Events & Presentations

The Psychology of Evil by Philip Zimbardo (Transcript)

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So, pretty horrific. That’s one of the visual illustrations of evil. And it should not have escaped you that the reason I paired the prisoner with his arms out with Leonardo da Vinci’s ode to humanity is that that prisoner was mentally ill. That prisoner covered himself with shit every day, and they used to have to roll him in dirt so he wouldn’t stink. But the guards ended up calling him “Shit Boy.” What was he doing in that prison rather than in some mental institution?

In any event, here’s former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He comes down and says, “I want to know, who is responsible? Who are the bad apples?” Well, that’s a bad question. You have to reframe it and ask, “What is responsible?” Because “what” could be the who of people, but it could also be the what of the situation, and obviously that’s wrongheaded.

So how do psychologists go about understanding such transformations of human character, if you believe that they were good soldiers before they went down to that dungeon? There are three ways. The main way is — it’s called dispositional. We look at what’s inside of the person, the bad apples. This is the foundation of all of social science, the foundation of religion, the foundation of war.


Social psychologists like me come along and say, “Yeah, people are the actors on the stage, but you’ll have to be aware of what that situation is. Who are the cast of characters? What’s the costume? Is there a stage director?” And so we’re interested in, what are the external factors around the individual — the bad barrel? And social scientists stop there, and they miss the big point that I discovered when I became an expert witness for Abu Ghraib. The power is in the system. The system creates the situation that corrupts the individuals, and the system is the legal, political, economic, cultural background. And this is where the power is of the bad-barrel makers.


So if you want to change a person, you’ve got to change the situation. If you want to change the situation, you’ve got to know where the power is, in the system. So the Lucifer Effect involves understanding human character transformations with these three factors. And it’s a dynamic interplay. What do the people bring into the situation? What does the situation bring out of them? And what is the system that creates and maintains that situation?


So my book, “The Lucifer Effect,” recently published, is about, how do you understand how good people turn evil? And it has a lot of detail about what I’m going to talk about today. So Dr. Z’s “Lucifer Effect,” although it focuses on evil, really is a celebration of the human mind’s infinite capacity to make any of us kind or cruel, caring or indifferent, creative or destructive, and it makes some of us villains. And the good news story that I’m going to hopefully come to at the end is that it makes some of us heroes.

This is a wonderful cartoon in the New Yorker, which really summarizes my whole talk: “I’m neither a good cop nor a bad cop, Jerome. Like yourself, I’m a complex amalgam of positive and negative personality traits that emerge or not, depending on the circumstances.”


There’s a study some of you think you know about, but very few people have ever read the story. You watched the movie. This is Stanley Milgram, little Jewish kid from the Bronx, and he asked the question, “Could the Holocaust happen here, now?” People say, “No, that’s Nazi Germany, that’s Hitler, you know, that’s 1939.” He said, “Yeah, but suppose Hitler asked you, ‘Would you electrocute a stranger?’ ‘No way, not me, I’m a good person.’ ” He said, “Why don’t we put you in a situation and give you a chance to see what you would do?”


And so what he did was he tested 1,000 ordinary people. 500 New Haven, Connecticut, 500 Bridgeport. And the ad said, “Psychologists want to understand memory. We want to improve people’s memory, because memory is the key to success.” Okay? “We’re going to give you five bucks — four dollars for your time.” And it said, “We don’t want college students. We want men between 20 and 50.” In the later studies, they ran women. Ordinary people: barbers, clerks, white-collar people.


So, you go down, and one of you is going to be a learner, and one of you is going to be a teacher. The learner’s a genial, middle-aged guy. He gets tied up to the shock apparatus in another room. The learner could be middle-aged, could be as young as 20. And one of you is told by the authority, the guy in the lab coat, “Your job as teacher is to give this guy material to learn. Gets it right, reward him. Gets it wrong, you press a button on the shock box. The first button is 15 volts. He doesn’t even feel it.” That’s the key. All evil starts with 15 volts.


And then the next step is another 15 volts. The problem is, at the end of the line, it’s 450 volts. And as you go along, the guy is screaming, “I’ve got a heart condition! I’m out of here!” You’re a good person. You complain. “Sir, who’s going to be responsible if something happens to him?” The experimenter says, “Don’t worry, I will be responsible. Continue, teacher.”

And the question is, who would go all the way to 450 volts? You should notice here, when it gets up to 375, it says, “Danger. Severe Shock.” When it gets up to here, there’s “XXX” — the pornography of power.

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By Pangambam S

I have been a Transcriber and Editor in the transcription industry for the past 15 years. Now I transcribe and edit at If you have any questions or suggestions, please do let me know. And please do share this post if you liked it and help you in any way.

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