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

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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.