TED 2008: Philip Zimbardo on The Lucifer Effect in Action

(I'm liveblogging from TED 2008, in Monterey, CA)

Presenter: Professor Philip Zimbardo, creator of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment in the 1971 which put students into a prison setting, randomly chosen to be either guards or prisoners. He is the author of Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

Picture 5-59

Zimbardo is a very lively and engaging 75-year-old with a devilish van dyke beard.

For decades, he has been studying what makes people go wrong. Raised in South Bronx, he saw his friends live Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde lives. He learned that "the line between good and evil is movable and permeable." In other words, we all have the capacity to be good or evil. The human mind has an infinite capacity to make any of us kind or cruel, caring or indifferent.

God's favorite angel was Lucifer. God created Hell as a place to store evil. His favorite angel became the devil. What Zimbardo calls the "Lucifer Effect" focuses on why people can become evil (defined as the exercise of power to intentionally hurt people).

Abu Ghraib photos shocked Zimbardo but didn't surprise him. "I saw those same parallels when I was the prison supervisor at Stanford Prison Experiment."

Abu Ghraib soldiers were good but the barrels were bad and that made bad apples. He showed the shocking photos by US MP Guards from Tier 1-A Night Shift at Abu Ghraib. When Rumsfeld came to investigate, he said "who is responsible?" That's the wrong question to ask. "What is responsible?" What turns good soldiers into bad? What is the bad barrel? The power is in the system, it creates the situation that makes people evil.

Leadership failures caused the Abu Ghraib atrocities. It was going on for three months before it was stopped. They authorities didn't find out on purpose.

Zimbardo's fellow researcher, Stanley Milgram, wondered, "Could the Holocaust happen here?" Suppose Hitler asked you to electrocute a stranger. He tested 1,000 people who answered an ad that said "we want to test and improve people's memory."

The volunteers (called "teachers") saw a person wired to a machine that shocked them. The volunteer was told to turn the dial to 15 volts and press a button to shock the person (learner) when they got an answer wrong. (The learner was an actor unbeknownst to the volunteer, and the machine did not deliver a shock.)

As the experiment went on, the researcher told the volunteer to crank up the voltage, all the way to 375 volts, which had a warning on the dial that it was extremely dangerous. The learners would scream, cry, beg for life, appear dead or unconcious, etc. The researcher told the students to turn the dial to 450 volts, which was labeled "XXX."

Before the experiment, Migram and others thought up to 1% of the volunteers would turn the dial up to the danger point and ignore the learners' cries for mercy. But actually, 2/3 of the volunteers turned the voltage to the maximum, just because the authority figure told them it was OK. (Thank goodness for the 1/3 who refused to blindly obey authority.)

The Stanford Prison Experiment showed the same thing: 75 male students volunteered and were randomly assigned as prisoners or guards. Police came to the homes of the volunteer prisoners, cuffed and "arrested" them, and brought them to basement of the police station, and put them in cells. Almost immediately, guards began treating the prisoners very cruelly. Students had mental breakdowns. "Guards forced them to simulate sodomy."

Here's a trailer to a documentary about the experiment: Quiet Rage.

What can be done about this? Zimbardo offers heroism as the "antidote to evil." Teach kids to be ready to act heroically when the see evil. We need to give them real role models. Comic book superheroes are bad models, because they have super powers. A hero is the soldier who reported the Abu Ghraib abuses. People wanted to kill him. They threatened to kill his wife and mother, too. He had to go in hiding. Teach kids hero courses, teach them hero skills, make them heroes-in-waiting.


  1. “When Rumsfeld came to investigate [guantanamo], he said “who is responsible?”

    Appropriate response to this question:

    “You are, sir.”

  2. I find the German schools’ approach to these questions fascinating. As a non-German I recommend it. The schools focus on “civil courage” encouraging the kids to understand that standing up to inappropriate authority is socially acceptable and indeed essential to defense of democracy.

    Could I suggest to some of the biggest exemplars of so-called democracy (not naming any names)that they be a little bit humble about their democratic resilience? It’s worth learning from others’ mistakes.

  3. I’m working with Phil on the hero curriculum. I’ve been running a workshop for kids (The Hero Workshop), encouraging them to be heroes-in-waiting. It’s so good to see people buying into the idea that heroism is the antidote to the banality of evil.

    Matt Langdon

  4. I look forward to classes in “healthy skepticism” being offered to young people, just as wellness/sex ed is already.

  5. #2, it will never happen. Obedience is much preferred. How can people become quiet little submissive cube workers if they’re always asking questions and trying to make things better?

    Too many people benefit too much from broken systems for them to change easily, if at all.

    Not that I don’t appreciate this man’s earnest study, but the solution is just unbelievably complicated.

  6. Its not that complicated, just gotta put ’em through a reeducation program in room 101 with eye opening clamps…oh wait that’s the bad guys…

    I do agree with his critique of superhero justice.
    I AM THE LAW! The law is never wrong. Therefore, if I arrest you, YOU are the criminal. My logic is undeniable. For more, see places like China, Saudi Arabia and…Japan (I think…anyone care to back me up?)
    “We don’t torture”. People that is. PUCs and NECs are a whole different thing. They’re practically sub-people.

  7. Disclaimer: some of work colleagues are longtime academic rivals with Zimbardo.

    I’m going to have to be a little unpopular here and say that I don’t really buy a lot of what Zimbardo says. Here are a few reasons why:

    1) Zimbardo talks about the SPE all the time, but he never released his raw data, and has never published a paper about the experiment in a peer-reviewed journal. If you claim extraordinary results as scientific fact, but won’t let other scientists verify (or even see) your results, then that is not science.

    2) In the SPE, Zimbardo took the role of “prison superintendent” and actively encouraged the guards to act aggressively towards the prisoners. There is no indication that the guards would have behaved the same without him directing them to do so. When Haslam and Reicher recreated a similar experiment, the guards were very uncomfortable with their power, and the results ended totally differently, with the prisoners and guards living as equals at one point.

    3) Abuses do happen, of course, but there are better explanations for them than Zimbardo’s interpretation of Role Theory. If you want more detailed information about a different point of view on the SPE and the psychology of tyranny, here are a few links:

    The Psychology of Tyranny in Scientific American

    Debating the Psychology of Tyranny in the British Journal of Social Psychology

  8. Christovir man, you don’t get it. That’s not the point at all. Mr. Zimbardo has been on the colburt report. And according to Mr. Colbert’s philosophy, what Mr. Zimbardo says FEELS right and isn’t that all that matters after all?

    Just kiddin, love SciAM and their 25 min. podcasts, thanks for the linkage.

    But, prisoners and guards as equals isn’t a good idea either. What I mean is, it’d never happen in the real world because these guards would have some kind of training/encouragement/warning to keep separate. I haven’t read the sciam article yet but I take the middle road on this one. I would say that issues of cruelty and empathy depend on a lot more than statistics and our “base nature” to be evil to people under us, though you wouldn’t have to be a prison guard to learn that kind of behavior.
    There’s also the dehumanizing aspect i.e PUCs and NECs rather than “that man” or “that prisoner”. Amon Goethe saying “the jews are animals” because that’s how you get people to ignore someone else’s humanity.
    “Business is bad? You opened up a store in an Irish neighborhood. These are dirty dirty people. Don’t you know that? Sell potatoes I don’t know what you’re going to do.” – The Depahted

  9. The reason for all of this can be explained by something that happened a few years ago.

    When I was fourteen, I went to every adult I respected, and demanded to know why people go along with things they know are wrong (this was about the time Abu Ghraib became public).

    One of them, Jono, thought a bit and said, “I’ll show you. Go stand over there.” I did so. Then he said, “Okay, now give me five jumping jacks right now!”

    My hands were at about shoulder level when I stopped and looked at him suspiciously. “Wait… why?”

    “Good girl!” he said. “Most people only remember to ask afterwards.”

    With Abu Ghraib, and other such military abuses, it’s not quite that simple, because soldiers are heavily conditioned to follow orders. They have to be, and it takes a strong-willed person to speak out in that sort of situation.

    But, in a nutshell, what Jono said is exactly right. “I was following orders” is not an excuse.

  10. a “prison superintendent” will always exist before the situation even does and in fact helps organize the whole thing from beginning, or will arise in someone within the authority asserting population quickly once it gets going. then people are forced into their roles.

    all 7 of those processes are operational in most every US citizen in Iraq acting under US governmental authority, not just the ones that were in abu. Gonna be damn hard coming home for a hell of a lot of them. we’re already seeing the first glimpses of that. and then the knife-in-the-back mythology will start up. bellowed on the radio all day every day. then the economy just keeps getting worse. this bush nightmare could shape up to be a damn cakewalk compared to what goes down 5-12 years from now. hope is scarce on the ground, determination and stubbornness may have to suffice.

  11. Couldn’t they just jail the returning troops on arrival? It’ll save so much time and money. That one in a hundred figure for total incarcerated Americans is a bit of a fudge. They need a few more to round it out.

  12. I think that might be a bit over-reacting takuan. I agree that the 1 in 100 figure seems very fudged. I suppose they’re not counting kids, very old folks or the bush administration in the 100 maybe?

  13. In hindsight… I once traded a secure job for terms that protected those that couldn’t leave. It was an epic battle. I could have betrayed like some of the others. Nope, there are some things you just do not do, do not permit, do not walk away from. I must have been out of my mind in terms of personal cost and benefit. But in hindsight, I would do it again.
    All I had guiding me was instincts, there was no leader, teacher or powerful ally.

    I think we all know what the right thing to do and what the wrong thing to not do are.

  14. You’re untraceable anyway. People can find me to remind me about my inopportune confessions. Although, mostly they just tell me that my job and my personality are incompatible. Mostly.

  15. I thought yoga teachers had to be spittle-flecked, screetching Welsh drill sergeants – only meaner – to get their lazy,unmotivated, WEAK and WORTHLESS students to practice regularly. I mean, traditionally.

  16. I swear to God, sometimes I think the Boing Boing commenters are comprised of 11 year-olds who got into their mother’s vicatin.

  17. My all time favorite quote:

    “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

    –Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

  18. hmmm…the story of how Morning Star became Lucifer is a bit more complex than “God’s favorite angel was Lucifer. God created Hell as a place to store evil. His favorite angel became the devil.”

    Depending on which camp you believe in — the Bible, other ancient texts, Homer, etc. — Morning Star’s pride made him disobey God’s request to bow down to Adam because he hated that God made a human. Or on the flipside, Morning Star thought it was at test and God wanted to see if he would willfully bow to someone other than Himself.

    He didn’t just “turn” evil.

    But whatever, that’s not the main point of this TED talk, so I’ll stop Gothing out now.

  19. Antinous #22, QOTD. I hope you don’t mind if I wear your quote in my signature for a few weeks… because I intend to. ; )

  20. In some sense this list has a erie analogy to the blogosphere, especially now that most of it has a comments section:

    (1) Mindlessly Taking the First Small Step.

    “Since certain Jews and Koreans have the highest IQ, then they should interbreed (along with us gifted white guys).”

    (2) Dehanization of others.

    “What me worry? Who am I talking to, in this text format, without even avatar images of us, or real names. My name in NikFromNYC. You don’t know me.”

    (3) De-individualization of Self (anonymity).

    Again, you can’t look up NikFromNYC in the Yellow Pages. A private investegator or really cute hot red-head girl who is stalking me might find out what I am (by asking), but otherwise, I’m “anonymous.”

    (4) Diffusion of Personal Responsibility.

    A few beers and there is no reason for me to ever log onto this comment thread again.

    (5) Blind Obedience to Authority.

    Do I choose which topics to comment upon? No.

    (6) Uncritical Conformity to Group Norms.

    Must be witty. Say something pithy. Write a short manifesto. DO NOT BE BORING.

    (7) Passive Tolerance of Evil through Inaction, or Indifference.

    Spending my time on the internet exactly equates to inaction.


    Note however, that Abu Ghraib, despite being not such a bad idea (torturing weirdos who stick their butts in the air six times a day, when classic Greek Religion says to face Mars, not Mecca!) Hey guys, let’s kill people who wont let girls go to school, ha ha.

  21. “We need to give them real role models. Comic book superheroes are bad models, because they have super powers.”

    I find the use of superheroes as examples of poor role models to be facile.

    I wonder what recent superhero comic books Professor Zimbardo has read. Comic book superheroes (in general) aren’t bad role models because they have super powers. They’re bad role models because they’re usually written as rotten people.

    I consider someone who has $6,000. to attend a conference sponsored by BMW a person with super powers. $6,000. is a lot of money, and a used BMW can cost $15,000. to almost %50,000. (Never mind that sponsorship by a status vehicle is ethically troubling.)
    Does this mean TED speakers are bad role models?

    Plenty of people have superpowers: fame, influence, money. In the end, it’s not the powers that define the person, it’s what they do with them.

  22. “Best have a few beers (more) , Nik”

    You wish. That would make my mind connect to higher planes of thought, which are not to be located or relocated or renunciated or renounced, ’round here.

    Sometimes a joke is just a joke.

Comments are closed.