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Good & evil and the Stanford Prison Experiment

Good, evil and the Stanford Prison Experiment - a prisoner stands naked after being stripped of his clothes
Good, evil and the Stanford Prison Experiment - a prisoner stands naked after being stripped of his clothes
Good, evil and the Stanford Prison Experiment – a prisoner stands naked after being stripped of his clothes

Our fascination with evil and, our inner conflict with good and evil

“Anyone who fights with monsters should take care that he does not in the process become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” ― Friedrich NietzscheBeyond Good and Evil

The following is a transcript of an interview between Patrick Wanis, Human Behavior and Relationship Expert, PhD and    Professor Philip Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, about the famous and controversial Stanford Prison Experiment and, good & evil; does it exist within all of us? Do we all have the capacity to commit atrocities and torture?

Patrick: This is Patrick Wanis, celebrity life coach, human behavior expert PhD. Does good and evil exist in all of us? When we look back over history, there has been amazing examples of atrocities committed by humans against other humans; be it in the Holocaust, Abu Ghraib or even in the era of Idi Amin.

In the latest movie of Batman, The Dark Knight, we see the Joker. The Joker played by Heath Ledger is a gritty, psychopathic, cold-blooded murdering clown who has no empathy, is a sadist with no apparent conscience. What’s interesting though is the fascination we seem to have with characters such as the Joker. Throughout many movies we often tend to resonate with the villain, such as the evil Darth Vadar or the Joker or even the Terminator, Cat Woman or Star Wars’ Palpatine. Sometimes we find ourselves actually rooting for the villain.

Why is this? Where does this fascination come and is it true that good and evil exists in all of us? Based on my own work, my own experience and my own philosophies, I believe that good and evil exists in all of us. But to go deeper in my studies, I refer back to other research by one of the world’s most famous studies done into human behavior and the act of good and evil. In 1971 at Stanford University, researchers led by Professor Philip Zimbardo created a simulated prison in the basement of the campus Psychology building. What they did was randomly assign 24 students to be either prison guards or prisoners for two weeks. In a matter of just a few days, the guards had become swaggering and sadistic to the point where they placed bags over the prisoners’ heads, forced them to strip naked and encouraged them to perform sexual acts.

Good, evil and the Stanford Prison Experiment - a guard turns evil
Good, evil and the Stanford Prison Experiment – a guard turns evil

Now this Stanford experiment has become a landmark. Professor Zimbardo led the study so many years ago back in 1971, and he’s since then authored numerous books in helping people to understand human behavior and what possibly turns us to be good or evil. Now Professor Zimbardo is internationally recognized as the voice and face of contemporary American psychology. Other than the classic Stanford Prison Experiment, he has authored numerous books including “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil”; and his latest book, “The Time Paradox”.

Professor Philip Zimbardo is Professor Emeritus at Stanford University. Professor Zimbardo, first, how is it possible to even account for all of the actions that are committed by humans? What do you – how do you explain that?

Professor Zimbardo: We can’t account for all of it. What psychology tries to do is it tries to understand how most people, how the majority, behaves in particular conditions under certain circumstances. But I would get back to your opening question about the fascination with evil. And surely this is something that is deep within the human psyche that we don’t like to mention. In all my work I think that fascination zeroes in with the fascination with power; that my definition of evil is the exercise of power to intentionally harm, hurt, destroy other people or things, and it’s that sense of creative evil that someone does the unthinkable. Once they do the unthinkable, it becomes thinkable and doable.

Patrick: It can become part of us too, correct?

Good, evil and the Stanford Prison Experiment - guards begin to torture prisoners
Good, evil and the Stanford Prison Experiment – guards begin to torture prisoners

Professor Zimbardo: And therefore – well, once we are aware of it, it’s now part of our mindset. So that 9/11 – what was amazing about 9/11 was not that 3,000 people died at the World Trade Center, but that somebody had the idea to weaponize commercial airlines, fly them into the World Trade Center and before our eyes 210-storey buildings evaporated. Nobody in the history of the world had ever witnessed that, and with the new technology we witnessed it as it was happening, and so people could not stop watching it, and not only day after day when it was played. For each anniversary – and it’s not that we’re evil. It’s not that we’re saying, “Oh my God, look how many people died.” It’s looking at this as, you know, here is the ultimate destruction going on before our eyes in ways that we could never have imagined before that moment.

Patrick: What’s interesting is that in the 19th Century, Frederick Nietzsche, the German philosopher, stated that he believed that good and evil exists in all of us. This is often been the underlying theme between so much of mythology and movies; the conflict, the inner conflict that probably exists in all of us between good and evil. So the question is, first, if good and evil exists within all of us – and you said it’s all about the human psyche – how does it relate to the brain? Where does it exist within the human brain?


Professor Zimbardo: Oh, that’s – we don’t know that exactly yet. I mean, there are lots of psychologists, as you know, in the new area of cognitive neuroscience who are lighting up the brain with the new technology of functional magnetic resonance imaging, FMRI, trying to locate which structures in the brain get activated when people are involved in moral decision making or conformity. They have not yet gotten around to the point of having research subjects do evil things and see what lights up.

You know, the brain is the physical structure that, obviously, is the origin of all behavior, but the mind is the – if you will – the executive function. And my argument in The Lucifer Effect is that the human mind has the infinite capacity to make any of us do good or evil, be kind or cruel, be caring or indifferent, and it pushes some of us to become villains. The good news is it pushes others of us to become heroes.

Good, evil and the Stanford Prison Experiment - humiliatiion
Good, evil and the Stanford Prison Experiment – humiliatiion

Patrick: And that’s what we saw at 9/11 where we actually saw the opposite. Here we saw what you just stated which was this creative inventiveness or this creative capacity of committing an evil act on a large scale; yet on an equally large scale, people in New York City helped and aided others and rescued others and comforted others.

Professor Zimbardo: Yeah. And in the New York City Fire Department many of them were heroic. They worked overtime with no pay. They were spending hours and hours on that pile. Some of them had the duty of rescuing body parts, fingers of their fellows. When I was President of the American Psychological Association the next year, I gave a Presidential Citation to one of the Brooklyn Heights firemen, Richie Murray, on behalf of all of the firemen who had done such heroic deeds.

My argument is you need evil or dire emergencies to bring out the heroism in us. And so the terrible thing at Abu Ghraib, the evil that our soldiers did at Abu Ghraib, was countered with the good that Joe Darby did. He’s an ordinary Army Reservist who exposed those evils.  But he never could have done that had there not been the evil situation that he witnessed.

Patrick: Yes, and it’s interesting because some people refuse to accept that good and evil exist within us, and yet every if we – and usually those are people that are very strong and have deep religious beliefs, and they like to think that it’s something outside of us that determines whether we commit an act of good or evil. And yet, if we follow the premise of religion that we’ve all been given free will and we therefore can choose to do good or evil, it must exist within us all. The question is what is the tipping point? What leads us to commit evil?

Professor Zimbardo: Yeah, that’s a good – yeah, I mean, you know.

Patrick: Is there an answer?

Professor Zimbardo: There’s not a specific answer, but there are clear answers. But I argue with people who say religion is the key for people doing good because most of the evil that has been done in the world over the centuries has been in the name of a god. I mean, you know, the Inquisition, you know, and many of the war – the Crusades were all about religion. And my sense is that, you know, religion is a double-edged sword.

Religion teaches us compassion and loving and if you – certainly within Christianity, a model of a Jesus as an all-compassion, loving figure is countered by “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” revenge. And in the Inquisition, the human mind that is the origin of so much creativity was perverted to creating instruments and techniques of torture. You know, that – there was creative evil that could break the will, the human will to resist. And so, you know, there was, you know, thousands of people identified as witches who were tortured to death in the name of God, you know, in the name of heresy.

Patrick: And I guess, from my perspective, I believe that good and evil must exist within us because even if we accept the concept that there is something outside of us that is evil such as Satan, the Devil, and that person, or entity, rather, can tempt us to do evil, well that means evil must exist within us for us to do that, which is – ties into the concept that we’ve been given free will.


But I’m still curious about what actually is the tipping point. And obviously it can be different for each person in different set of circumstances but what, for example, was the tipping point, say for some of the Nazi soldiers who were so – who appeared to be so comfortable in committing the atrocities against the Jewish people?

Professor Zimbardo: No, okay – in any one example, we have to look at, you know, the nature of the in – in The Lucifer Effect, my book, I say, in order to understand human behavior, we have to appreciate it at three levels: What does the individual bring into the situation? What does the situation bring out of the person? And what is the system that creates those situations?

So what people bring into the situation, you mentioned in the opening, there are psychopaths. I mean, there are people who have never learned to feel guilt, compassion, empathy. And a lot of the cruelty at the top of Idi Amin, maybe Saddam Hussein, other people like that, you know, that level of cruelty, that level of bestiality goes with the same thing as, you know, mass murderers, but you know, that’s a small percentage of all the people that do evil. Most people who do evil do it within the framework of their job. I mean, if you’re a guard at Auschwitz, it was your job to do certain kinds of – there were certain rules you had to follow, and you could execute somebody with no feeling because they violated rule number seven. 

 Click here for Part II – the continuation of this interview – How jobs, titles and situations bring out the evil in people:

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