Today, we have a titan of psychology on the podcast, Dr. Philip Zimbardo. Dr. Z is an internationally recognized scholar, educator, researcher, and media personality, winning numerous awards and honors in each of these domains. He has been at Stanford University, as a professor since 1968, where he conducted the famous Stanford Prison Experiment. His career is noted for giving psychology a way to the public through his popular PBS TV series, ‘Discovering Psychology’, along with many texts and trade books among his 300 publications. He was recently president of the American Psychology Association. Dr. Z, welcome to the Science of Success.
Dr. Z: I’m happy to be here, Matt, and happy to share some ideas with your listeners.
Matt: Well, we’re so excited to have you on here. I know we’re a little bit time constrained today, so let’s just jump right in. Starting with the idea of the psychology of evil. Tell me about what makes people go wrong. What makes people turn evil?
Dr. Z: Well, I’ve been studying evil in a curious way by creating it in research laboratories. I was interested in this topic since I was a little kid. I grew up in poverty, in the ghetto, in the South Bronx of New York, and if you grow up in any ghetto, there are always men who are there—evil men—to corrupt kids, getting them to do criminal things for money: stealing, selling drugs, taking drugs, getting girls to sell their bodies for money. Some of my friends gave into that temptation and other kids didn’t. So, evil, again, as we know from the Bible, it’s all about giving in or resisting temptation. So, as a kid I was curious as to: What’s the difference between kids who gave into this temptation, and ended up doing bad things—some of then went to jail—and kids like me, and other friends, who didn’t? My primitive answer, when I was seven years old, was that maybe it had to do with having a strong mother who had a moral compass saying, “This is right; this is wrong,” and also showed unconditional love. Then, when I became a psychologist I thought, well, it’s not that simple because there are three kinds of evil. There’s evil, which is dispositional in people. That’s namely bad apples. There are people who are psychopaths who don’t feel emotion, who can hurt others with no remorse. We see this in a lot of the high school shooters. Then, there’s the evil of situations. That is, there are some situations that encourage, provoke, stimulate people to do bad things, and that’s situational evil. That’s where my prison study comes in, and also the earliest study—I’ll mention briefly to your listeners—by Stanley Milgram about blind obedience to authority. But then we had to recognize a third kind of evil, which is systemic evil, namely that the evil created by legal, political, economic forces. This is the bad barrel makers. So it’s bad apples, bad barrels, and bad barrel makers. Systemic evil is: war, terrorism, slave labor, sex trafficking. So, there’s many examples. That’s evil at the top, and that’s the worst kind of evil because it’s evil to make money.
Matt: So, is there a fixed line between good and evil, or is it permeable?
Dr. Z: That’s a really good question. It’s very permeable, and it varies historically; it varies with different cultures, and it’s culturally relevant, so that if you are a suicide bomber in the Mid-East, in Palestine, and your job is to blow up innocent women and children with the assumption that you will then be a hero, you’ll be sitting at the right hand of Allah, that’s one definition of hero, but you are a villain to the opposition. So, really there has to be a higher order definition. It can’t be localized. It can’t be local hero, so there really has to be an international sense that nothing that destroys human life, except in a military battle of soldiers against soldiers, can qualify as heroism.
Matt: So, how would you define evil, or how would you define heroism?
Dr. Z: Okay. Well, heroism is easier. Heroism is acting to help others in need, and/or acting to support a moral cause by standing up; speaking out; taking action. Doing so, aware that there could be a risk and a personal cost. So, that’s how heroism differs from altruism. In altruism there’s not personal cost. I give money to a charity; I give blood to a blood bank; it’s really not a cost, so that, heroism involves a knowing risk. In the extreme it’s loss of life or a limb, but for whistle blowers, for example, it’s often loss of a job, or loss of promotion. Evil is behaving in ways that violate human dignity; that degrade/diminish, the quality of life for other people in various ways.
Matt: One of the landmark findings of the Stanford Prison Experiment was the power of institutions to impact human behavior. Tell me a little bit more about that.
Dr. Z: As I said earlier, in the mid ‘60s, Stanley Milgram, when he was young professor at Yale University, did the really dramatic studies on obedience to authority in which he tested a thousand people over a number of years—mostly men, but he also showed it’s true with women—who are put in this situation where they believed they were acting as teachers to help their student improve by punishing your student when he made errors. Punishment was by delivering electric shocks on a prearranged schedule on a big electric stimulator. It started at 15 volts, and it increased by 15 volts along 30 switches. When it got in the hundreds, the student, who was actually a confederate in another room—meaning working with the experimenter—began to scream and yell, and as it got worse and worse he screamed louder and louder, and said...begged to let them stop it. In every case the subjects...the teachers...the people roleplaying teachers complained, they dissented, but the experimenter, acting as the ultimate authority in the white lab coat, kept putting pressure on them to keep going. The question is: Would you go up to 450 volts of electric shock to another person at the command of an authority? When this study was presented to 40 psychiatrists at the Yale Medical School their answer was that only 1% would do that because that’s psychopathic behavior, and in fact, what Milgram found was 2 of every 3 American citizens in his research went all the way. So, that was shocking and startling. In my analysis, it’s very rare somebody tells you to do a bad thing, other than the evil guys in the Bronx. You usually...you’re playing a role. You’re in a situation, you see what other people are doing, and then there’s always semantic distortion that is, nobody does evil, people are doing good. So again, if you’re with ISIS, you’re doing the Lord’s work, or you’re doing Allah’s...you’re doing what they believe the Quran says.
What I wanted to do in creating the Stanford Prison Study is to ask the question: What happens when you put only good people in a really bad situation? Namely, a simulated prison, which simulates the psychology of American prison with power, and dominance, and demeaning; making prisoners feel powerless and helpless. Would the goodness of the people change the badness of the situation, or does such powerful situations even come to corrupt good people? Sadly, the answer was: Humanity 0, Evil 1. We lost that battle because almost everyone in my study, and these were college students from all over the United States recruited by an ad in the Palo Alto Newspaper: Wanted college students for study of prison life that lasts up to two weeks. 75 people answered the ad. We interviewed them; gave them personality tests. We picked two dozen. The most normal, healthy—that’s really important—and smart, educated college students. We randomly assigned them by a flip of the coin. Half would be guards, half would be prisoners. Then, we began our experiment, and what happened was initially, on day one, nothing. Remember, it’s 1971. Students are antiwar activists. Students are civil rights activists. Students hate the police because policemen came on many college campuses when students were protesting against the war in Vietnam. So, nobody wanted to be a guard, and that’s really important, but they’re in the guard uniform, they have the role, they have to do it. What happened was, on day two the prisoners revolted. That is, they didn’t want to be dehumanized. The prisoners had smocks on with...instead of a name they had they only became a number as happens in prisons. What the guards did was, call in all the guards on all the shifts. There were three guards and each of three eight hour shifts, and standby guard. They broke down the doors that the prisoners had barricaded, and at that point they said, “These are dangerous prisoners,” and suddenly everything changed. Now, the guards have to demonstrate to the prisoners that they have power and the prisoners have none. Every day thereafter, they ramped up the abuse...the degradation, and in 36 hours the first prisoner had an emotional breakdown...in an experiment, knowing it’s an experiment, and each day thereafter another prisoner broke down. So, the study was going to go for two weeks, but I ended it after six days because it was out of control. We had proved our point. Evil situations can corrupt the best and brightest of us.
Matt: That’s fascinating, and I know that that experiment’s a landmark study in psychology.
Dr. Z: You know, now it’s a Hollywood movie. It’s a very good Hollywood movie that just opened last year...I mean, this year. It was premiered at Sundance in 2015, last year, and it won many awards for the best science into film, best editing, best screenplay, and brilliant acting by two dozen young actors. The guy who played me, Billy Crudup, he was in the movie, ‘Almost Famous’, and he’s a very good rendition of me. A little more handsome, but otherwise a good sub.
Matt: That’s great. We’ll definitely include in the show notes a link to that movie so everybody can check it out.
Dr. Z: Yeah, there’s a great...there’s actually a great two minute trailer.
Matt: Perfect. Well, we’ll link all that stuff up in the show notes. So, tell me about...looking more, kind of zooming out at the systemic causes of evil, what are some of the social processes that grease, as you call it, the slippery slope of evil?
Dr. Z: There’s much research, not only by me, but by many other people, which outlines: What are the specific social psychological processes that can make somebody step across that line between good and evil? There’s research that shows that it’s the majority of people who can be seduced; can be corrupted. It’s really the minority who are able resist the group pressure. So, any situation you’re in where the situation makes you feel anonymous, nobody knows who you are, and really nobody cares to know, makes it easier for you to do evil if that’s a possibility: to cheat, to lie, to steal. Diffusion of responsibility: If you’re in a group and the usual personal responsibility that you feel for your action now gets diffused; gets spread thinly. So, now the group begins to, for example, not help somebody in distress. Normally, you would be a Good Samaritan, but now your responsibility is diffused and you don’t help. There are many, many situations, and as I said, it’s anonymity, diffusion of responsibility, moral disengagement. There are also times when we are very moral, but in a particular situation we say, “Well, this is different.” So, we can suspend our usual of morality or conscious. Again, being in a group where the group norm is either to do nothing, or to do things which favor your group against some other group, but dehumanization is, for me, the most extreme. Namely, thinking about...so, that’s why we say, “It’s in the imagination.” Thinking about someone else, or some other group, as less than human, as vermin, as animals, as worthless. Once you have that thought in mind. Once you put a label on other people, then there’s no limit to what you can do. Now, I think, sadly, we’re seeing this recently in all of the police shootings of black men throughout the country, where deep down it’s a threat. Deep down they believe that black men are...they...many people in society, and police especially, who are weaponized, believe that black men pose a danger. So, when any black man is in a situation where there’s any ambiguity, the policeman will err in the direction of assuming something negative. Assuming the person is armed, or assuming the person will take action against them, and therefore what they are seeing is, they are defending their life by shooting first. In many cases the black man—the African American man or boy—had no weapon, was innocent, except he was not innocent of being black in the eyes of the white policemen.
Matt: So, we’ve touched on evil, and how a situation, or social processes, can turn somebody, a normal, healthy, smart person, into someone that’s capable of evil, especially in the context of police shootings, which you were just referencing. I know something that’s incredibly important to you, and now is a big focus, is the psychology of heroism and the idea of the heroic imagination. Tell me a little bit about that.
Dr. Z: Yes. Well, let me help with that transition in that. After I did the Stanford Prison Study, way back in 1971, I wrote a few articles. I never wrote a book about it because, for me, it was just a nice demonstration of the power of situations, and I moved on. I began to study shyness as a self-imposed psychological prison. Nobody had studied shyness in adolescents, or adults, before I did in 1972. Then, I began to study the psychology of time perspective, because in that week all our sense of time got distorted because...for the prisoners, and for me and my staff of graduate students—Craig Haney, Curt Banks, David Jaffe—each eight hour guard shift began to feel like a full day. In our prison there were no clocks. There were no watches. There was no daylight or nightlight, and so I began to study how people lived in different time zones, and past, present, and future. It was only after I got involved in defending an American prison guard in Abu Ghraib Prison scandal that I then decided to write a book about it. I wrote a book called, ‘The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil,’ and it’s become a classic. It’s translated now in 25 different languages. So, I would put that on the reading lists of your listeners. But the other thing, in chapter 16, I raised, for the first time, the question of everyday heroes. I say that in all the evil situations—Abu Ghraib, and Stanford Study, and the Milgram Study—and then I outline all of the research done on psychology of evil, and conformity. There’s always a minority—5%, 10%, 20%, never more than 30%—who resist the power of the situation. I raised the issue: Maybe we can think of them as heroes. Not traditional heroes. Not military heroes who are willing to die in battle to save their buddies, but these are people who, in any given situation, are able to step back, identify what’s happening and make a decision not to go along with the group, and they’re willing to risk being ostracized, or dismissed, from the group. So, that’s the first time I raised the question about the nature of heroism, and shortly after I gave a Ted Talk, in 2008...a Ted Talk on my journey from evil to heroism, and many people came up afterwards, including Pier Omidyar, the guy who started eBay, and he said, “You know, you have to create a nonprofit foundation to study this concept of everyday heroism. It’s really new. Nobody’s ever thought about it.” So, I did. So, since 2008 I have a nonprofit organization in San Francisco called, ‘The Heroic Imagination Project’, short HIP, h-i-p, because the idea is it all starts in the mind...the human imagination. Thinking of yourself as evil, thinking of yourself as someone who is willing to stand up, stand out, speak out, in all the challenging situations in your life, in your family, in your school, in your work, in your community, and ultimately in your nation. So, we started doing research. Eight years ago there was almost no research on heroism, which is really curious. In fact, the word ‘hero’ and ‘heroism’ does not exist in any psychology textbook. It does not exist in the positive psychology manual because it’s not a human virtue, it’s a civic action. So, this is [INAUDIBLE: 0:20:00], so we began to do research, and then I developed, with my education team, a series of educational lessons, or modules, each organized around a social psychological theme like transforming passive bystanders into active heroes; transforming a fixed static mindset into a dynamic gross mindset; transforming prejudice and discrimination into understanding and acceptance. So, we developed six of these lessons in great detail and great length, and what’s exciting about them is really educate...revolution education. They’re organized around provocative videos. So, teachers then don’t give lectures at all. We give teachers a script. Teachers are like athletic coaches; the students are really their team, and their goal is: bring out the best in each of your team members. Now, students work in pairs, ideally a boy and a girl as a team so when the teacher asks a question it’s not that everybody raises their hand to answer, it’s that each team talks about how they would respond. Sometimes they write down their answers. Sometimes the teacher calls on the team to do this. And each lesson goes two to three hours, and their feedback is: it’s exciting for the teachers and exciting for the students, but the two most important things are: understanding these principles of social psychology and how they can be put into action. That means that we are training every student to be a potential social change agent; to use knowledge to make the world better, not simply to make you smarter. This is the feedback we’re getting around the world. So, our program is in Hungary, and Poland, and Italy, in Bali, and Geelong, Australia, and Flint, Michigan, and in many community colleges in Oregon and in Southern California. We hope to spread it even further.
Matt: So, for someone that’s listening to this podcast right now, what would be a way that they could apply the knowledge of psychology to make themselves better?
Dr. Z: Well, that’s...you can go on our website, www.heroicimagination.com, and I think we have some advice, some recommendations. Reading ‘The Lucifer Effect’ would also be a start, but it’s unfortunately... I really want to build a volunteer core. I’m good at almost everything except raising money. I have not been able to raise money. I give a huge amount of money to my hero project, and I physically...I do the training, so part of our model is: in order to deliver these lessons, you license them for a fee. For let’s say, three years either a school, a city, or even a whole nation, and then I have been doing most of the training. I got to Budapest. I go to Warsaw. I go to Bali. But I’m now 83 years old and I’m not as mobile as I used to be, so I have to raise money in order to build out our team, in order to get volunteers to learn to be trained to deliver this material. I think if they’re interested in being involved, I think if you just put ‘admin’, a-d-m-i-n, @heroicimagination.com, my assistant will try to answer them and see how we can create a volunteer core.
Matt: That’s very exciting. You touched on this in the backstory behind how you got involved with creating the Heroic Imagination Project, tell me a little bit about the idea of time paradoxes and the different time zones that people live in.
Dr. Z: Yeah. So, as I said, in between the Stanford Prison Study and creating Heroes, I stopped out and I started on this...trying to understand: how is it that people live in different time zones and are typically totally unaware that they do? Here, again, it started with very personal...my father, who was a brilliant man, who never had any education, second generation Sicilian, was a total, what we call, ‘present hedonist’. He lived for the present moment. He was a musician. He was a party guy. He loved to dance. He loved to gamble. This was great when he was single, but it’s not great when he has a family of four...of four kids and a wife to take care of, but he didn’t care. He was always happy. He was out of work often. We were on home relief—they used to call it in those days. He used get me crazy because I was...I realized the only way to get out of poverty is by planning, or having a program, or having an agenda to do things constructively. He live for the moment. He lived for the day. So, an amazing example is that without any education at all he made a television set from a wiring diagram in 1947. Television was invented when? 1946. A year before. He learned how to do wiring...I mean, he built it himself. Not just read the plans. He learned wiring. He learned how to read schematics from a Puerto Rican radio store man who had a radio store in the tenement building we lived in, and he built a set in 1947. I remember charging my friends, I think, 25 cents to watch the World Series. I think it was Yankees against the Dodgers, and everybody said, “We want one.” I said, “Dad, this is our break. We’ll help you. Everybody... It’s a new thing.” In fact, even more brilliantly—equally brilliant—they only had little eight inch screens, so he got a parabolic mirror, a huge mirror, so that you could expand the view of the screen. My father said, “No, I only did one. It was a challenge, I met it. That’s it. I don’t want to bother doing more.” So, here’s a case where you’re poor, you have an invention that everybody wants, you can make money on it... I’m pressing because I’m now totally future oriented, and he’s resisting because he lives in the moment. That really started me always thinking as a kid and later on: how is that people can have such different time zones and be unaware of the other? So, I developed a skill called a ‘Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory’, a ZTPI, which was published, and it’s the most widely used scale that measures differences in time perspective. Then I wrote a book called, ‘The Time Paradox’ and if your listeners go on the web, www.thetimeparadox.com, there is this scale, and if they take it, it scores it immediately, and it tells you which of the five time zones you are in. Are you future oriented like I was? Are you a present hedonist? Or you live in the past. Do you live in a positive past, or a negative past? Are you a present fatalist? Do you believe that it doesn’t pay to plan the future? Nothing works out. Fate is against you. These are five of the scales that we have developed, and since then, again, it’s been translated in dozens of languages around the world. And people using it in research, and education, even in finance, are finding enormous benefits of using it.
Lastly, for those in your audience who are interested in therapy, I wrote a book called, ‘The Time Cure’ where we used the ideas in ‘The Time Paradox’ as a way to treat people with PTSD—veterans, women who have been sexually abused, people who’ve been in natural disasters, or fatal car accidents. We show how our very simple didactic treatment literally can cure PTSD. The book is called, ‘The Time Cure’. So, there’s a lot of reading for your listeners.
Matt: That’s great. We love to have lots of resources for people to dig in who want to do homework after the show and learn a lot more. One of the funny stories that I really like that you tell about time paradox is the idea, or the concept, that Sicilian dialect in Italy has no future tense. Can you tell that story?
Dr. Z: Yes, I’m Sicilian. I am Sicilian on my grandmother’s side and my grandfather’s side. I’m third generation. My grandparents came here around the turn of the century, and again, none of them were educated, and in general, one of the sad things about Sicily is: people do not value education as much as they do in Asian countries; as much as the Jewish people do. The big problem has always been believing that you get what you want not by being smart, but by having good connections. This is the enduring curse of the Mafia, but it’s also political connections corruption. So, this is what I’ve always had to oppose. In fact, as a sidebar, I set up a foundation in Sicily, in the cities where my grandparents came from. And I have a colleague, Steve Luczo, who’s the head of Seagate Technology, whose grandmother came from Corleone; my grandparents came from Cammarata. So, together we put in money...we raised money, and every year we give 20 scholarships for high school kids in both of those towns to go to Sicilian colleges, and we’re slowly changing...the idea is that it really matters what you know even more than who you know. One of the problems then, in this culture where people live for the moment, that is they love good food, good wine, lots of babies, good sex, good lifestyle is really important—partying, dancing—that when I gave a talk recently, there was a poet in the audience who came up afterward and said, “Look, I’m a poet. I live with words, and it’s not until I heard you talk that I realized that in Sicilian dialect there is no term for the future. There’s a term ‘was’, there’s a term ‘is’, there’s no ‘will be’. It doesn’t exist.” I said, “Really?” He said, “Now I understand why things never get done, because nobody ever plans for the future, and nobody ever makes reservations for something that’s going to happen more than a few hours in the future.” I thought: this is very funny, but really, it’s funny on one side, but it also means it limits the educational growth, but also the economic growth, of a nation.
Matt: So, how do conflicts derive from differences in people’s time perspectives?
Dr. Z: If you don’t understand somebody else that lives in a different time zone, you make misattributions. So, the easy attribution: My father was...he’s lazy, and his attribution of me could have been: he’s excessive; he’s a nerd; he only cares about money. So, again, in every family, people live in different time zones. One of the things we argue is, it’s really important for the whole family to take our Time Scale test, as I said, online, and then begin to talk it through great conversation, knowing what your time zone is, what other people’s time...and then we also tell you what is ideal. So, an ideal balanced time zone...time profile is to be moderately high on future. Not excessively high because then you become a workaholic, but high on past positive, meaning when you think about the past you bring up all the good memories, all the good things that happened. Then, to be moderate on present hedonism, meaning that you select things that are pleasurable as a reward for when you succeed in something on your to-do list. Past negative and present fatalism always has to be low because those are...they detract from the human condition. A balanced time perspective...lots of people now are using that as a core to say, “I’m past positive, moderately high future, and moderate present hedonism, and low on past negative, present fatalism.” That’s what’s called ‘balanced time perspective, BTP. There’s now lots of research that shows people having this balanced time perspective are happier, more successful academically, more successful in business, and this what we want to strive for.
Matt: How do we change our time perspective?
Dr. Z: Well, at this point, I’m going to tell you, you have to read the book. In ‘The Time Paradox’ we have whole chapters on: if you want to be more present oriented this is what you have to do. If you want to be more future oriented this is what you have to do. Right now I am running out of time. I have a lecture to prepare for tomorrow. We’re starting a Zimbardo college in China, and my China representative, Jenny Mars, is flying in today from Shanghai for us to begin to plan courses for our Zimbardo College in Shanghai.
Matt: Perfect. Well, I know you’ve got to go, and you’ve got a ton of fascinating projects and initiatives out there, which we will have a very detailed show notes where we go through and list everything that Dr. Z listed from books, to movies, to Ted Talks, and things about the Heroic Imagination Project. So, Dr. Z, it’s been an honor to have you on the Science of Success, and I just wanted to say, thank you so much.
Dr. Z: Thank you. The other thing I just noticed checking out my Ted Talk: four million two hundred fifty thousand people have seen that in 8 years. That’s a staggering number. Five million...five and a quarter million people have seen that 20 minute talk.
Matt: That’s pretty amazing. For listeners who haven’t we’ll link it in the show notes so you can check it out, but again, Dr. Z thank you so much. We’ve really enjoyed having you on here.
Dr. Z: Any time. Take Care. Be well. Ciao.