I just returned from the 2009 WPA (Western Psychological Association) Convention in Portland, Oregon, with a plethora of materials to ruminate on. A conference of this magnitude always provides me with a spectrum of lectures, programs, workshops and posters that are so enthralling as to compete for my time, and with an outlet to share my research with colleagues and students. However, what struck me most at the conference is a unique presentation by Philip Zimbardo.
Before hearing the new rousing lecture, I felt that I knew him only from a distance. I read about Stanford Prison Experiment when I studied criminal justice and psychology at a university on the east coast. I talked about his research on deindividuation in my class and showed the video "Discovering Psychology" once in a while. I met one of the participants in the mock prison experiment several years ago and he recently told me that I "must" read Zimbardo's new book "The Lucifer effect: understanding how good people turn evil." I also attended his presentations a couple of times at WPA and APA conventions before. Although I admire his exceptional achievements in psychology and other fields, I object to some of his assertions. For example, he describes acupuncture as a type of "faith healing" in Discovering Psychology (updated edition), overlooking recent empirical research on acupuncture.
Philip Zimbardo's presentation, entitled "My Lifetime Love Affair with Psychology and Public Service," started at 5pm on Sat at this WPA. Phil's reputation as a droll and humorous speaker is legendary. As in similar occasions, the lecture hall was overcrowded with participants who expected a good time. At beginning, he indicated that the presentation was intended mainly for both graduate and undergraduate students. At the end of his talk, however, I think that not only the students, faculty and professionals all had a good time, but also they learned something much deeper. What separates this presentation from the previous ones I attended is his candid reflection on his personal experiences.
He talked about his experience as a five-year-old in a quarantined hospital who tried to read all available books there in the late 1930s. As one of the boys in a large Italian family living in New York, he was frequently a victim of prejudice. He had been called various names and avoided at theater. When he applied for the graduate psychology program at Yale, the department initially thought he was a black student and was hesitated in their decision. Zimbardo did not shun mentioning his mistakes, including his initial indifference to the plight of the participants in the prison experiment when the research entered the sixth day. Thanks to his wife-to-be who ran into his office talking about her distress regarding the experiment, the research was concluded. He also talked about his hope for the younger generation to become "hero."
What I (and many others) learned from the lecture is how an eminent psychologist overcame various adversities and still lives and thinks like an ordinary person.