Monday, May 14, 2007

Still not getting it after all these years

Philip Zimbardo, an emeritus psychology professor at Stanford, has a recent book rehashing the famous psych experiment he carried out over twenty five years ago. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil has as its thesis that pretty much any of us will act in accord with roles that a respected authority puts us in. The experiment, in which students were assigned roles as "prisoners" and "guards", soon degenerated into brutality. Zimbardo writes:

Anyone, when given complete control over others, can act like a monster.

Zimbardo's girl friend (later wife) shamed him into stopping the experiment which had become all too real.

Zimbardo seems awfully defensive of his famous bit of psych theater, even though a good part of his claim to fame is that he stopped it. He still needs to score off one of the "prisoners" who concluded the whole thing must have been a bit of government research on how to control antiwar protesters since Zimbardo was funded by the Office of Naval Research of the Defense Department. The suggestion still riles him.

Little did he know that I myself was a radical, activist professor, against the Vietnam War since 1966, when I had organized one of the nation's first all-night 'teach-ins' at New York University.... I organized thousands of students into constructive challenges to the continuing war. I was a kindred political spirit but not a mindlessly kindred revolutionary.... [was] upsetting to think that my research grant status [was] being accused of being a tool of the administration's war machine, especially since I have worked to encourage effective dissent by student activists. That grant was originally given to fund empirical and conceptual research on the effects of anonymity, of conditions of deindividuation, and on interpersonal aggression. When the idea for the prison experiment occurred, I got the granting agency to extend the funding to pay for this research as well, without any other additional funding.

Seems to me the gent protests too much: according to his bio as a member of the board of the American Psychological Foundation,

Dr. Zimbardo has also recently become the Director of a new terrorism center sponsored jointly by Stanford and the Naval Postgraduate School, The Interdisciplinary Center for Policy, Education, and Research on Terrorism.

Zimbardo is still on the Navy's dime apparently. And probably still oblivious to -- if not willfully self-deluded about -- the fact that his intentions have little to do with how others may may use his insights into breaking down human beings.


sfmike said...

Good catch, and what a self-deluding jerk the man must be.

*Christopher said...

I always found the irony was that he didn't see his own control in the experiment and might not have stopped it had it not been for his girlfriend. It's always painted as an experiment of guards and prisoners, but Zimbardo played the role of oversight and ultimate control in the situation that left some who participated in this experiment quite scarred afterward.

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