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?


April 25, 2013Permalink Leave a comment

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