Zimbardo’s work has been getting a lot of exposure recently, largely because of the Abu Ghraib scandal and its seeming similarities to the prison experiment.
However, this interview is interesting because Zimbardo discusses his motivations for designing one of the most infamous studies in the history of psychology and reflects upon our understanding of institutionalised abuse and complicity, as well as his own role in creating a ‘petri dish prison camp’.
Stanford University is one of the most beautiful universities in the world and in that basement in the psychology department I created a mini-hell for all those students. This young woman, Christina Maslach, had just gotten a job as a psychology professor at Berkeley and we had just started dating. I looked up and in front of my door was the usual 10 o’clock toilet run, prisoners with paper bags over their heads, legs chained together and one arm on each other’s shoulder, marching blindly down the hall with guards yelling at them obscenely…and I looked up from whatever I was doing and said hey Chris, look at that. I said something like, ‘the crucible of human behaviour’. And she said, ‘I don’t want to see any more of this!’ And she ran out, and I ran after her and we had a big argument: what’s wrong with you, what sort of psychologist are you?
And she says to me, ‘I don’t want to hear about simulation, I don’t want to hear about the power of the situation. ‘It’s terrible what you are doing to those boys, they are not students, they are not prisoners, they are not guards, they are young men, what’s happening to them is terrible and you are responsible for it.’ That was the left hook, the right hook was, ‘You know, I’m not sure I want to continue dating you if this is the real you, this person is like a monster.’ There was like a cataract over my eyes, I was not seeing this most obvious thing that she coming down fresh in ten minutes looks at this and says it’s terrible.
Link to Zimbardo interview on All in the Mind.