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Friday, 17 July 2015

Philip Zimbardo Thinks We All Can Be Evil

New York Times

In 1971, you conducted a psychological experiment at Stanford. You split your 21 student-subjects into guards and inmates, with you as the superintendent, and had them run a prison out of a basement. You had to abandon the experiment after six days, because it spiraled violently out of control. Now, 44 years later, there is a movie about it. 

Do you like it? 

I’m delighted with it. It conveys for the first time to a general public what this kind of experiment is like. There is another movie called ‘‘Experimenter,’’ about Stanley Milgram’s research, which also premiered at Sundance, and the second half is confusing. At one point, Milgram walks out of his lab, and behind him is a huge elephant. I saw the director at Sundance, and I said, ‘‘Why did you have an elephant?’’ He said, ‘‘People like elephants.’’

I had always believed that the Stanford experiment started very professionally, and that in your role as superintendent, you got caught up in it the same way the guards did. But in the movie, it’s as if you were this dark, eerie, almost sadistic figure right from the very beginning. Were you?  

No. I had a reputation at Stanford. I was one of the most lovable professors there.

The movie makes it seem as though the study was irresponsible — that you were abusive from the very start. Do you worry that this will change what people think of the study?  

Yeah. If there is a weakness, it’s that there is not a sufficient transformation with my character. You see it in the guards. They start off playing a game, and then there is a point at which they each, one by one, flip and become more and more extreme.

Have any of the prisoners or guards seen the movie yet?  

No, nobody has.

David Eshleman, one of the most abusive guards, told me that he doesn’t think an evil environment turned him evil. He claims that his motivation was actually to try to please you.

He said he was trying to do something good.  

Everything he created was really off the charts. I mean, he forced the prisoners to simulate sodomy: ‘‘Bend over. You’re a camel. Hump him.’’

Sometimes the evil acts captured in the original footage of the experiment seem as if everybody’s hamming it up.  

Oh no, not at all.
Do you think Eshleman’s only now saying he wanted to do good because he feels embarrassed by the way he behaved?  

Yes. I think it’s a rationalization after the fact. He began as an actor, and he ended up as a mean, cruel guard, no different from the guards at Abu Ghraib.

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