Sunday, April 12, 2009

Philip Zimbardo: How ordinary people become monsters ... or heroes

Philip Zimbardo: How ordinary people become monsters ... or heroes is a TED talk by Philip Zimbardo,  American psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University.  He's a much better speaker than I'd imagined, and I had no idea he grew up poor in New York.

Zimbardo is  of course, famous for his Stanford prison experiment, where he took 24 normal college students, assigned them randomly to be prisoners or guards--which elicited sadistic behavior to such an extent that the experiment had to end early.  The key is that there is neither pure good or evil, only personality traits that can be elicited depending on circumstance.

In this talk, Zimbardo talks about how he was shocked but not surprised at the prisoner abuse that went on in Abu Ghraib, and shows [GRAPHIC, NOT SAFE FOR WORK] images that were not as widely circulated in the media.  Zimbardo states that the administration pushed the blame down on the soldiers (citing a few rotten apples), and that the soldiers stated they were just following orders. But the blame is not to be individualized, it is systemic.

Zimbardo states that if you give people power without oversight, it's a prescription for abuse. The Bush administration, via documents he presented, knew that, and let that happen. He says the abuses were going on for 3 months. Who was watching the store? Nobody. And he thinks nobody on purpose. The guards were given permission to do those things, and they knew nobody was going to come down into that dungeon.  These pictures were examples of situational and systemic vectors of disease. 

He finishes on a positive note, proposing heroism as the antidote to evil. He proposes activating the heroic imagination in all of us and celebrating ordinary heroes. This especially for children. He proposes thinking of ourselves as heroes waiting: each one of us may only have one chance in a lifetime to act heroically, so we must prepare ourselves for when the time comes. 

(From my iPod)

1 comment:

Guy Danus said...

i love these TED talks. this one was a bit depressing, but enlightening.