USC hosts psychologist Philip Zimbardo

Philip Zimbardo, a renowned psychologist best known for conducting the Stanford prison experiment, spoke about the nature of evil, shyness and heroism in the Ronald Tutor Campus Center Monday night in an event hosted by the USC Speakers Committee and Undergraduate Student Government Program Board.

Throughout most of his career, Zimbardo, professor emeritus at Stanford University, has examined the question of what evil is and how it can be defined. Raised in the South Bronx, Zimbardo noticed the ubiquity of men in his neighborhood attempting to seduce young kids to do bad things. He wondered what the difference was between children who could resist these temptations and children who could not.

Initially, he believed resistance to evil depended on a loving mother who taught her child about right and wrong, but when he began studying psychology, he realized that it was not the children who were at fault, but the poverty they found themselves in.

“Poverty is a systemic evil that affects young people in inner city ghettos,” Zimbardo said. “Impoverished life breeds a seductive evil for kids living in a world filled with easy sex, drugs, gangs, violence criminal activities and hustlers.”

As he delved deeper into the psychology behind evil, Zimbardo questioned what makes good people go bad. He presented the opportunity for wrongdoing that arises with anonymity as a potential driving force behind evil actions, asking the audience to remember trick-or-treating as children on Halloween.

“When kids are wearing masks, they steal twice as much candy when [signs] say to take one,” Zimbardo said, provoking guilty laughter from the audience.

Zimbardo continued by discussing the Milgram experiment, in which psychologist Stanley Milgram had young students at Yale University shock other participants in order to understand the motivations of Nazis involved in the Holocaust. The experiment showed that, given the pressure of a confident leader, ordinary people could systematically torture and even kill others without questioning their actions.

This question was tested in Zimbardo’s most famous psychological trial, the Stanford prison experiment, in which participants were arbitrarily assigned the role of prison guards or prisoners and subsequently began acting in ways that reflected their respective positions. For example, the “guards” began abusing the “prisoners” to excess, a fact that Zimbardo pointed out using the warped mindset of a specific participant, dubbed the “John Wayne” of the prison guards, as an example.

“Let’s be like puppeteers here. Let’s make these people do things,” Wayne said in an interview regarding the motivation behind his physical abuse toward the prisoners. Using this example to illustrate the nature of evil, Zimbardo concluded that unchecked power is the recipe for oppression.

Zimbardo also considered how to stop and prevent evil, a subject that he linked to another of his main areas of research — shyness, particularly in males. According to Zimbardo, self-confidence facilitates intervention in situations where evil is being committed; however, shyness and thus a lack of willingness to stand up against evil is growing.

“From 1970 to 1980, 40 percent of people said that [they were] currently shy, 40 percent said [they used] to be shy, 15 percent said [they were] shy depending on the situation, and five percent said [they were] never shy,” Zimbardo said. “Now, two thirds of currently shy people say [their shyness] has become a personal problem.”

Zimbardo introduced the idea that this rise in shyness, particularly in males, can be attributed to increased video game use and pornography viewing, thereby heightening men’s access to instant gratification and decreasing their motivation to exercise their social skills.

Zimbardo explained that, since those findings, he has started a shyness clinic which encourages people to become mentors, to limit cell phone use and most importantly to teach responsibility and resiliency at home.

This development of self-confidence is what makes a hero, someone who Zimbardo said “act[s] on behalf of others in need or in defense of a moral cause.”

One example of heroism in particular caused the audience to collectively cheer. Lin Hao, a nine-year-old boy who, after an earthquake destroyed his school in the Sichuan province of China, rushed back inside to rescue his friends from the rubble. When was asked why he took such a risk, Hao said “I was the hall monitor. It was my job to look after my classmates.”

Heroism, according to Zimbardo, isn’t just reserved for those who prepare for it.

“The decision to act heroically is a choice that many of us will be called upon to make at some point in time,” Zimbardo said. “Real heroism — you’re only going to have that opportunity once, and you will know for the rest of your life you could have done it, but you did not take the action. Silence, apathy and indifference should never be an option.”