LEWISBURG, Pa. – Citing more than three decades of research and several cases of prisoner abuse in Cuba, Iraq and elsewhere, renowned social psychologist Philip Zimbardo told a standing-room-only Trout Auditorium Tuesday night that people have the capacity to be good or evil, depending on their surroundings, the actions of their peers, and the direction of authorities.
"When you give people absolute power, in a situation where there's minimal surveillance from the top down … you can predict that the outcome is going to be abuse of power," said Zimbardo, the emeritus professor of psychology and director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Policy, Education, and Research of Terrorism at Stanford University. He was speaking in the Spielman Memorial Lecture Series at Bucknell.
As many as 1,100 attended in Trout and campus simulcast locations.
Zimbardo's lecture, titled "The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil," based on his new book of the same title, recounted his classic research on the abuse of "prisoners" in the Stanford Prison Experiment and how that study and others inform us on the situations that led to the infamous abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
Human capacity for evil
Zimbardo's work addresses the "human capacity for evil" as a product of our social institutions and how situations affect the choices we make "for good or evil." Understanding this, he said, can help provide a model for reorganizing our institutions to avoid these bad situations and for resisting "negative situational forces" as individuals.
In cases like Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo said, we have made the mistake of blaming individuals, or the "few bad apples," instead of the situation and the leaders who created it, or the "bad barrel-makers."
Zimbardo was a young social psychologist in 1971 when he achieved recognition for his now famous Stanford Prison Experiment conducted in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building.
Acting out roles
In that experiment, Zimbardo assigned students to be guards or prisoners. The students quickly began acting out their roles and the planned two-week experiment had to be halted after six days when the student guards became sadistic and brutal, and the student prisoners became too stressed.
Zimbardo ended his lecture at Bucknell on a positive note, saying that his research has shown him that we all can be "everyday heroes" by recognizing bad situations and speaking out against them, as one soldier did in Abu Ghraib when he shared photos of the abuse with investigators.
"Let's oppose the power of evil systems and support those that respect personal dignity, justice, and peace," Zimbardo said.
The Spielman Memorial Lectureship at Bucknell was established by the relatives, colleagues, students, and friends of Professor Ralph Spielman in memory of his service to the University from 1958 until his death in 1978. The lectureship emphasizes "Frontiers in Social Science" by bringing to campus at least every second year a lecturer to describe promising attempts to interpret and open new fields in social science.
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Posted Oct. 31, 2007
Updated Nov. 2, 2007