Head of Stanford Prison Experiment visits LC

On Feb. 23, Lewis & Clark’s Psych Club hosted Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist best known for leading the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. 

The event was set up by one of the leaders of the Psych Club, Andrew Steinberg ’21. 

“We were brainstorming some big ideas for events, and I realized that a connection of mine had previously worked with Philip Zimbardo and was in contact with him,” Steinberg said via email. “I emailed him with high hopes and low expectations, and sure enough … within a day or two, I was alarmed to see an email from the legend himself!”

The Stanford Prison Experiment turns 50 this year and is widely taught across academia for the debate it sparked on the ethics of experimental design and the insights it gave into the effect of power dynamics on human behavior. 

Professor of Psychology Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell knew Zimbardo from when she was an undergraduate student at Stanford University. 

“I was a student in Dr. Z’s introductory psychology class in my sophomore year, and that experience led me to abandon plans to be an international relations or journalism major and to instead pursue psychology,” Detweiler-Bedell said via email.

The event was open to the entire LC community, and began with Zimbardo’s lecture followed by a Q&A portion. There was relatively high attendance, with several pages of Zoom attendees. 

“His generosity in sharing his time and insights with undergraduate students continues to inspire me,”  Detweiler-Bedell said via email.

Zimbardo’s experience growing up poor in the South Bronx and the gang violence he saw around him inspired the experiment and shaped his interests in the field of psychology. Zimbardo described his childhood as similar to “Lord of the Flies,” the disturbing allegorical novel by William Golding.

“So that set me on the pace of wanting to understand why good people do bad, evil things,” Zimbardo said. “And so I did some early research on what was called deindividuation — what happens when you take away your identity in a social situation.”

The Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted in 1971, aimed at examining the effects of deindividuation. Paid student volunteers were randomly selected to be either guards or prisoners, and were tasked with acting in their roles for 1-2 weeks. Prisoners had to act in their roles 24/7, while guards only had to act for the duration of their shifts. The study was terminated on the sixth day due to the hostility and authoritarian mentality adopted by the guard, and the mental toll and psychological abuse inflicted on the prisoners. 

Due to the around-the-clock nature of the study, resources were running low and threatened the longevity of the experiment. Christina Maslach, his girlfriend at the time and later his wife, visited Zimbardo and witnessed a particularly upsetting scene where prisoners were forced to urinate on themselves in an elevator. Maslach criticized the study, emphasizing the mistreatment of the students, which convinced Zimbardo to end the experiment. He believes that one of his mistakes was tasking himself as “superintendent” of the prison, making him both a participant and an observer. 

After the experiment ended, Zimbardo wrote academic articles about it, not believing the experiment to be a big deal at the time. 

“After I did the prison study in 1971, I wrote a few articles about it, mostly to give to my graduate students,” Zimbardo said. “It was simply a demonstration of the power situation and role playing. So, honestly, I thought it was a nice study but nothing I want to hang my hat on.”

Much of Zimbardo’s previous research focused on what makes an average person turn evil. Since his experiment ended, he has shifted to studying the circumstances that cause an ordinary person to act heroically. After giving a TED talk on the psychology of evil, someone had come up to Zimbardo and offered him a donation to start a nonprofit studying heroism. The nonprofit was started in San Francisco and developed lessons on transforming ordinary people into situational heroes through instruction. 

When asked about Zimbardo’s importance in the psychology community, Steinberg commented on Zimbardo’s work researching heroism and his connection to the LC community. 

“His non-profit The Heroic Imagination Project is very successful, and has involved dozens of LC students,” Steinberg said via email.

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