Dr. Evil

Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo on why good people do bad things.

Photograph by Jacob Zukerman

Dr. Philip Zimbardo introduces himself as “Dr. Z,” like some long-lost professor from Oz. The bright blue shade of his house seems dyed to match his eyes, which twinkle as we cross the threshold of his home in San Francisco. I think of the Freudian term Das Unheimliche, or “the uncanny”: the unnerving but curious feeling of something that is both familiar and foreign at the same time. As we sit down in the living room over tea, I realize that The New York Times best-selling author of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil looks like the devil himself. You feel like you’ve seen his face before, in oil or on celluloid. For someone who has made a career of studying the halves of human nature, duality makes the mensch. Zimbardo’s voice is a few octaves higher than what you’d expect from Satan, though, and he turns out to be enchanting, engaged, and utterly sweet.

At age 76, Zimbardo has spent five decades in the classroom, but he is far from a hoary professor. Despite two hip replacements, he bounds up the five flights of his home excitedly to share the artifacts of his life with his guests. These include a museum-quality collection of scrimshaw, masks from native peoples, and, behind a sliding wall, a bare-chested wooden mermaid. Zimbardo and his wife, Dr. Christina Maslach, have lived here on Lombard Street overlooking the bay since 1973. He deeply appreciates the fact that he’s so settled. Growing up in the South Bronx, he moved 17 times with his family — sometimes in the middle of the night to avoid paying back rent — before he left for grad school at Yale.

In 1971, Zimbardo was a newly tenured psychology professor at Stanford, interested in researching people in prisons. He recruited students to act as prisoners and guards in a mock jail in the basement of the psychology building. The experiment turned out to be all too real: The prisoners rioted on the second day, and the guards’ punishment was sadistic. Of about 50 people who observed the deteriorating mental condition of the students, one objected, prompting Zimbardo to end the experiment on the sixth day of the 14-day trial.

In his half-century of teaching, Zimbardo has researched everything from shyness and mind control to the psychology of time. Part lecturer, part entertainer, he is known for his in-class experiments and colorful roster of guest speakers who have included prostitutes, cult leaders, and NFL coaches. In 2004, Zimbardo testified as an expert witness in the court-martial trial of an Abu Ghraib prison guard, Staff Sergeant Ivan “Chip” Frederick. The experience led Zimbardo to write The Lucifer Effect. Although the book ponders the sinister nature of humans, its final chapter celebrates the potential for a “banality of heroism” to counter what Hannah Arendt calls “the banality of evil.” Zimbardo is now collaborating on the Heroic Imagination Project, with the belief that societies need institutions to teach heroism; to prime ordinary people to act when “the casting call for a hero” comes. When I talked to him, the professor discussed the power of questioning authority, how to create heroes, and some antidotes to evil.

People are more susceptible to evil than they believe.

My friend Allen Funt, the creator of Candid Camera, had great success on TV just by putting ordinary people in extraordinary situations and seeing how they coped. The most famous example has people getting on an elevator where everybody inside has their back to the door. Well, there’s no sign that says you have to face front! But it’s an implicit norm that’s being violated. You watch as people come in, turn around, look confused, but face back like the others. Then the door closes and opens, and now they’re all facing sideways. You realize that we’re puppets! In this situation we do what others do. And these are strangers, not even people we’re ever going to meet again! We so much want to be like other people, to be accepted, that we follow orders, even implicit ones.

I teach a course in mind control, and I devote a whole lecture to the evils of smoking. I have somebody come in from UCSF who has led psychological legal research against smoking companies for 20 years. Part of the lecture is on the propaganda that cigarette companies have used to combat walls of scientific information. At the end, I give the students a 10-page term paper to do in pairs. The prompt is: Imagine you have just gotten a $100,000 grant from the R.J. Rey-nolds Tobacco Co. to develop an advertising campaign to promote smoking among either women (if you’re a woman), minorities (if you’re a minority student), or youngsters (if you’re a freshman).

Obviously, I don’t want them to do it. Obviously I want them to say, “How could it be? The whole lecture is on the evils of smoking, and now you’re saying to prepare this campaign!” Some kids come to me and say, “It’s not fair, a week is not enough time.” I say, “Take two weeks.” They say, “How are we going to do this?” I say, “I’ll take it in longhand. You don’t even have to type it.”

When they turn the papers in, some are 16 pages with detailed references and drawings. Two Latino kids were going to start in Mexican villages, and women were saying they were going to appeal to flattery, age, and looks. And I’m crazed, I can’t believe it. Only 30 percent of the class — of about 200 — said either, “We realize what you’re doing, and we’re not going to participate” or “We’re going to do the opposite.”

I tell the class, “I was so impressed by your papers that I sent the best to a former student of mine who works for this cigarette company, and she’s going to give two of you $10,000 summer internships.” And they’re perking up! I wanted to put the papers into a shredder right there, but my wife said that was a bad idea. So instead I tell them, “For all of you who did this, you get a C because you did something. For the ones who said they understood that I didn’t want you to do this, you get a B. For the ones who did the counter-thing, you get an A.” And they were so embarrassed! But that’s the power of authority. One student had even called home and said, “I’m not sure I should do this.” The parent said, “Hey – for the tuition I’m paying, you do what the teacher says!”

One of the kids later wrote an article for Stanford Magazine. He had gotten a job working for an ad agency, and he was given a contract to develop a pro-smoking campaign. His superiors had chosen him especially for this project and told him it could be his golden ticket. He started doing it, but halfway through said, “Oh, my God, I remember that exercise! And here I am, just sucked in.” Finally he said, “I can’t do it.” And he quit the company.

I know a reverend, Curtis Webster, who is a former corporate lawyer. In a twist on the famous Carl Sandburg poem, he wrote, “Lucifer comes on little cat feet.” The thing is, evil is insidious. Evil follows orders.

Why it’s important to talk to kids about heroes.

There is nothing special about people who engage in heroic acts. It’s the act that’s extraordinary. You don’t have to be more of anything – more altruistic, more empathic, more religious, all these other things. I’m demystifying heroism. I’m democratizing it and saying everybody could be a potential hero. I want you to think of yourself as a hero-in-waiting.

In America, our sense of heroism is physical courage: courage in battle or in being a first responder on 9/11. We have statues of guys on horses everywhere. But those people are rare. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Teresa are extraordinary people because they sacrificed their whole lives for a cause. Kids have these heroes, and they have Spider-Man and Wonder Woman superheroes who have talents and skills that kids could never have. But if you have only these extreme examples, then you’re inclined to say, “Well, no way, that’s not me.”

Part of what we want to do with the Heroic Imagination Project is to get kids to think about what it means to be a hero. The most basic concept of a hero is socially constructed: It differs from culture to culture and changes over time. Think of Christopher Columbus. Until recently, he was a hero. Now he’s a genocidal murderer! If he were alive today, he’d say, “What happened? I used to be a hero, and now people are throwing tomatoes at me!”

Over time situations change, or the concept gets reconstructed. The idea is to go from there and say: Who are the heroes in your family? Who are the heroes in your neighborhood? Have you ever done anything heroic? Or, maybe more important: Have you not done something that you realize you should have done?

Leadership from kindergarten to corporation.

The other big project is to stop bullying. Bullying is an evil because it not only destroys the life of the kid who’s bullied, but also makes everyone in the class who knows this is going on feel guilty for not doing anything. Again, our notion of the hero is the solitary courageous person. But what you learn from Gandhi and Martin Luther King is that a key to being an effective hero is developing a network. To form a network, you need social skills. If you organize a group of five or six kids who share your values, you can tell the bully, “We don’t like what you’re doing. It makes our class unpleasant, both for the kid you’re bullying and for all of us. If you stop, we promise to be your friend. If you don’t, we will make your life miserable.”

Another way is to ask kids: How do heroes do it? How do you get to be a leader rather than a follower? Well, leaders are people who understand that in any situation it’s important to be the first one to make a statement, to say, “Why don’t we do it this way?” And it’s always “we,” not: “Why don’t you do what I say?” Leaders take the initiative to break the ice in any situation to make a suggestion about what’s possible for all of us.

Leadership — power — should be taught and emphasized. How do you exercise power to get things done that are for good of your class, your family, for humanity? How do you apply this throughout your lifetime, at your job, in a corporate setting?
Most people’s job is to make money for other people, not to do good. Corporations often trade morality for legality. The first thing a corporation does is get a team of lawyers who define and make legally acceptable what they want to do, namely to make as much of a profit as possible. And, simply, if it’s legal, then it’s acceptable. Morality does not come up. But shouldn’t it? The single greatest source of power for a company is reputation — more than any product. So how can we get companies to be more socially responsible? It’s almost like we need a new kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval saying: “The ingredients in this company are good and can be trusted.” Companies that already have good reputations — Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Levi Strauss — can lend the power of their reputations to get it off the ground.

In Unmasking Administrative Evil, authors Guy Adams and Danny Balfour point out that we focus on individual villains as much as we focus on individual heroes. But individuals do much less harm than systems do. It wasn’t Eichmann – it was the Nazi ideology; it’s the prison system rather than the individual. At Abu Ghraib, when former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld came to investigate he said, “I want to know who is responsible, who are the bad apples?” But that’s a bad question. You have to reframe it and ask, “What is responsible?” Maybe it’s the barrel that’s bad.

Chelsea Holden Baker is a freelance writer based in Maine.