Emperor of the Edge

Interviews Phil Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford University. History of his interest in psychology; His relations with Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist; Some of his negative experiences.

By Christina Maslach, published September 1, 2000 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Prison experiment pioneer and father of shyness research Philip Zimbardo,Ph.D., discusses prejudice and popularity, the genius of "Candid Camera," why smart people do dumb things, and the little-known but most important influence on all of human behavior

I'm interviewing Phil Zimbardo for PSYCHOLOGOY TODAY--not only because I am a professor of psychology myself, but because I've been married to the man for 28 years, and can therefore ask some more personal questions.

For many people, Dr. Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford University, is an intense, energetic and highly visible presence in the field of psychology. He's a researcher of such intriguing and controversial issues as the psychology of evil, madness in normal people, shyness in adults, and the impact of prisons and cults. He's an award-winning teacher whose classes attract audiences in the hundreds. If you take an introductory psychology course, you may well study from the textbook he authored, Psychology And Life, which is now in its 16th edition. And if you watched the TV series "Discovering Psychology," which he wrote and hosted, you may also know him as Uncle Phil, as do many high school students.

Phil, where did your focus on psychology come from?

PHILIP ZIMBARDO: I think my early childhood prepared me to be a social psychologist. I grew up in a South Bronx ghetto in a very poor family. From Sicilian origin, I was the first person in my family to complete high school, let alone go to college.

When I was five and a half, I got double pneumonia and whooping cough--in 1939, before penicillin was discovered--so I was put in the Willard Park Hospital for Children With Contagious Diseases. It was a huge ward with a sea of beds. Some kids lived, and some kids died. It was a cruel game of genetic roulette. There was no medication, no therapy, no treatment. We never got out of bed. We were never allowed to touch another kid or touch or kiss visiting parents.

But what I got out of that six-month experience--which was hell--were a number of skills. I learned to read and write before I started school, and that built up a sense of self-efficacy, as Albert Bandura would say. And I learned to ingratiate myself with the nurses, since that's where the power was, to get some extra sugar, butter, or a smile and a touch. I also learned to cope with the boredom by inventing group games, like imagining that the beds were all rafts floating down the Nile or the Hudson River.

This experience of extreme isolation at a very formative time in my childhood really gave me a push in the direction of not only being a social psychologist, but of wanting to study things and do things that improve the quality of human life.

CHRISTINA MASLACH: It's important, I think, that one of your classmates at James Monroe High School in the Bronx, Stanley Milgram, also became a social psychologist of considerable note.

PZ: Yes, we were in the same senior class. He was the smart kid and I was the popular kid. I was even voted most popular boy in the senior class.

But the previous year, which I spent in California at North Hollywood High School, I was shunned by everyone. I would sit down in the cafeteria, and students would get up from the table and walk away. They thought I was from the Mafia, simply because I was Italian and came from New York--stereotypes in action.

So here I went from being least popular to most popular literally over the summer between junior and senior year in high school.

Talking to Stanley--about whether it was me or the situation that had changed so much--we agreed that it depended upon the situation more than on my disposition.

And Stanley's obedience studies and my Stanford prison experiment are really bookends of the most basic lesson in social psychology--namely, the subtle but pervasive power of situations to influence human behavior, much more so than most of us are aware of.

CM: Your experience in California wasn't the only time you've faced prejudice, was it?

PZ: Prejudice and discrimination have always been a big part of my life. When I was 6, I got beat up and called "dirty Jew boy" because they thought I looked Jewish, even though I wasn't. Then I almost didn't get accepted into Yale University graduate school because many on the psychology faculty thought I was black. And when I was teaching at NYU, I was carrying furniture in from a rented moving van, wearing a bandanna on my head, and some neighbors passed and said to each other, "Oh my God, the Puerto Ricans are moving everywhere."

So I was discriminated against because I was Jewish, Italian, black and Puerto Rican. But maybe the worst prejudice I experienced was against the poor. I grew up on welfare and often had to move in the middle of the night because we couldn't pay the rent. My father was often unemployed. I went to what seemed like warehouses to get clothing and to clinics for health care. During one dentist visit, when I complained of pain, an older dentist told his trainee, "These kinds of people are always complaining. Don't listen to what they say. Just look in their eyes. That'll give you the right signal." Did I ever roll my eyes and blink, trying to send the right "poor person's" signal?

Treating other people as insignificant, as anonymous, as dehumanized, bothered me very much. So one of the things I studied later on was the psychology of deindividuation.

CM: Did anything positive come out of those negative experiences?

PZ: I'd like to think so. Being hurt personally triggered a curiosity about how such beliefs are formed, how attitudes can influence people's behavior, how people can feel so strongly about something they know nothing about. Could these people ever change? Could they ever get to like me if they knew me, or like people they thought were like me--Jews or blacks or Puerto Ricans or Italians, or even the poor?

And so I did research. My earliest systematic research was on attitude change and social influence, as part of the Yale Attitude Change Program. My first formal research, published when I was an undergraduate in 1953, was on trying to understand the dynamics of prejudice, of interaction between blacks and Puerto Ricans.

Later I did research on self-segregation before and after the Supreme Court antidiscrimination ruling. That research showed that even at liberal colleges espousing doctrines of nonprejudice, there were "black tables" in each of the cafeterias where no white person ever sat.

CM: You obviously loved school, but there were some traumatic encounters in elementary school, and then there was that C in Introductory Psychology. How were you able to transform those negative experiences in your own career, as a teacher?

PZ: There are no limits to what I would do to make my classes exciting, interesting, unpredictable--unlike my terribly boring Introductory Psychology course. I do it not so much by being a good lecturer, but by taking the time to develop special audio-visual materials, experiments, demonstrations, engaging the students in a variety of different ways, bringing in a range of guests to help dissolve the boundary between the ivory tower and the community.

I have had guests in my class such as Malcolm X; A shaman from Peru; Miss Kitty, who pan a whorehouse in San Francisco; (San Francisco 49ers) football coach Bill Walsh; cult recruiters; former prison inmates; pro-choice and pro-life debaters; and even the Stanford marching band. All of these are ways of communicating that the joy of being a psychologist is that almost everything in life is psychology, or should be, or could be. One can't live mindfully without being enmeshed in psychological processes that are around us.

I have always taught a heavy courseload, but academic success depends on research and publications. So I had to "cheat," using the classroom as a vehicle for coming up with new ideas for research and then adding my research back into my teaching.

The Stanford prison experiment came out of class exercises in Which I encouraged students to understand the dynamics of prison life. Some students took part in a mock prison for a weekend and the effects were very profound. So I said, "Well, let's do this in a systematic way."

In another class, the question was raised as to whether shyness was a condition where a single person was both his or her own prisoner and guard--the guard issuing coercive rules that limit the freedom of the prisoner and the prisoner rebelling but ultimately complying. Isn't that what happens in the silent prison of shyness? So we started studying shyness.

CM: You have done research in a remarkably broad range of areas. In fact, you've just received the Ernest Hilgard Award from the American Psychological Association for your lifetime contributions to general psychology. Is being a generalist just being an old-fashioned dilettante in a world of young specialists?

PZ: Ouch. Dilettante. That hurts. Generalist, that's good. Careers in virtually all academic disciplines are fostered by being a superstar who knows more about one subject than anyone else in the world. But since psychology is so rich, so complex, and involves so many different domains, I've never been able to go the specialist route. I can't resist the temptation of an interesting idea that might lead me astray.

CM: Is there any underlying theme that integrates the topics you've studied so far?

PZ: I think so. I have been primarily interested in how and why ordinary people do unusual things, things that seem alien to their natures. Why do good people sometimes act evil? Why do smart people sometimes do dumb or irrational things?

At the core of my interest is the process of transformation of human nature. What factors account for how we suddenly change, how we act in ways that are not based on what we did before, or on what we thought we knew about ourselves and about other people?

Most of my work in some way deals with a kind of everyman, everywoman view of human nature. What are the implicit theories people have about themselves, about how they should behave or will behave in certain situations, and then what happens when they don't?

There's an interesting parallel between some of my research and Allen Funt's "Candid Camera" show, where he put ordinary people in unusual situations to see how they would improvise. I've always thought of Allen Funt as a brilliant, intuitive social psychologist.

CM: Although you've worked in more than a dozen different areas of psychology, what are your top five research interests for which you'd like to be remembered?

PZ: My big five, in chronological order, are: (1) the cognitive control of motivation research I did on dissonance theory; (2) the prison study, as part of the psychology of evil; (3) research on the personal and social dynamics of shyness in adults and children; (4) research on time perspective; and (5) most recently, the psychology of madness.

In the dissonance research, my students and I tried to wed rigorous experimental paradigms to social psychological conditions to demonstrate that basic laws of motivation-hunger, thirst, pain and other basic drives--could be reversed when you allowed people to choose whether to expose themselves to these typically motivating conditions. We found that we could undo or change the impact that various levels of motivation had on performance by varying freedom of choice.

I like that research because it used traditional experimental paradigms like classical conditioning and operant conditioning to give very precise answers to what seemed like fuzzy questions.

The Stanford prison experiment is obviously one of my main legacies, 30 years later. It still appears on television, and there may be a Hollywood movie made about it soon. In part, its enduring value has to do with the dramatic transformation of human nature: In only a few days, ordinarily good boys were behaving in either evil, sadistic ways like guards or pathologically breaking down like prisoners. And it just violated all of our common assumptions about stability of character and the power of individual dispositions on behavior. It highlighted the powerful control that situational variables could exert.

CM: Have there been any interesting consequences of these research programs?

PZ: Recently, I have reconceptualized this prison research in the context of the psychology of evil. Although psychology is starting to focus on the upbeat, with Marty Seligman's push for a positive psychology--which is critical the other side of human nature is still this darker side.

So I've been using the Stanford prison study and my earlier research on deindividuation and dehumanization--again, a lot of which comes out of childhood experiences--to try to understand how ordinary people could become perpetrators of evil, and whether or not it sheds light on societal phenomena, such as the transformation of Nazi guards in the Holocaust.

I started studying shyness in adults in 1972, and I think our research opened up the subject to many psychologists. Shyness operates at so many different levels, involves so many different psychological factors, and it's now a fascinating area of concern and the basis of a lot of research and clinical activity nationally and internationally.

Out of that research came the Stanford shyness clinic in 1977, the first clinic devoted exclusively to treating shyness in adults and adolescents. We set it up as a free experimental clinic with me as co-therapist, and discovered we could help people change their behavioral, cognitive and emotional patterns that interfered with their daily functioning.

That clinic, now in the community, headed by Dr. Lynn Henderson, has expanded to include training of therapists and also general research on shyness in the Shyness Institute. And now we're adding a social fitness center based on a general public education approach to having people become more socially fit as a complementary concern to being physically fit.

My research on time perspective, begun in 1971, comes out of my childhood where my father was totally present-oriented and lived for the moment, which meant no goals, no achievement focus. Through my schooling, I became very future-oriented, and the research that I've done since then--including developing the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory, recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology--points to the fact that time perspective is one of the most powerful influences on all of human behavior--the jobs you seek, the grades you get in school, the risks you take, the addictions you develop, whether you take care of your health, whether you floss your teeth, and much, much more.

And it happens without our awareness, almost at a subconscious level of functioning. So we're trying to show how people become biased to being exclusively past-, present- or future-oriented. We're trying to promote a sense of a balanced time perspective, in which you flexibly shift your time orientation depending on the situation and the tasks at hand, rather than act as a slave to a restricted time frame.

And last, but hopefully most significant in the long run, is a new theory I've developed called "discontinuity theory," which looks at the cognitive and social psychological origins of madness in ordinary people. A lot of what ends up as psychopathology begins with the perception of discontinuity--something doesn't make sense to you in your functioning, in some area that's important for your self-image, your self-esteem. Depending on how you go about explaining that discontinuity, you can be put on the path to developing pathological symptoms that are in a sense explanations for that discontinuity. I hope it will have value for clinical psychologists as well as for psychologists in general.

CM: What are you up to now that excites you most?

PZ: What excites me and at the same time troubles me is the Internet and the electronic technology revolution. I think the growing epidemic of shyness is fueled in part by so many people, so many adolescents and adults spending huge amounts of time relatively alone, isolated on e-mail, on video games, in chat rooms, watching television, all of which reduces their face-to-face contact with other people, making social connections simply more awkward and thus avoided.

We are finding that the level of shyness has gone up dramatically in the last decade, and so I think shyness is now an index of social pathology rather than a pathology of the individual.

There's no question that the Internet will change everything about our lives. It opens exciting new avenues for research and innovative visions for therapy and health care delivery. And so I have decided to embrace it wholeheartedly, in several ways. I am an advisor and director of Heretolisten.com, which we hope will become the premier online therapy site, and one that also educates professionals and the public about mental health, psychopathology and psychotherapy.

I'm also a co-founder of Real psychology, corn, with colleagues Lee Ross and Sabrina Lin. It is a rich psychology site. It gives meaningful psychology away free to the public with expert information on a whole range of psychological topics, from the theoretical and conceptual to everyday tips on how to deal with shyness, stress, negotiation, aging and so much more.

CM: You've been in the trenches of psychology for a long time. Are you ready to settle down and enjoy your senior citizen status gracefully?

PZ: Not [likely]. That little, skinny kid who survived a traumatic youth still lives in this rather bulky old body, still full of energy, still optimistic, still ready to make a difference. So instead of climbing into a hammock or riding around on a golf cart, I plan to work harder at improving the public image of psychological science and practice because we have so much to offer of substance to enhance the human condition. It pleases me that after doing psychology for half a century, my passion for all of it--the teaching, the research, the practice, the public policy advocacy--is greater than ever. So I will just continue to go with the flow of new ideas in whatever directions they take me, and hopefully the force will stay with me a while longer.

PHOTO (COLOR): Zimbardo at Stanford, 1985, taking psychology out of the "ivory tower" and bringing it to the masses.

PHOTO (COLOR): At one point, Zimbardo had the largest rat colony of any researcher at Yale.

PHOTO (COLOR): Zimbardo (circled) with his ethnically diverse childhood friends.

Adapted by Ph.D.

Christina Maslach earned a Ph.D. in social psychology from Stanford University and is a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley.