And at that point I said, “And I’m Phil Zimbardo.” He said, “OK, OK.” And I escorted the student out. But saying: “I’m not the superintendent. I’m this other person…”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Tamler Sommers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston. His collection of interviews, A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain, is available from Believer Books. He is currently writing a book about cross-cultural perspectives on moral responsibility entitled Relative Justice (Princeton University Press).

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