Thinking back, Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, believes his historic Stanford Prison Experiment was born out of his tendency to multitask.
"The way I dealt with having to teach so much was a kind of intellectual cheating," said Zimbardo. "I had to use teaching ideas to generate research ideas and then use research to feed back into teaching."
The idea for the experiment came to Zimbardo after he asked his Stanford psychology students to examine what happens when someone goes to prison for the first time. As part of their independent study, his students came up with the idea to set up a mock prison among themselves in their dorm one weekend. That test, Zimbardo later learned, was rife with tension.
"When they presented the project in class, one kid turned to another and said, 'You can't be my friend anymore because you did such terrible things when you were a guard,'" Zimbardo remembered. "It was very clear that there was something powerful there, and I felt we should follow it up in a more systematic way."
Zimbardo's own follow-up experiment, which took place from Aug. 14–19, 1971 in the basement of Stanford University's Jordan Hall, demonstrated how extreme situations can provoke uncharacteristic behavior. Since then, Zimbardo has been asked to serve as an expert witness in similar, real-life situations, including the Abu Ghraib military abuse scandal.
Zimbardo, who participated in a question-and-answer session moderated by psychology historian Wade Pickren, PhD, at APA's Annual Convention, went on to explain how prisons became a springboard for his pioneering research on shyness. "I thought, 'In what situations do people give up their freedom voluntarily, freedom of speech and of association—isn't that shy people?'" he said. "A shy person is his own prison and guard."
His latest research on heroism is also a byproduct the Stanford prison experiment. When writing his book "The Lucifer Effect" (2008) about how good people can turn evil, Zimbardo discovered there was a dearth of substantive research on why some people are able to resist negative influences in bad conditions or show courage in a life-or-death situation or other crisis.
So, after years of being known as "Dr. Evil," he said he has completely shifted his focus to promoting good. "I have to now be the 'Good Witch of the West,' or at least the West Coast, change my identity and promote heroism," Zimbardo said.
As such, Zimbardo has launched the Heroic Imagination Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes building character and courage. The project includes an educational program, through which he and other psychologists train youth leaders and middle and high school staff to teach students how they can resist bullying and peer pressure and create positive change in their communities.