Accuracy in Media

Is evil the result of human choice or manufactured by social circumstances?
Professor Philip Zimbardo, known for his infamous Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971,
opted for the latter explanation at a recent CATO book forum.

told the audience that he believes Lucifer was expelled from heaven not for
sinning, but for disobeying an authority figure. “It’s really a story about what
happens when you challenge authority—you go to hell,” said the Stanford University professor. The
author of The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo believes
that any person has the capacity for terrible deeds, torture, murder, and other

the criticism that his theory abdicates human responsibility, Zimbardo said, “When I give this talk people say ‘oh, you’re
saying people are not accountable for their behavior.’ No, not at all…You are
personally accountable for your behavior.”

did not, however, keep Zimbardo from sympathizing with
the Columbine and Virginia Tech shooters. He said,

I did a lot of research [earlier] on shyness and shy people desperately want
someone to notice them…This little Korean kid at Virginia Tech, what did he
say in that video? He said, ‘for two years nobody spoke to me. You ignored me. I
was nothing until I had a gun and started shooting, suddenly I became
important.’ And the same thing at Columbine and [in] all these cases these are
kids who are marginalized…”


so what he’s saying is ‘everybody wants to feel special, at least to somebody.
And so my sense is that is an obligation that you have, that for all the people
you come in contact with, you think ‘what is it I can do to avoid myself
treating you as an object, treating you as a student, treating you as an
ordinary person.’”

director of the Stanford Prison
, Zimbardo personally presided over
abuses similar to those found at Abu Ghraib. The
sociology professor described the abuses perpetrated under his supervision in
1971. “Our guards stripped prisoners naked. They put bags over their head[s].
They sexually humiliated them,” he said.

later added, “And then they got them to engage in humiliating tasks—cleaning
toilet bowls out with their bare hands, stripping prisoners naked, sexually
taunting them, and then it always descends halfway through into
sexually-degrading activities, literally much like we saw at Abu Ghraib.” The men Zimbardo
recruited for this experiment had just graduated college and were
psychologically screened before their selection.

Zimbardo said that he ended the experiment after six
days at the behest of his girlfriend (now wife) after she threatened to break up
with him. “She looks at the same thing with a different definition of situation and says to me ‘it’s terrible what you’re doing to those boys. They’re not
prisoners, they’re boys and you are responsible’—and she runs out,” he said
(emphasis added).

outlined eight steps by which people are radicalized into violence against

“Mindlessly taking the first small step.”

“Dehumanization of others.”

“De-individualization of self.”

Diffusion of personal responsibility to the group.

Blind obedience to authority.

Uncritical conformity to group norms.

Passive tolerance of evil through inaction or indifference.

Conformity to an ideology.

lastly, all evil begins with an ideology, the big positive value that when you
accept that, it justifies the evil processes to get to that ideology,” he said.

many of Zimbardo’s theories have become mainstream, his political attachments tend to be limited to
one particular side of the aisle. A visit to his Lucifer Effect photo gallery reveals which political associations Professor Zimbardo considers valuable:

  • Al
  • Bill
  • Clinton-era
    Secretary of State Madeleine
  • Former
    Surgeon General and Bush critic Richard
  • Chip
    one of the Abu Ghraib torturers
  • Janis
    another Abu Ghraib figure
  • Studs
    (progressive journalist)
  • Seymour
    Pulitzer-Prize winner for reporting on the My Lai Massacre
  • UC
    Professor, Mark Danner, author of
    Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror
  • Major
    General Antonio Taguba, author of the Taguba

now-retired Major General recently spoke out in support of a new report issued
by the progressive Physicians
for Human Rights
which accuses the Bush Administration of war crimes in
Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. “The remarks by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who’s now retired, came in a new report that found
that U.S. personnel tortured and abused detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, using beatings, electrical shocks,
sexual humiliation and other cruel practices,” reports the
Sacramento Bee.

had highly complimentary words for General Taguba. “For that
wonderful report he got fired. They told him ‘do not submit your request for
promotion, you will never get it.’ And this is how the system protects itself,”
said Zimbardo.

ended his presentation with the following comment: “We want to oppose evil
systems of power at home and abroad and advocate for respect of personal
dignity, justice, and peace.”

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