Feature

Americans have long enjoyed a high sense of self-efficacy, of being in control. But when the World Trade Center collapsed before our eyes, we instantly confronted uncomfortable new feelings of fear, anxiety and vulnerability.

And to APA's new president, Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, this massive shift in the national psyche only adds urgency to his main mission: to show the nation that it needs psychology--"that psychology makes a significant difference in our lives." In his view, psychology can not only help heal the nation, but can help it parlay a tragic experience into ultimate self-improvement.

"The tragedy is really like a collective near-death experience," says Zimbardo. "People who have had near-death experiences often say, 'I was working too hard, I didn't spend enough time with my family and friends'....And that's what we're seeing now: People in an expanded present moment, wanting to connect, looking at the roots that connect them not only to the earth, but to their basic values--their family, their heritage, their religion."

What this means, he says, is that organized psychology has a job to do: Ease fears, yes, but also sustain the positive, other-orientation that the attacks spurred. As Americans are re-examining their lives and priorities with unprecedented fervor, Zimbardo sees a new role for psychology. People want to help their communities, so he proposes a psychologist-designed domestic version of the Peace Corps. Government officials want to quash terror and its fallout, so he envisions a Presidential Advisory Committee of Psychologists, offering expertise on everything from thwarting terrorist mind games to counteracting the psychology of a sagging economy.

"This is our time to act, to apply everything we know about human nature," says Zimbardo, who has long touted psychology's value in a 101 course legendary for its popularity on the Stanford University campus. As president, he wants to spread that enthusiasm, underscoring that psychology helps people live longer, find health and happiness, learn better, save money and get along with others.

However, Zimbardo cautions that before he can send that message, he needs a favor from psychologists: no more criticizing and infighting. "We need to begin," he says, "by having psychologists stop putting down psychology and start being proud and passionate about psychology--of what we've done, are doing and can still do."

Moreover, he says, psychologists need to work more closely with the media to prevent being misrepresented and "to give the best of psychology away."

The born social psychologist

Zimbardo's push to polish psychology's public image is nothing new. For years he has served as the field's spokesperson through his well-known textbooks and instructors' manuals and his "Discovering Psychology" video series, which brought psychology into the American living room and has been updated with three new segments. With his signature clipped goatee, Zimbardo is "Mr. Psychology" to the world, says his Stanford colleague and former Yale University roommate Gordon Bower, PhD.

Yet another source of fame is his Stanford prison experiment, controversial for its use of human subjects to illustrate how social roles can stir evil in people. Christina Maslach, PhD (now a University of California­Berkeley psychology professor and Zimbardo's wife), urged him to terminate the experiment early because of ethical concerns.

Such bold innovation also extends to his teaching, those who know him say. "Zimbardo's classes are an academic tour de force," says Michael Osofsky, a Stanford undergraduate who Zimbardo has mentored closely in research. "No other professor at Stanford is so popular that students camp out all night just to get a spot in the class and draws crowds that jam the aisleways of a massive lecture hall." Among the unusual guests Zimbardo has invited to his classes are Malcolm X, Jim Jones's son, prostitutes, cult recruiters and homeless street children.

But if there is one criticism most seem to agree on, it is that Zimbardo, brimming with enthusiasm, has a hard time saying no. "He's already drowning in food but still asks for more mashed potatoes," says Bower. Perhaps such overextension is the plight of the multitalented. His colleagues see him not only as a skilled researcher, but as a master storyteller renowned for his personal warmth and gift for public communication. "Phil notices everything going on around him and finds a story in it," says Bower. "Drama is in the head of the observer."

Zimbardo's fascination with social drama began long before he reached academe. Born into an Italian family living in a South Bronx ghetto, Zimbardo grew up poor and on welfare. "Skinny and scrawny," he admits, Zimbardo had to learn the street smarts key to survival there. "To survive was to know where the bases of power were, with whom to ingratiate myself, what was the dominant hierarchy and what were the needs of the other kids that I might be able to fulfill."

Not only did Zimbardo learn conflict-resolution skills, but he found he could dodge being picked on by making up games--a creative process that relieved others' boredom and primed him to be a researcher. This was, after all, before television arrived, with its socially isolating effects and "invidious comparison with how well others live." In those days, says Zimbardo, "your most precious resource was people."

Realizing this, Zimbardo took note of his neighborhood's social workings: the network of four people it required to send a telephone message from the candy store to his aunt; the fact that children of different racial, ethnic and religious groups got along if they got to know each other but hassled each other if they didn't. Zimbardo, for example, was beaten up repeatedly when he was mistaken for being Jewish.

Another formative experience was overcoming a near-fatal case of whooping cough and double pneumonia in New York's notorious Willard Parker Hospital for Children with Contagious Diseases. At age 5, Zimbardo spent six lonely months there, sequestered from everyone, even the nurses. His family was allowed only one visit a week. "For six months, I never touched another human being and they never touched me," he says. "That's really the origin of my concern with making the human connection--the meaningful social, emotional and physical connections."

The generalist, the educator

Yet it wasn't until his senior year at Brooklyn College that Zimbardo began studying psychology seriously. Ironically, he disliked it the first time he encountered it in a poorly taught Psychology 101 course. In fact, Zimbardo majored in sociology and anthropology and added a psychology major only after taking experimental psychology in his senior year. He "fell in love with it" and was hooked, he says. After that he was set on going to graduate school, but he had a hard time convincing his parents. Going to college had already been a hard sell, since his parents wanted him to go straight to work as his siblings did.

When Yale University accepted him into its psychology program, however, his parents couldn't say no. In his first years there, Zimbardo "ran rats," focusing mainly on exploratory and sexual behavior in the white male rat. But he felt that the work lacked the human element--the real-world connection that had so fascinated him as a youngster--so he switched to social psychology halfway through the program. There he was able to research the topics that had interested him from boyhood, including attitude change and social influence. Also at Yale, later at New York University and ultimately at Stanford, he discovered another activity he enjoyed as much, perhaps even more--teaching. He thrived, he says, on sharing his love of psychology with his students.

"Once I got past that bad intro psych course in college--with my only 'C' grade ever--I vowed that I would never teach a boring class," says Zimbardo. "It was clear to me that psychology is so fascinating that you'd have to work to make it boring. I realized that sociology had big questions, but no way of answering them. And psychology had small questions and lots of great research methods and ways of answering them. All we had to do was ask better and more meaningful questions."

As a testament to his teaching skill, Zimbardo has won numerous teaching awards from Stanford, APA and other groups. He is "strikingly accessible" as a research mentor, says his Stanford colleague and former Columbia University graduate student, Lee Ross, PhD. "And the research he does is really an extension of his teaching." Zimbardo uses classroom activities to spark research questions, he investigates the questions and then he feeds them back to the next class.

He notes that the Stanford prison experiment sprang from a classroom activity, as did his research on shyness, which led to his establishing a community Shyness Clinic and Shyness Institute. Zimbardo now co-directs the institute with psychologist Lynne Henderson, PhD. His other research interests span everything from cognitive dissonance theory and deindividuation to mind control, time perspective and madness. This broad spectrum makes him "one of the last generalists in psychology," he says.

The new APA president

That generalist focus is one of his greatest assets--one he will capitalize on as APA president, Zimbardo says. What psychology needs now, he says, is someone to pull an increasingly specialized and fragmented field together. And he believes that his understanding of psychology's breadth prepares him well for that difficult job.

"There are not many people who have this kind of 'Renaissance man' breadth, but Phil is one," concurs wife Maslach. "He should be particularly effective as the voice of all psychology."

Among Zimbardo's main presidential goals for the field:

  • Demonstrate that "psychology makes a significant difference in our lives." Have all fields of psychology show measurable outcomes of their research. Gather strong examples of this--the power of touch with premature infants, for example, or human factors research on designing work settings--into a compendium for use in media and congressional briefings, schools and other public forums.

  • Increase respect and appreciation for psychology. Do this outside the field with the general public, but also within the field in its science, practice, public interest and education sectors.

  • Communicate psychology's contributions more effectively to the media. Expand APA's Office of Public Communications. Develop better relationships with media who serve as "gatekeepers" in reporting solidly and accurately on psychology. Train psychologists to be more media- savvy.

  • Show how psychology enhances education across the curriculum. Boost teacher effectiveness through better psychology training, develop a national standards-based high school psychology text and introduce psychology earlier in the curriculum.

  • Work to make APA and psychology more diverse and globally sensitive. Collaborate more closely with international psychological associations and under-represented groups.

  • Aid the nation's recovery from Sept. 11. Help address the disaster's consequences, from trauma to living with uncertainty, vulnerability and fear. Advise our nation's leaders and develop an "emergency preparedness" psychology team that focuses not just on reducing symptoms, but also on promoting well-being.

Says Zimbardo: "Our charge is this: from each domain of psychology, how can we give advice to our leaders, to our citizens, that turns this tragedy around and enables it to have positive consequences rather than just lingering negatives."