Zimbardo re-examines his landmark Stanford prison study
Thinking back, Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, believes his historic
conditions or show courage in a life-or-death situation or other
Stanford Prison Experiment was born out of his tendency to
So, after years of being known as “Dr. Evil,” he said he has
“The way I dealt with having to teach so much was a kind
completely shifted his focus to promoting good. “I have to now
of intellectual cheating,” said Zimbardo. “I had to use teaching
be the ‘Good Witch of the West,’ or at least the West Coast,
ideas to generate research ideas and then use research to feed
change my identity and promote heroism,” Zimbardo said.
back into teaching.”
As such, Zimbardo has launched the Heroic Imagination
The idea for the experiment came to Zimbardo after he
Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes building
asked his Stanford psychology students
to examine what happens when someone
goes to prison for the first time. As part
of their independent study, his students
came up with the idea to set up a mock
prison among themselves in their dorm
one weekend. That test, Zimbardo later
learned, was rife with tension.
From ‘Dr. Evil’ to the ‘Good Witch of the West’: Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo shared how the
Stanford Prison Experiment led to his current work on heroism.
situations, including the Abu Ghraib
military abuse scandal.
Zimbardo, who participated in a question-and-answer
session moderated by psychology historian Wade Pickren,
PhD, at APA’s Annual Convention, went on to explain how
prisons became a springboard for his pioneering research on
shyness. “I thought, ‘In what situations do people give up their
freedom voluntarily, freedom of speech and of association —
isn’t that shy people?’” he said. “A shy person is his own prison
His latest research on heroism is also a byproduct the
Stanford prison experiment. When writing his book “The
Lucifer Effect” (2008) about how good people can turn evil,
Zimbardo discovered there was a dearth of substantive research
on why some people are able to resist negative influences in bad
character and courage. The project includes an educational
program, through which he and other psychologists train
youth leaders and middle and high school staff to teach
students how they can resist bullying and peer pressure and
create positive change in their communities.
To watch Zimbardo talk more about his Heroic
Imagination Project, click here.