The HIP Story
As a little boy growing up in a poor Sicilian family in the ghetto of the South Bronx, Philip Zimbardo would often wonder how it was that some of his friends in the neighborhood grew up to be “bad” kids while others grew up to be “good” kids. What was the real difference between these two types of young people? He noticed that “bad” didn’t seem to be a permanent label and witnessed many a young criminal rehabilitated into an upstanding citizen. He also noticed that a person’s situation seemed to have something to do with their behaviors; even very “good” people, if experiencing poverty, might commit crimes out of pure necessity.
Historically, society had painted the line between good and evil as impermeable, but as Philip grew older he came to wonder how true that really was. How could that explain the systematic and heinous killings performed by the Nazis and their supporters in WWII? How was it that lawyers, teachers, parents, and factory workers - ordinary, “good” people – contributed to the slaughtering of their Jewish neighbors with barely the bat of an eyelash? How had the “good people” crossed the line to become the “evil people”?
Subsequent studies by Solomon Asch in the early 1950’s, as well as those of Philip’s boyhood friend, Stanley Milgram in the 1960’s, laid the groundwork for answers. These experiments demonstrated how perfectly normal people could be influenced to behave completely outside their nature and against their moral conscience, even acting in ways considered “evil”, when experiencing certain situational and social pressures.
In Asch’s experiments, subjects experienced pressures of group conformity that caused them to give false answers regarding the length of lines. This hardly seems noteworthy from a societal perspective, until considering Milgram’s study, in which subjects were placed under similar pressures from an authority figure. Under these pressures to obey the authority figure, subjects administered a series of increasingly dangerous electric shocks to a confederate posing as a “student”. Listening to the screams of the confederate, many subjects shook their heads in silent protest. Some even heatedly stated their objections to the authority figure. Despite this verbal hesitancy to do harm, 65% of all subjects continued to carry the task to term when pressured by the authority figure - subjecting the confederate to shocks of 450 volts - enough to be lethal.
In Asch’s study, a trivial request to accurately identify which line, of three, was the longest, was easily trumped by social pressure; most of the subjects preferred to give the same false answers as the confederates in the group. This demonstrated that behavior modification could occur with the mildest applications of social pressure. Milgram’s study revealed the true dark side of this knowledge; that even when the task is one in which another person is being placed in mortal danger; the social pressure exerted by authority figures can elicit truly unthinkable actions.
The horrors of the Holocaust still fresh in his early memories, Philip, now Dr. Zimbardo of Stanford University, decided to design an experiment to explore if and how the behavior of “normal, good people” could be modified when placed in a novel and potentially dehumanizing situation.
The 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment became another foundational pillar for our modern-day understanding of social psychology. Twenty-four young men were identified for the study, all students from a diverse array of colleges, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five and deemed psychologically and physically “normal”. There were nine prisoners and three rotating eight-hour shifts of guards (with others as stand-by replacements). The setting, though in the basement of the psychology department on campus, was that of a real prison in many ways: prisoners wore revealing, shapeless, numbered smocks and nylon head covers, while the guards wore military uniforms, mirrored sunglasses and carried Billy clubs. There were bars and locks on the doors of cramped cells with tiny cots. There was no evidence whatsoever of the passage of time. All prisoner rights, including cigarette breaks, were put under control of the guards. Guards and prisoners alike were given a bare minimum briefing as to how they should conduct themselves, but were left largely to their own imaginations as to how they should act in their new roles.
Each man, having been placed in a situation completely foreign to him, quickly formed a new identity and adopted a script based on his limited understanding of the role he now played.
Within one day, curious behaviors began to surface, followed by astonishing, rapid, and complete transformations of character. Prisoners were subjected to increasingly serious verbal abuse and random, humiliating, and pointless punishments such as singing songs, completing push ups, remaking perfectly made beds, standing for long hours, and being woken up multiple times per night. Prisoners were sent to the “hole” for their transgressions - a dark closet barely large enough to squat in. Within the first twenty-four hours, prisoners in one cell had revolted and barricaded themselves in it. Physical scuffles break out. Beds, sheets, and pillows are taken away, and a fire extinguisher is used to forcibly subdue the prisoners. Several prisoners are stripped naked and the ringleaders of the rebellion are sent to solitary confinement for hours on end.
One prisoner attempts to leave the experiment. Dr. Zimbardo, playing the prison warden, tells him he cannot leave. The prisoner is so transformed by the situation that his personal agency has all but evaporated; he believes Zimbardo’s statement to be unquestionably true, even after having signed a legal document deeming him fully capable of leaving at any time. This ruling creates a shift in the prisoners, as the memory of their true lives is buried deeper beneath the perceived permanence of their new situation. Shortly following this ruling, the same prisoner experiences a mental breakdown and is released.
The prisoners do not talk with their cellmates about who they are outside of the prison or of their ambitions as college students – they only speak of present events within the prison. They plan rebellions and escapes. They identify themselves in letters home as “prisoner” instead of “son” or a “boyfriend”. They obey the humiliating orders of the guards who have by now sorted themselves into a power dynamic. The cruelest of the guards is known as “John Wayne”. Leading guard abusers on each shift are supported by toadies and cronies, eager to prove themselves. Guilty bystander guards remain silent on the outskirts of the action - never intervening to stop prisoner abuses.
Another prisoner is released due to an emotional collapse, another, due to full body hives thought to have been brought on by the stress of the experiment. Behavior during midnight counts, skirmishes, and rebellions, grow more concerning with each hour.
A young psychologist and partner of Dr. Zimbardo, Christina Maslach, visits the experiment on the fifth night of the study. Dr. Zimbardo is eager to show her what he and his graduate students have created in the name of scientific advancement.
Untouched by situational forces, Christina sees the experiment not as a groundbreaking intellectual endeavor, but as a horrifying factory for evil. She renounces it at once, pointing out that the researchers have actually been coerced by the situation themselves: Dr. Zimbardo and his graduate students are actually bystanders, taking part in the evil of inaction, by allowing innocent, young men to be subjected to such emotional harm - even in the name of research. In her eyes, they have designed a breeding ground for evil, and she threatens to end her personal relationship with Dr. Zimbardo should he not realize how he has been transformed by the power of the situation in the system he had created.
Dr. Zimbardo is initially furious at Christina’s “inability” to see the value of the study. But her resolution to end their personal relationship reveals to him the seriousness of his own actions as a bystander, and thus, a perpetrator of evil. Dazed, ashamed, shocked, he agrees to end the experiment the next morning. When he returns to the basement to tell his research team, he finds the decision indeed timely as the guards had sexualized their abuse by forcing the prisoners to simulate sodomy on each other.
The experiment ends. Dr. Zimbardo reflects on his role in The Lucifer Effect: Understanding how Good People Turn Evil: “I was guilty of the sin of omission - the evil of inaction.” (Zimbardo, 2007, p.181) and the power of the situation: “Only a few were able to resist the situational temptations to yield to power and dominance while maintaining some semblance of morality and decency. Obviously I was not among that noble class.” (Zimbardo, 2007, p.173)
Despite the seriousness of the situation, none of the researchers or research subjects suffered lasting psychological harm. The researchers had followed every ethics guideline of the time and the research subjects were debriefed extensively, including numerous follow-ups months and years later.
Now we can reflect on the lessons that were learned from the SPE, and how those lessons have informed HIP’s hero training initiative:
1. Situational forces can dominate and even pervert individual dispositions and propensities, despite our traditional beliefs that we have control and personal agency in all situations.
2. Arbitrarily assigned roles can be accepted as personal scripts that reform - for better or for worse.
3. Evil can be described as using power to harm others.
4. An understanding of how good people can engage in evil actions is aided by adopting a three-part analysis: Personal (“Bad Apples”); Situational (“Bad Barrels”), and Systemic (“Bad Barrel Makers”).
5. Evil, as committing harm to others, can take two forms; the evil of direct action, along with the evil of inaction, not doing the right thing or doing nothing, when doing something could help remedy a bad situation.
A new focus is unveiled. After the experiment, Dr. Zimbardo realized that by focusing on “how do good people become evil?” he had actually created a form of evil. He decided to reframe his query to “how do ordinary people act heroically?” This work focuses on learning how this revered trait manifests in people like Christina, who risked personal and professional security to uphold her noble values. That pivot away from understanding evil and toward understanding the antidote to evil framed Dr. Zimbardo’s subsequent research efforts for the next forty years.
Today, HIP’s mission is rooted in the findings of social psychological experiments, such as Asch’s, Milgram’s and the SPE. These experiments, as well as myriad heinous acts throughout history, reveal the “banal” side of evil. No one is exempt from the possibility of being coerced by the dark side of human nature. The line between good and evil is indeed permeable. However, the reverse also appears true. The “banality of heroism”, an idea first explored in a 2006 article written by Dr. Zimbardo and HIP board chair, Dr. Zeno Franco, is a guide for HIP’s work, suggesting that each and every seemingly ordinary person on this planet is capable of committing heroic acts.
From this core belief, the Heroic Imagination Project was born with a mission to use important findings in psychology to equip ordinary people of all ages with the knowledge, skills, and strategies necessary to choose wise and effective acts of heroism during challenging moments in their lives.