Who is Philip Zimbardo?

Zimbardo in Warsaw 2009 Philip Zimbardo has recently written a book in the field of positive psychology called The Time Paradox. He is also president of the Heroic Imagination Project – the idea for which partly grew out of his previous book The Lucifer Effect.

He has been a professor at Stanford University since 1968 and was recently the president of the American Psychological Association. He still researchers and teaches part-time even though he is officially retired.

But Zimbardo is probably best known for the Stanford Prison Experiment where he simulated a prison in the 70s. This experiment is now taught in classrooms across the world.

The Time Paradox

In his recent book with John Boyd The Time Paradox, Zimbardo explores how some people are more future oriented others more past or present oriented and how these orientations are influenced by our culture.

Zimbardo and Boyd conclude that being future orientated, but not excessively so, is important for happiness and gives tips on how to get a good balance.

The Heroic Imagination Project

Philip Zimbardo is also the founder and director of the Heroic Imagination Project. Zimbardo is interested in how people become heroes in many areas of life particular in ordinary everyday situations. The project is interviewing reformed gang-members to understand how people turn away from violent behaviour.

“What pushes some people to become perpetrators of evil, while others act heroically on behalf of those in need?” asks Zimbardo.

The Lucifer Effect

His research into heroism is really the flip side of his earlier work on the psychology of evil. In his book the Lucifer Effect he examined how good people can be seduced by evil and become aggressive and violent. This was partly inspired by Zimbardo’s own childhood growing up in the Bronx.

The Lucifer Effect takes its name from how the angel Lucifer became the devil in Christian theology. Zimbardo sees evil coming from environmental factors such as the delegation of authority without necessary restraint.

We would all like to believe that there are certain ways we would never behave but Zimbardo argues that it is much easier than we believe to lose your sense of identity and act in ways contrary to your morality and values.

The power of peer pressure will have you conforming and your response to authority that will get you to obey even if it is against your conscience. He sees the power of the situation as often more persuasive than cherished morals or values.

Zimbardo cites the work of fellow psychology professor Stanley Milgram who clearly showed this in his experiments where ordinary men were ordered to give what appeared to be fatal electric shocks to another participant. Milgram found that 65% of the participants obeyed.

In 2004, Zimbardo testified as an expert witness at the court martial of Sgt. Ivan ‘Chip’ Frederick – a guard at Abu Ghraib prison. Zimbardo argued that the powerful situational pressure that Chip had been placed under without proper training and supervision was at least partly to blame for Chip abusing the prisoners in the way that he did.

Zimbardo referred his own previous research of the Stanford Prison Study as showing remarkable parallels to the situation in Abu Ghraib.

The Stanford Prison Study

In the summer of 1971, Zimbardo conducted his most notable study – the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment.

Twenty four normal young men who were students on their summer holidays volunteered for this study. Zimbardo randomly assigned to them either the role of prisoner or guard in his simulation planned for two weeks in the specially built dungeon in a basement corridor of Stanford University.

Zimbardo contributed to his volunteer prisoners’ loss of identity by arranging for real police to arrest them at their home and bring them the prison blindfold. He then had his young volunteers stripped, showered deloused and gave them smocks to wear with ID numbers and put chains on their legs.

At the same time he gave the guards khaki uniforms, mirrored sunglasses and truncheons. Zimbardo told the guards not to physically hit the prisoners but did not give the guards any specific instructions beyond keeping order in the prison.

The guards strongly identified with the role they had been given and exerted their authority by ordering the prisoners around and giving them push-ups and solitary confinement as punishments. On one occasion they quelled a prisoner rebellion using fire extinguishers.

In the simulation Zimbardo acted as the prison warder rather than an objective observer. It was his girlfriend and future wife Christina Maslach who helped Zimbardo to see what was really happening in the experiment.

He eventually called a halt to the study after six days due to the sadistic behaviour of the guards and the prisoners showing signs of depression. Zimbardo is very critical of the ethics of his own actions in this study but he still believes that the study showed some very important principles.

The Shyness Clinic

After completing the Prison Study, Zimbardo wanted to have a more positive influence and began by researching into shyness.

He went on to found The Shyness Clinic where he tested various interventions for shyness first with the students and staff and then with members of the local community. He has carried out research and published several best sellers on shyness.

The Shyness Clinic is now housed in the clinic of the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology in Palo Alto, where it is both a treatment and research centre.

Other work

Zimbardo has written many books.

He has researched into psychopathology, persuasion and cognitive dissonance. He is also interested in hypnotism and the role of personality factors in politics.

He has also been a social-political activist, challenging the United States’ wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

Further Reading

The Heroic Imagination Project
The Banality of Heroism by Philip Zimbardo in Greater Good Magazine
Philip Zimbardo profile and articles in Greater Good Magazine
The Stanford Prison Experiment
The Shyness Clinic
Philip Zimbardo on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Related Posts

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What is Positive Psychology?

Cloud Atlas: A Movie with Multiple Positive Themes

Cloud Atlas is an awe-inspiring film with a number of positive themes. If you are willing to put some effort into your movie watching and enjoy your stories complex and meaningful then you may well love Cloud Atlas as I did.
Directors Tom Twyker and the Wachowskis have managed to pull off what seemed impossible. They have produced an amazing screen adaptation of this intricate and multifaceted novel by David Mitchell.

You’ll get a taste of it from this extended trailer.

But be warned. If you want to steer clear of sex, violence and swearing then this movie is not for you. I have to confess to closing my eyes in some of the more violent scenes and also wondering if it really needed so many uses of the f-word. Nevertheless I felt the on the whole the movie was very inspiring and positive.

What is Cloud Atlas about?

It is composed of six separate stories with the action relentlessly cutting between them. Each story is of a different genre including science fiction, period drama, romance and detective thriller.

Each story is viewed in someway by the protagonist in the next. They are reading a diary or reading their letters or watching a film of their adventure. In this way the actions in one story can influence the actions in another. A stand for justice in one story can ricochet across the decades to inspire a revolution in another.

What positive themes does Cloud Atlas touch on?

In each story we see characters with their own strengths and weaknesses make important decisions:

  • The nineteenth century voyage of Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) shows one man’s journey into a realisation of the evils of slavery. In his final scene he shows great integrity by quitting his involvement and calmly announcing his plans much to the anger of his father-in-law.
  • In a 1930s romance with Frobisher (Ben Wishaw) and Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) we see such creativity and love for life in the young composer Frobisher who in the end tragically commits suicide. Sixsmith’s love and forgiveness can be seen many years later as he still carries Frobisher’s letters and talks of him with fondness.
  • In a 1970s crime thriller the quick reasoning of Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), with the help of Joe Napier (Keith David), solves Sixsmith’s murder and foils the plot of a corrupt nuclear energy company and their hired assassin.
  • In the humorous contemporary tale of Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) we see how his refusal to be incarcerated against his will, his persistence and teamwork with his fellow residents lead to a daring escaping from a nursing home.
  • We see an awakening of curiosity in a cloned fast-food waitress Somni 451 (Doona Bea) in a Blade Runner type future. Somni modestly gives her account to an archivist of how she acquired her knowledge and how her sacrifice and words of wisdom have sowed the seeds for the revolution of her fellow clones.
  • To fulfil an important quest in a post-apocalyptic world, Meronym (Halle Berry) builds trust and rapport with a goat-herder Zachry (Tom Hanks) who is battling his own demons of guilt and hallucinations. One indelible image in this story is Zachry running scared from cannibals bravely rescuing his little sister.

Some may be concerned that the positive themes are undermined by the negativity that is also present in the violence and tragedy. But ultimately I would say that those these stories are poignant we are left with a very positive and hopeful conclusion.

In fact in the movie much of the author David Mitchel’s post-modern irony that deliberately undercuts the positive themes is omitted. This and other subtle changes make the movie even more upbeat than the original novel.

What is the main positive theme?

The movie hints at spirituality. Frobisher talks of a ‘better place’ in the afterlife and one or two lines of dialogue mention previous lives. A comet birthmark on a number of characters and the reuse of the same actors in each story also hints at the possibility of characters being reincarnated.

But I would say the main theme is of the movie is not really reincarnation but social change. It shows that each person is important and as they are true to their beliefs and stand up for what is right they can have a positive influence on others even across the generations.

As Somni says in probably the most memorable quote from the movie:

Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

I am aware that Cloud Atlas may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Some critics see its attempts at being profound as actually rather pretentious. But I for one found this to be an inspiring movie. Inspiring me both to random acts of kindness and to work on fulfilling my goals to somehow have a positive influence on future generations.


For more positive movies see:

The Top Ten Most Inspiring Movies of 2012
Posts by Ryan Niemiec in Positive Psychology News
Positive Psychology at the Movies(affiliate link)

Hackschooling Makes Me Happy

In this TEDx talk, teenage boy Logan LaPlante explains why he sees his experience of schooling that he calls hackschooling as an important way to learn to be happy.
By hackschooling he means investigating the world creatively rather than just following a set curriculum. LaPlante explains that hacking is thinking creativity – not just about technology – but about any subject.

Upon hearing the most popular TED talk of all time where Ken Robinson said that schools kill creativity Logan’s mother decided to homeschool him. Logan now goes to school in Starbucks, in community organisations and outside in nature.

Kids are often asked: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” If you ask a small child, Logan LaPlante explains, this question they will often say something that they really enjoy. One really good answer that a small kid once said was “I want to be happy!”

LaPlante puts forward the idea that we need to learn how to be happy and healthy. This really boils down to eight principles that Dr Roger Walsh calls therapeutic lifestyle changes or TLCs:

  • exercise
  • diet nutrition
  • time in nature
  • contribution and service
  • relationships recreation
  • relaxation and stress management
  • religious and spiritual

Schools often prepare kids for making a living but LaPlante feels that his hackschooling prepares him for life by teaching him how to be healthy and happy.

Update: Make Magazine have featured Logan LaPlante’s talk here