The brutal truth is out at last

[ Sun. Apr. 22. 2007 ]

Philip Zimbardo used to be one of my heroes, but no longer. The psychologist dreamt up the Stanford Prison experiment, in which 24 male students were randomly assigned roles as either captive or guard in a mock prison. Guards were given uniforms and power; prisoners were stripped of their names and privileges, and were ordered to remain largely silent. The nightly toilet run saw the prisoners blindfolded and shackled together before being marched to the bathroom.

The experiment, in 1971, was stopped after just six days because the guards had become sadists and the prisoners depressives. Remember, they all started off as nice, normal college kids. The experiment became a totem of a thing called “situational” evil: good people, when put into bad situations, could become brutes. It has furnished an explanation — but not exoneration — for atrocities ranging from the Holocaust to Abu Ghraib (Professor Zimbardo appeared as a defence witness at the trial of a soldier charged with torture at the Iraqi prison).

I had always assumed it was Professor Zimbardo who called time. In fact, it was a young psychologist called Christina Maslach. Professor Zimbardo, who had just started dating Dr Maslach, had invited her over to impress her. Instead, after witnessing the toilet run, she fled in horror, telling Professor Zimbardo she no longer wanted to know him. The experiment, she said, had dehumanised its instigator as well as its participants.

So, Professor Zimbardo stopped the experiment because he risked losing the woman he loved. He calls Dr Maslach a hero for challenging the wisdom that the experiment was a justifiable study of human nature. And it is has led him, he tells the Edge website (, to consider the flip side of evil: the psychology of heroism.

Just as some people can be made to grow horns, others grow haloes. Yet, so little is known about heroes, other than that they often say, in the face of mountainous evidence to the contrary, that they didn’t do anything special. Do heroes ever contemplate the risks? Or do they consider them and then override them? Such basic research, Professor Zimbardo says, has never been conducted but should be, ideally in the immediate aftermath of a heroic act.

We must also cultivate a different heroic imagination in the young. Dangerously, children grow up believing that heroism is the preserve of the legendary rather than the ordinary: Achilles or Superman. He says: “The secondary consequence is for us to say, ‘I could never be that . . . or bear such a burden’. I think, on the other hand, we each could say, ‘I could do what Christina Maslach did’.” Indeed: we need heroes who will stop another Enron, another Abu Ghraib, another questionable psychology experiment.

By the way, Professor Zimbardo and the now Professor Maslach celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary this year.