The Situationist

The Stanford Warden Retires

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 14, 2007

Professor Zimbardo’s Final Lecture at StanfordSituationist Phil Zimbardo has been in the news quite a bit this week. This morning we discovered an article in USA Today, asking “Do we all have an evil, dark side?,” and summarizing a few of the insights in Zimbardo’s forthcoming book. And last week we came across the article excerpted below describing Phil Zimbardo’s final lecture last week at Stanford.

* * *

The retiring psychology professor who ran the famed Stanford Prison Experiment savagely criticized the Bush administration’s War on Terror Wednesday and said senior government officials should be tried for crimes against humanity.

In his final lecture at Stanford University, Philip Zimbardo said abuses committed by Army reservists at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison weren’t isolated incidents by rogue soldiers. Rather, sadism was the inevitable result of U.S. government policies that condone brutality toward enemies, he said.

Individual military personnel — those who stripped prisoners and leashed them like dogs — are only as culpable as the people who created the overall environment in which the soldiers operated, Zimbardo told undergraduates enrolled in Introductory Psychology.

“Good American soldiers were corrupted by the bad barrel in which they too were imprisoned,” said Zimbardo, 73. “Those barrels were designed, crafted, maintained and mismanaged by the bad barrel makers, from the top down in the military and civilian Bush administration.”

* * *

Past president of the American Psychology Association, Zimbardo is best known as the author of 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which 24 male college students assumed the roles of prison guards and prisoners for $15 per day.

Participants — who had no criminal records and seemed psychologically “normal” when selected — flipped coins to determine who would be a guard and who’d be a prisoner. By day two, guards were going far beyond keeping prisoners behind bars: They stripped prisoners naked, cloaked their heads with paper bags, shaved prisoners’ hair and dressed them in frilly smocks.

* * *

Decades later, Zimbardo applied his analysis to American soldiers at Abu Ghraib. He testified as an expert witness in the court martial of Staff Sgt. Ivan “Chip” Frederick II, the highest-ranking officer implicated in the scandal.

Frederick received a maximum eight-year prison term for abusing and humiliating detainees. He was stripped of nine medals of honor and 22 years of retirement pay.

Zimbardo — who spent months interviewing Frederick and his friends and relatives, and poring over his work history and personal background — argued that his sentence should be lessened.

Based on academic research, Zimbardo said, very few people could resist the situational pressures of Abu Ghraib — particularly Army reservists, themselves subject to hazing and abuse by active duty soldiers.

“There’s only one rung lower than reservists, and that’s the detainees,” Zimbardo said while flashing dozens of “trophy photos” of Iraqi prisoners in naked piles, being menaced by snarling German shepherds, covered in blood, or with their eyes missing.

Zimbardo, an unusual icon of both academia and pop culture also starred in the 2002 Discovery Channel reality show “The Human Zoo” and the PBS series “Discovering Psychology.”

On Wednesday, he displayed a grainy, 1971 photo of Stanford’s mock prisoners with bags over their heads, guards looking on casually — then switched to an eerily similar digital photo taken in 2003 or 2004 by one of the Abu Ghraib guards, with people in nearly identical formation and cloaks as the Stanford snapshot.


Bush characterized the abuse as an aberration. Some high-ranking military officials insisted that individuals — not Zimbardo’s amorphous “environment” — had to be held accountable.

The reactions still sting the professor.

“I gave the situational view, and of course the military totally rejects it,” Zimbardo said.

The anti-war activist emphasized that his analysis wasn’t a license to engage in wickedness. Zimbardo said he was providing context to understand people like Frederick, who helped place wires on a detainee’s hands and told him he would be electrocuted if he fell while standing on a box.

“The dialectic of human nature is good vs. evil,” said Zimbardo, whose upcoming book, “The Lucifer Effect,” summarizes his research.

Stanford professor Benoit Monin called Zimbardo — a child of Sicilian immigrants who grew up in the Bronx in the 1940s — “godfather” of academic psychologists.

“He’s been an inspiring role model,” Monin said as Zimbardo flashed a devilish grin and blasted the Rolling Stones'”Sympathy for the Devil” throughout the auditorium.

* * *

For brief coverage in Harper’s about the lack of coverage of Zimbardo’s comments, click here.

4 Responses to “The Stanford Warden Retires”

  1. […] recently retired and is now busily promoting his latest book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn […]

  2. fxpij said

    Good site!!!

  3. Big Mean Bastard said

    I say this as a psychology student: Zimbardo has his head up his ass. If he (or you) had ever bothered to see what terrorists do to innocent and unarmed civilians, neither of you would currently be wearing that self righteous smirk on your faces. I’ve done the ivory tower thing. Some proffs get recognition for their work, but then become so self important that any rational person would be compelled to puke. Bush tried for war crimes? Hell, where was Zimbardo when Clinton was wagging the dog and American servicemen were being killed as a result? The problem with the ivory tower is that it becomes a sensory deprivation chamber of sorts, blocking out the real world while providing a false sense of security. I find it ironic that a psychology professor would have deep-seated personality flaws.

  4. Jack said

    Big Mean Basterd, what a joke you are, a psychology student, ahh that explains it all, you have your head up your ass. Zimbardo is telling the truth of the matter, you need to leave politics out of this.

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