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Prof. Zimbardo dissects villainy

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Addressing a captivated audience in Cubberly Auditorium on Thursday evening, Prof. Emeritus Philip Zimbardo praised heroes and examined villains. While he considered good and evil parts of the human condition, Zimbardo said he holds the system responsible. (JUSTIN LAM/Staff Photographer)
Addressing a captivated audience in Cubberly Auditorium on Thursday evening, Prof. Emeritus Philip Zimbardo praised heroes and examined villains. While he considered good and evil parts of the human condition, Zimbardo said he holds the system responsible. (JUSTIN LAM/Staff Photographer)

System perpetuates evil actions, Zimbardo says

Attacking a system that produces villains, Stanford Prof. Emeritus Philip Zimbardo lectured at Cubberley Auditorium Thursday evening, interspersing jokes with mentions of Hitler, obesity and torturing puppies.

During the lecture, the first in the newly-created Meng-Wu lecture series put on by the Center for Compassion and Altruism in the School of Medicine, Zimbardo explored how humans turn from good to evil.

Grabbing the audience’s attention from the beginning, Zimbardo blared his “evil warm-up music” – Carlos Santana’s song “Change your Evil Ways” – through the auditorium.

As he danced and mouthed along to the song, audience members chatted excitedly in the background about seeing Zimbardo “in the flesh,” as many were familiar with the professor’s past research, including the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Zimbardo, who considers good and evil as part of the human condition, blamed the system for producing such modern day “villains” as Stalin, Hitler, Chairman Mao, Saddam Hussein and Dick Cheney. According to Zimbardo, the people themselves are not at fault; instead, the system had set them up to become evil.

“It’s not that someone is born good or born evil,” he said. “We are born in capacity to do both at any time.”

Systemic social norms affect peoples’ behavior – to positive or negative effect. To prove his point, he cited social connections as the prime cause of obesity.

“The worst is to have a friend who is a fatty,” Zimbardo said. “You’re going to become fat 147 percent of the time.”

He reserved blame for society, rather than “evil” individuals.

According to Zimbardo, people claim that only the sadists would engage in sadistic behavior, but a study proved that 65 percent of people would fully electrocute someone when egged on.

“It’s not that you’re an evil person,” he said. “You’re just trapped in the situation.”

Audience members looked uneasy as Zimbardo brought up a study in which students were asked to electrify a puppy for the sake of their grades. According to him, though many subjects were crying while watching the puppy struggle and squeal, they still proceeded to raise the shock level when told.

Most shockingly, Zimbardo drew a parallel between his famous Prison Experiment with photos taken at Abu Ghraib. Audience members sat quietly, but in awe, as Zimbardo showed a dramatic slideshow of the pictures taken at the Abu Ghraib prison.

“Power without oversight is a recipe for abuse everywhere,” he said. “People who usually do good might do otherwise when under certain situations.

“It’s systemic and not limited to Abu Ghraib,” he added. “If the problem was bad apples, then they could be sent to prison and the situation would be fixed. But no, the Army knew that the situation would make the soldiers do evil.”

Calling the incident entirely predictable behavior, he also blamed the government for the soldiers’ actions.

“[The U.S. government] gave them permission to do whatever the hell they want without any surveillance at night in the dungeons,” he said. “The government just didn’t think that they would take pictures, but the soldiers did, and even used them as bragging rights.

“It’s hard to say that the things people are doing are not systemic if the system is supporting them,” he added.

But he stressed that heroism existed as an antidote to evil, and he encouraged everyone to do “good” in the world.

“Very few people do good shit and very few people do bad shit,” he said. “Most just do no shit at all.”

Zimbardo flipped through slides of heroes and explained each story of heroism, from Rosa Parks to Holocaust resistors to a man who recently jumped onto train tracks in order to save a man having a seizure.

Unless someone speaks out, the cycle of violence will perpetuate itself, he said. Zimbardo then admitted that the only reason he had concluded the Stanford Prison Experiment early was because his current wife, his personal hero, commented on how sadistic the experiment was.

Students were impressed by the information the professor presented.

“I heard a little bit about [his research] before, but his full theories in detail were really cool,” said Stewart Macgregor-Dennis ’13. “He gave us a more whole way of viewing the world instead of just dismissing people as evil.”

Macgregor-Dennis added: “I think his heroes research is going to be really cool – hopefully, he’ll come up with some practical suggestions about how people can be in the world.”

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