Dr. Phil Zimbardo: Good and Evil

Dr. Phil Zimbardo (Don Congjuico)

Don Congjuico

Psychologist Dr. Phil Zimbardo presented his lecture titled, “My Journey From Creating Evil to Inspiring Heroism” at Irvine Valley College Friday, Sept. 21. where he began his lecture with the question, “What is Evil?” further discussing what his views of evil is.

Zimbardo grew up in the South Bronx of New York which was on the poverty line as he described. 

“If you grow up in an impoverished are, you are surrounded by evil,” Zimbardo said.

His lecture revolved around what factors were needed to generate evil. As the saying goes, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” He emphasized that people’s actions are what is condemned as evil, but not the doer.

“I, like you, believed there is an impermeable line between good and evil,” Zimbardo said.

He mentions that these are the boundaries that separate the two choices. One of those boundaries that can cross this line from good to evil, is choice.

“Evil is the exercise of power and for me there are three kinds: individual, situational and systematic evil,” he said.

He then continued to list a couple of examples for the certain kinds of evil.

Systemic evil is “organizational influences like politics, economics etc.”

Zimbardo gives an example in China where the government deliberately kills one million people a year because they encourage men to smoke. About 320 million Chinese men are currently smoking and because of this, the country earns an annual income of 605 billion Yuan in tobacco revenue.

Zimbardo then spoke about a study by his famous high school classmate, Stanley Milgram. He said that his famous experiment was the first of its kind to “quantify evil.”

Milgram was a social psychologist who founded and conducted the controversial Milgram Experiment. The experiment measured the obedience of participants by an authoritative figure when subjected to a crisis in conscience.

“Most evil begins with a positive force but this is merely a deception,” Zimbardo said.

After an initial hypothesis that only one percent of people were considered sadist’s for going all the way up to 450 volts, Milgram’s experiment showed that 65 percent of the participants were willing to go against their better judgment when there was an authoritative figure that told them what to do.

“Evil begins at 15 volts,” Zimbardo said. “We are all powerful agents of social reform. We are all capable of being a model for other people to follow.”

He then explained his own famous experiment that was conducted at Stanford University called the Stanford Prison Experiment.

“It is the role play with the unlimited access to power that was involved in this experiment,” Zimbardo said.

Due to the escalating disturbance and stress this experiment caused to the participants, it had to be cut short.

Zimbardo also talked about the incidences in Abu Ghraib, and told of examples as to how “people who are placed with unlimited power” can exercise the choice of doing evil deeds.

“In my experiment at Stanford University I wasn’t doing the evil, but I was allowing it. Since then I’ve given up evil and recommitted myself to the good in my life, “Zimbardo said on where the heroism is with all the talk of evil.

He founded an organization called the Heroic Imagination Project which demotes the action of inaction, and counters it with breaking social norms that hold back someone from doing a good deed.

“Anyone can be a hero. You become so once you have done the action,” Zimbardo said.

Zimbardo named a few exemplary people, like Wesley Autrey, who saved a strangers life by diving into the train tracks, and held him steady while he was having a seizure.

“We need to shift  the social norm from passive compliance to pro-social action,” Zimbardo said. “The failure to do nothing is called the ‘bystander effect’. It is the evil of inaction.”

“You are what the change turns into. You can stand up for what you believe in.” said Zimbardo. ” Every week tell someone you don’t know a good thing or a nice thing like ‘I like your dress,’ or compliment them because this sends out a ripple effect of positive force into the world.”

“Now the question is  what will you do?” Zimbardo said, ending his lecture.

Milgram Experiment: 


Stanford Prison Experiment:


Incidences in Abu Ghraib:


Heroic Imagination Project:


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