Philip Zimbardo: The Psychology of Evil

So my visit to a friend at Bangor University resulted in attending more lectures than I do during term time, and in this case it was a rather fascinating talk by Philip Zimbardo on “The Lucifer Effect” or the “Psychology of Evil”. I couldn’t find the exact lecture recording that I watched but this one probably covers the same material (being based on his book named to similar effect). I recommend you watch it if, as I could not, you are able keep your eyes away from his incredible beer belly.

It’s nothing short of fascinating. Psychologists are, we might say with dreary accuracy, renowned far and wide for their skills of eloquent bullshitting, tapping into fresh reservoirs of facts and figures to justify theories more ludicrous than the mental subjects they examine. But this particular talk seemed somewhat departed from that tradition; he humbly designates the first part of his lecture to explaining the importance of rehabilitating morality into science. If we want to override and prevent “evil” behaviour then we need to challenge its presuppositions, the conditions that produce it. The lecture gives some convincing material explaining the role psychologists might play here.

Zimbardo takes a tour around a few studies, some published and some not, but centre-stage is his own pride and joy – the well-known Stanford Prison experiment. Relevant, I suppose, that we’re currently reminiscing on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War are the comparisons that he draws between Stanford and the crimes of Abu Ghraib in 2003-4; Zimbardo noticed that the subjects in his study acted almost identically to those military personnel in Iraq. There were common factors: boredom, mental hierarchy between prisoner and imprisoned and all the rest and so if we want to counter evil then we have to change the system. Its vaguely put confidently asserted that psychology can provide a significant part of the answer – and I’m more than a little persuaded.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

The “Stanford Prison” Experiment.

I did, though, have one lingering reservation: perhaps Zimbardo is too keen. When the crimes of Abu Ghraib hit the media Zimbardo was invited to defend one of the detainees, and he did so in order to argue that the criminals were not military “bad eggs” but part of wider institutional problems that provided the conditions to make the acts virtually unavoidable. But to follow this logic is to assume that to explain is to justify; that to find the cause is to morally exculpate the individual involved. If social institutions make certain outcomes more likely then we should change the conditions, not excuse the subjects; to do so is the destroy thousands of years of Western moral philosophy – to equate Saddam’s chief institutional devices of rape and murder and torture with American democracy – all for the chance to sound that little intellectually superior.

Conclusion on Zimbardo: really interesting ideas with a tendency to jump the wagon.


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