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Philip Zimbardo — The Nature and Nurture of Good and Evil

The Lucifer Effect (book cover)

August 15 marks the 50th anniversary of day one of the Stanford Prison Experiment — one of the most controversial studies in the history of social psychology.

In this conversation between Michael Shermer and renowned social psychologist and creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment Philip Zimbardo explores the mechanisms that make good people do bad things, how moral people can be seduced into acting immorally, and what this says about the line separating good from evil. His book, The Lucifer Effect, explains why we are all susceptible to the lure of “the dark side.” Drawing on examples from history as well as his own trailblazing research, Zimbardo details how situational forces and group dynamics can work in concert to make monsters out of decent men and women.

Philip Zimbardo was born in 1933 and grew up in the South Bronx ghetto of New York City in a poor Sicilian-American family. From this experience he learned that people, not material possessions, are our most valuable resource, and that diversity should be embraced because it enriches us, and that education is the key to escaping poverty. He graduated from Brooklyn College and published his first research paper on race relations, then went on to earn his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1959. He is today professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University and has also taught at Yale University, New York University, and Columbia University. He is the co-author of Psychology and Life and author of Shyness, which together have sold more than 2.5 million copies. Zimbardo has been president of the American Psychological Association and is now director of the Stanford Center on Interdisciplinary Policy, Education, and Research on Terrorism. He also narrated the award-winning PBS series Discovering Psychology, which he helped create. In 2004, he acted as an expert witness in the court-martial hearings of one of the American army reservists accused of criminal behavior in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. His informative Prison Experiment website is visited by millions every year. His book The Lucifer Effect offers a theory on why good people turn evil.

In recent years criticisms have been leveled at Dr. Zimbardo and the Stanford Prison Experiment, to which he responded point-by-point in this lengthy document.

Shermer and Zimbardo discuss:

  • Zimbardo’s life mission to understand the nature of evil,
  • The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) and its critics,
  • Abu Ghraib as a natural replication of the Stanford Prison Experiment,
  • What exactly is “the situation” that can cause good people to act bad?
  • Are there evolved psychological adaptations to act like prisoners (subordinate) or guards (dominant)?
  • If any of the guards or prisoners were women how might the SPE have played out?
  • the nature of human nature,
  • Are we all potential Nazis?
  • how we can teach ourselves to act heroically,
  • The Dark Triad that leads to violence: Narcissism (entitled self-importance), Machiavellianism (strategic exploitation and duplicity) and Psychopathy (callousness and cynicism),
  • Milgram: Obedience to authority, role playing, social facilitation, social proof? Milgram instructed his subjects on exactly how they were to behave: shock learners!
  • under and over determined theories; multiple factors go into everything,
  • free will/determinism: Zimbardo: “People are always responsible for the consequences of their actions — personally, socially and legally. Understanding why we do something does not excuse our liability for the outcomes of that behavior.”
  • Hugo Mercier, Not Born Yesterday, Germans ≠ Nazis, most people don’t join cults, most political advertising doesn’t work, etc.,
  • Enron, WorldCom: why don’t most corporations turn evil?
  • My Lai and other war crimes: why are there not more?
  • Rutger Bregman’s Humankind and the real Lord of the Flies.

    Journalist tells the story of six boys who survived for over a year on a rocky islet south of Tonga, an island group in the Pacific Ocean. According to Bregman:

    The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer. Kolo fashioned a makeshift guitar from a piece of driftwood, half a coconut shell and six steel wires salvaged from their wrecked boat — an instrument Peter has kept all these years — and played it to help lift their spirits. And their spirits needed lifting. All summer long it hardly rained, driving the boys frantic with thirst. They tried constructing a raft in order to leave the island, but it fell apart in the crashing surf. Worst of all, Stephen slipped one day, fell off a cliff and broke his leg. The other boys picked their way down after him and then helped him back up to the top. They set his leg using sticks and leaves. “Don’t worry,” Sione joked. “We’ll do your work, while you lie there like King Taufa‘ahau Tupou himself!”

    Bregman’s point is that the Lord of the Flies interpretation of human nature as innately evil is gainsaid by this natural experiment that, he claims, demonstrates humans are innately good. Both interpretations are overly simplistic and wrong. It depends on the circumstances and group dynamics. See, for example, Nicholas Christakis 2019 book Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society. At the core of all good societies is a suite of eight social characteristics, including: (1) The capacity to have and recognize individual identity; (2) Love for partners and offspring; (3) Friendship; (4) Social networks; (5) Cooperation; (6) Preference for one’s own group (that is, “in-group bias”); (7) Mild hierarchy (that is, relative egalitarianism); and (8) Social learning and teaching.

    Christakis documents numerous shipwrecked crews and shows why some survived while others didn’t. Believe it or not there’s a database of such forbidden experiments in the form of shipwrecks with survivors, or in the subtitle of an 1813 work in this genre, “A Collection of Interesting Accounts of Naval Disasters with Many Particulars of the Extraordinary Adventures and Sufferings of the Crews of Vessels Wrecked at Sea, and of Their Treatment on Distant Shores.” Christakis includes a table of 24 such small-scale shipwreck societies over a 400-year span from 1500 to 1900, with initial survival colony populations ranging from 4 to 500, with a mean of 119 (2,870/24 = 119.5), but with much smaller numbers of rescued survivors, ranging from 3 to 289, with a mean of 59 (1,422/24 = 59.25), reflecting their success or failure at striking the right balance. The duration of these unplanned societies ranged from 2 months to 15 years, with a mean of 20 months (461.5/23 = 20.06; one group was rescued after 13 days so I didn’t count them).

    Some of the survivors killed and ate each other (murder and cannibalism), while others survived and flourished and were eventually rescued. What made the difference? “The groups that typically fared best were those that had good leadership in the form of mild hierarchy (without any brutality), friendships among the survivors, and evidence of cooperation and altruism,” Christakis concludes. The successful shipwreck societies shared food equitably, took care of the sick and injured survivors, and worked together digging wells, burying the dead, building fires, and building escape boats. There was little hierarchy—for example, while on board their ships officers and enlisted men were separated, but on land successful castaways integrated everyone in a cooperative, egalitarian, and more horizontal structure, putting aside prior hierarchical class differences in the interest of survival. Camaraderie emerged and friendships across such barriers were formed.

    The closest thing to a control experiment in this category was when two ships (the Invercauld and the Grafton) wrecked on the same island (Auckland) at the same time in 1864. The island is 26-miles long and 16-miles wide and lies 290 miles south of New Zealand, truly isolated. The two surviving groups were unaware of one another, and their outcomes were starkly different. For the Invercauld, 19 out of 25 crew members made it to the island but only 3 survived when rescued a year later, whereas all five of the Grafton crew made it to land and all 5 were rescued two years later. “The differential survival of the two groups may be ascribed to differences in initial salvage and differences in leadership, but it was also due to differences in social arrangements,” Christakis explains. “Among the Invercauld crews, there was an ‘every man for himself’ attitude, whereas the men of the Grafton were cooperators. They shared food equitably, worked together toward common goals (like repairing the dinghy), voted democratically for a leader who could be replaced by a new vote, dedicated themselves to their mutual survival, and treated one another as equals.”

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This episode was released on August 15, 2021.

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