Zimbardo at the Athenaeum

“All evil starts with 15 volts.” If there was one point that the audience was supposed to remember from Dr. Phillip Zimbardo’s Athenaeum speech, it was this. With this one line, Dr. Zimbardo succinctly highlighted his explanation for why people perform evil actions while also tying together a lineage of research that spans decades and regions, and includes some of psychology’s most famous and notorious experiments.

The line itself refers to a series of experiments carried out in the early 1960s by Dr. Stanley Milgram at Yale. These studies, which were designed to study how ordinary individuals responded to authority, involved the subjects shocking a fictional person for answering questions incorrectly. The fictional “victim” would respond with pre-recorded sounds of pain that would escalate as the shocks increased, until the last 10 levels, where the victim would fall silent and remain that way through the conclusion of the experiment. Milgram polled both senior undergraduates and fellow psychologists, and both groups predicted around one percent of the subjects would administer the maximum shock. The results revealed that both groups were extremely incorrect. Nearly 65 percent of the participants administered the maximum shock, and nearly all were clearly uncomfortable in doing so, yet did so anyway with prodding from the experimenter.

The experiment shocked the world and lent some insight into how ordinary people can come to commit massive atrocities. Dr. Zimbardo noted that it was perhaps the most notorious and controversial experiment in psychology until he conducted his own experiment, referred to now as the Stanford Prison Experiment, approximately a decade later. In Zimbardo’s study, ordinary students were arbitrarily assigned to “prisoner” or “guard” roles in a jail located in the basement of Stanford’s psychology department. The two-week experiment lasted only six days as the guards quickly embraced their role and became more and more authoritarian, ultimately to the point where they were psychologically abusing the prisoners. These results, like the results of the Milgram studies earlier, were shocking. Dr. Zimbardo explicitly pointed out, that these students were chosen because they were considered to be stable and healthy. In addition, Dr. Zimbardo also stated that while the actions of the “guards” became so extreme as to raise ethical and safety concerns, the students, both eventual “guards” and “prisoners,” had indicated a preference for the “prisoner” role. None of these men, he argued, were initially inclined towards the authoritarian role. This study provided substantial support for what he has termed “the Lucifer effect,” which is the notion that over time, ordinary people can transform into evil individuals capable of terrible deeds, given certain circumstances.

Dr. Zimbardo went on to apply these lessons from his study to the case of the guards at Abu Ghraib prison, in which he testified as an expert witness. In this case, guards were accused of abusing prisoners after being left in positions of authority with morally ambiguously instruction and limited oversight. In this case, but in general as well, Zimbardo noted an inclination to blame bad behavior on an individual perpetrator’s disposition, to blame the problem on a few so-called “bad apples.” Dr. Zimbardo went on to explain that this viewpoint contradicts what the research and the facts of the case indicate, which is that the situation, the “apple barrel,” was the problem, and essentially drove ordinary people to become evil and commit atrocities. Zimbardo concluded that while people are still responsible for their actions, preventing future cruelty requires actually addressing the situation or the system that caused the behavioral transformation, as well as the individuals and organizations responsible for creating the system.

Dr. Zimbardo finished his speech by speaking on the topic of heroes. While ordinary people can become evil, Zimbardo argued they also could become heroes in the right circumstances. He stated that most heroes are just ordinary people in dire situations that respond courageously. There is a need in our society to honor and elevate people who do truly heroic things, and to de-emphasize cultural heroes like athletes and celebrities. To ultimately improve society, Dr. Zimbardo prescribed holding ourselves to a higher moral standard in all aspects of society. If we want to shift the balance to good from evil, we need to honor true heroes, pass moral laws, elect moral leaders and make a conscious effort to conduct our daily lives justly. Then perhaps the scales will shift, but not before we take responsibility and act.

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