When I sat down with famed psychologist Philip Zimbardo, I had a pretty good sense of the main topics we’d be focusing on during our discussion: his notorious 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, a detailed explanation of how situational factors affect our behavior, and his present work on the Heroic Imagination Project and how we might be able to “prime” people for acts of heroism.
What I certainly hadn’t expected was to spend more than an hour talking to Phil about his childhood, starting with being diagnosed with whooping cough at the age of 5 and his long quarantine in Manhattan’s Willard Parker Hospital with other children suffering from contagious diseases in a pre-antibiotic era.
As he watched many of his childhood comrades die around him, Phil developed various survival tactics: praying to both God and the Devil to live to fight another day while routinely ingratiating himself with the surrounding nurses to procure at least some small measure of preferential treatment.
But perhaps the most significant thing the young Phil learned from his hospital experience was the value of being a leader by inventing games and stories for the other boys in the ward. At first, this was simply a way to relieve the omnipresent boredom. But slowly, other benefits began to impress themselves upon him.
“Essentially, from age five on, I began to take a leadership role, not because I wanted to be a leader, but because I was bored out of my mind and I wanted something to do.
“It was a way of amusing myself; but then, in the process, I realized the power of the group. Others were dying around me, alone in their beds. These were resiliency tactics: how do I survive, thrive, and actually enjoy being here?”
Miraculously, Phil managed to survive his quarantine experience, but his troubles were far from over. Upon returning, emaciated, to his poverty-wracked life in the South Bronx, he found himself getting regularly beaten up by the neighbourhood kids because he suddenly “looked Jewish”, leading him to soon join a childhood gang to further protect himself.
“To get into the kid gang, there were rituals: primitive, native rituals. I was coming of age in a primitive society, just like Margaret Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa.” This was “Coming of Age in the South Bronx.” You had to fight, you had to steal, you had to do a test of agility and strength, and you had to undergo a sexual test. Then you were in the group.
“It was clear that being in the group was better than not being in the group. I said to myself, ‘After all my experiences in the hospital, it doesn’t make sense to be a follower.’
“So I began to observe the situation. I asked myself, ‘What is it that the kids who are leaders do?’ Either they were bigger or they had a buddy who was big. More often than not, they had a buddy who was big, who was a kind of enforcer. Secondly, they were always the ones who would come up with an idea first. Typically, they would suddenly change the idea and say, ‘No, we’re tired of this now. We’re going to do something else.’ I said to myself, ‘Well, I was doing that in the hospital.’
“Followers were asked to do really awful things, sometimes very dangerous things. Leaders don’t do dangerous things. It’s just like war: the leaders tell the troops to go into battle while they watch from a safe distance. So I began to practice those kinds of things.”
Once again, the young Phil Zimbardo had developed a workable survival strategy to deal with the situational pressures around him. A few years later the ground shifted under his feet yet again when his family moved to Los Angeles and he suddenly became a rejected outsider.
“When I sat down in class all the kids moved away from me. The same thing happened in the lunchroom. For six months, I was basically shunned at this new school: nobody talked to me; and when I responded to them, they all turned away. I just couldn’t understand it.”
He decided to try to gain a measure of social acceptance through sports and joined the baseball team. But that didn’t seem to help either. In frustration, he finally decided to confront the situation head-on.
“On the way to a game somewhere, I turned to another kid on the team and said, ‘I’m really upset. Why is it that nobody likes me?’ And he replied, ‘It’s not that we don’t like you. We’re afraid of you. We know you’re from New York and you’re Italian. Everybody thinks you’re from the mafia, so we’re afraid of you.’
“Talk about prejudice! And I had had no idea: nobody had said anything to me at all!”
Our bemused future social psychologist had unwittingly stepped into the role of a New York mafioso and found himself summarily ostracized from his social surroundings. A little more than 20 years later and a few miles further down the California coast, he would witness powerful social forces at work yet again, this time as a Stanford professor watching student volunteers rapidly descend into their randomly apportioned roles of inmates and guards in a mock prison with appalling seriousness.
Today, most psychologists and public policymakers, while naturally accepting that situational effects might, statistically, play some sort of role in affecting human behavior, routinely shy away from attributing any significant causal or explanatory power to them.
This naturally frustrates Phil. Not just because he was the Principal Investigator of one of the most notorious situational effects studies in the history of psychology. And not just because he has so often seen, first-hand, the tangible – and often disastrous – effects of group dynamics on individual behavior, from the Stanford Prison Experiment through to Abu Ghraib. But because he understands, intimately and personally, how situational effects can deeply affect who we become.
Psychology is sometimes derided by outsiders (typically those in the so-called “hard sciences” like physics and chemistry) as far too subjectively oriented, a mushy, “me-discipline” with many of its practitioners initially drawn to the field simply by the prospect of learning how to deal with their own feelings and experiences.
Well, there may be some truth to that. But it hardly follows that, in our quest to understand the social world around us, our own experiences should be ignored. After all, in many cases they’re all we’ve got to go on, since each one of us is the product of our own “situation room.”
For a complete list of Ideas Roadshow videos with Philip Zimbardo, click here. The eBook called Critical Situations: The Evolution of a Situational Psychologist is available on Amazon, see here. Institutional subscriptions are offered through our Academic, School and Public Library portals.