At 82 years of age, Phil Zimbardo is ready for his close-up. He’s best known as the rogue psychologist behind the infamous 1971 Stanford prison experiment, in which he and a team of researchers created a mock prison, populated it with young men divided arbitrarily into “guards” and “prisoners” and let them loose. When matters took a turn for the worse six days in, the plug was pulled.
That fraught few days is now the subject of Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s Sundance-feted The Stanford Prison Experiment, which took home the 2015 Alfred P. Sloan Prize and opens in theaters from IFC Films this Friday. Billy Crudup has been cast as Zimbardo and a host of recognizable Hollywood youngsters (Michael Angarano, Keir Gilchrist, Ezra Miller, Nicholas Braun) are deployed in the prison, with the actual transcripts from the experiment forming the basis of much of the film’s script.
Sloan Science and Film caught up with Zimbardo on the tail end of a whirlwind press tour while en route from the IFC offices to the SoHo Apple Store for a panel discussion with the cast of the film. Far from resting on his laurels, he’s used the years since Stanford to push his research into even broader arenas, from the self-imposed prison of shyness to designing a program that could create a generation of everyday heroes.
Sloan Science and Film: I thought it might be worthwhile to start at the end. The Stanford prison experiment was over forty years ago, and I’m wondering if there are things you learned about human nature from that experience that you see playing out in our current moment?
Phil Zimbardo: What’s amazing about the study is that it’s always had this continuing relevance. Shortly afterwards, there was an alleged escape attempt at San Quentin where a prisoner named George Jackson was murdered, and three weeks later Attica prisoners rioted in response to his death. Prisons became hot news. I was even asked to give testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee knowing nothing really about prisons besides the one I made in my basement. And, then, events happened in Vietnam, in the run up to the Iraq War with the lies and abuses of power, then Abu Ghraib which directly related to the prison study. Now, we can look at all of the incidences of racial bias with policing, the prisoners at Riker’s Island being abused by guards. It’s a recurring theme: the negative use of power by people in positions of power. When society expects them to do good, they’re doing bad. And I think that’s the message of the prison study which has, in a funny way, become timeless.
SSF: What about newish addition to society like Facebook’s consensus culture and cyberbullying? Do you look at that stuff and feel like you anticipated or figured these out back then?
PZ: We didn’t figure it out. It was really more of an alert. Now, for example, I’m focusing on why young men are failing. They’re dropping out of school, failing socially, failing sexually. I wrote a book called Man (Dis)connected about how technology is sabotaging masculinity to sound the alert that this shit is happening. There are boys who are addicted to video games and pornography and that’s a double whammy that has them living their lives in a virtual world. Technology which has transformed us for the better also has this negative quality. A lot of my research comes from social problems, social issues, and how can I translate them into an experiment that has intuitive validity and that the average person could understand.
SSF: How’d The Stanford Prison Experiment film come about?
PZ: So, the whole thing was this six-day basement study. When I finished it, I never wrote a book about it, I wrote a few articles and put it to bed. In fact, I switched to doing research on shyness, which I re-conceptualized as a self-imposed psychological prison where you voluntarily give up freedom of movement and association. It wasn’t until Abu Ghraib that I looked at all twelve hours of video tapes and starting making typescripts. I thought about writing on Abu Ghraib and decided to embed it into the prison study.
At the same time, there was a small production company that was interested and hired a scriptwriter. So, I started sending him chapters as I was writing them. All the dialogue in the film between prisoners and guards is exactly what happened. I was a consultant on the shoot and I worked with director Kyle Alvarez on the script, on discussing the various psychological interpretations of events. In the end, I’m amazed at how faithful a narrative reproduction it is. I’m not a big filmgoer, but I haven’t seen a movie like this. The movie is the study. It’s not about the life of Phil Zimbardo; the audience is involved in the making of the experiment.
SSF: What does a film allow that doing, say, a book wouldn’t?
PZ: I’ve thought about what the audience of a movie gets that the audience of a book doesn’t get. The film audience gets to look through an observational window and see these events unfold just as I and my staff did. But they get to go one step back and observe the observers. The film has a funny kind of voyeuristic quality where you’re looking in at something and the people don’t know you’re looking. It’s disturbing because viewers are powerless to change anything. Some people say that they watch and want to yell “Stop!”
Throughout all of my research, my professional thematic motto has been that you should give psychology away to the public, and the only way to do that is through the media. I’ve given talks on it. How do you arrange your message so the media pays attention to you? How do you write a press release? What is the language you use? Unless you do this, the public is never going to know about your work. We do lots of really important things on children, therapy and education but unless the media presents it, no one's ever going to know.
And now, after all these years, the Stanford prison study as a film…it’s a wonderful vehicle for opening people’s brains so they can ask: “how does this relate to me?” The movie is riveting, but it’s really distressing. Audiences might feel like, “Oh, fuck, I’m paying ten bucks to keep myself from vomiting at the end.” But you want them to feel like they were made to think. Many movies make you feel good. For me the goal is: does it make you think? Would I have stopped this? What kind of guard would I have been? What kind of prisoner?
SSF: Could you tell me about the work you’re doing now around heroism?
PZ: When I was writing The Lucifer Effect, it was fifteen chapters of grim stuff about evil of all kinds. I had cases of stuff from Rwanda, Bosnia, the Holocaust, prisons and I was overwhelmed. I felt like I was swimming in liquid shit and I felt like it needed a release. I also couldn’t imagine anyone reading it. So, I decided that the last chapter had to be positive and look at how you resist negative influences. I know how to create negative influences, I’ve done it. I know the recipe for making good people do bad things. But there are always a few people who resist. When everyone else is doing bad, some people do good. So, how do you resist? Maybe we could classify those who resist as heroes? Then I did a literature search and there was almost nothing in psychology on heroism. The words don’t exist in any textbook. But unless compassion and altruism and empathy are transformed into heroic action, nothing changes. Can we train people to stand up, and speak out if the risks are minimized?
Then I started to think about what kinds of heroes there are. There are two main categories. There’s the impulsive, reactive hero like Wesley Autrey, the guy in New York who jumped on a subway track to save someone who had fallen. The other kind is proactive, reflective—like whistleblowers who have to think about what they’re doing, gather information get people on their side. Or, people who form hero squads to oppose bullying. That’s the kind of heroism we want to promote.
Seven years ago I set up a foundation called the Heroic Imagination Project. The goal is to teach people, especially young people, how to learn to express their inner hero, the one that has often been suppressed because adults say, “You’re a girl, you’re too small, you’re black, you’re not smart enough.” We’re going to teach you to forget all that. The new “you” is a hero in training. And we provide material that teaches strategy and tactics. Every student becomes a teacher and every student becomes a social change agent. It’s being used all over. It’s very encouraging.
SSF: It’s interesting that you’re working on this now because the culture at large seems so fascinated by heroes. Look at the multiplexes—they’re dominated by superheroes. Is the idea of a superhero a detriment to what you’re working on?
PZ: Let me say two things. In my talks, I talk about what kind of a hero you can be. I show pictures of all the superheroes and tell the kids: this one can fly, this one can climb buildings, but you have something none of them have. You have a brain. Superheroes are the brainchild of someone else. What can you do with your brain? You can do all those things and much more. And you could do things that help better other people’s lives.
As a child, I grew up with superheroes as my ideal. For six months, I lived in the Willard Parker Hospital for poor children with every known contagious disease. Many of those children died; there were no treatments. All around, kids are dying. There was no telephone, no postcards and visiting was one hour on Sunday. We became self-reliant. All we had was comic books. And they were superhero comic books. I learned to read and write because I’d hold up the comic book to the big kid and ask them to read them to me. I would imagine having the ability to change my situation and get out of this bad place and to be self-reliant. I couldn’t depend on anyone.
The thing that’s wrong with most superheroes is that they’re loners. The idea felt wrong. If I were a superhero, I’d want my brothers to work with me. In our literary history, heroes have been solo male warriors, and I want to get away from that sort of thing and develop the concept of everyday heroism. That you become a hero by practicing the social habits of heroism: doing good deeds, giving compliments, making people feel special. And you do it every day.
SSF: It’s systems again, isn’t it? With the Stanford prison experiment, you created a negative system and plugged people into it—even yourself. This is creating an entirely new system to plug into.
PZ: There are so many system of negativity with everyone doing bad shit. Just look at the American Psychological Association and its subversion of ethics in support the military’s push to use enhanced interrogation techniques. It’s a big disgrace. It’s a black mark on all of psychology. The underlying dynamic was that psychologists were trying to curry favor with the government to get prescriptive authority—the ability to give drugs—and this was right after 9/11 so they wanted to do right by their country. But what they did was totally unethical. If you respect the Nuremberg principles, you are never involved in any interrogation that involves torture. Psychologist approval was used to support torture. It’s a disgrace. All of the people involved should be censured. What they did was evil.
80% of suspects interrogated by the police give confessions or admissions. How do they do it? They do it by using the psychology of rapport. You cannot develop rapport if you don’t speak the language or if you don’t know the culture. It’s not possible. In Abu Ghraib, they were getting no information, and they wanted to do something. Military Intelligence goes to the Military Police and says the guys on the night shift have to break the prisoners. Take the gloves off, literally. In three months, no one in command goes into the dungeon at night. There’s zero abuse by the guards on the day shift. And that’s not because those guys were better than the guys on the night shift. The night shift has total power and they get heady, so, all of a sudden, they’re taking picture of abuse because they’re proud of what they’re doing.
SSF: They’ve been sanctioned to do it…
PZ: They were sanctioned! They released twelve pictures. I saw one thousand. Just the most horrendous things. Then the guards started having sex with each other. This was the total abuse of power without surveillance. But for three months there were no abuses on the day shift. That’s about the clearest example of the power of situational forces imaginable. You don’t need a psychologist to figure out why. The system created situational differences that people just fell into.