This check-in on the Stanford Prison Experiment has a couple tidbits that were new to me. For one, I did not know that Phil Zimbardo married the whistleblower that ended the experiment. Kind of amazing. I did know that one of the guards became a prisoner’s rights activist but his take on the experiment is always interesting to hear. The guard that got high all the time — that was news to me. That even he, weeks after being caught as a prisoner in Europe, and while being high 24/7, he still got carried away in the experiment… that’s hard-hitting.
But reading about all this also jogs personal memories about Phil Zimbardo. Professor Zim taught me Intro to Pyschology freshman year, oh about 14 years ago. I also took a seminar on Faces of Evil with him and had a couple personal meetings with him. I knew him about as well as an undergrad that didn’t work in a lab with him might.
And I would never have worked in a lab with him. He worked on evil. I worked on the Happiness Project, a beeper study led by Laura Carstensen that showed how people get happier as they age. He had style and flash. I preferred professor Hazel Markus, whose work on Well-Being Across Cultural Contexts taught me much about how my cultural upbringing informed my vision of happiness. Zimbardo and I had different interests, in other words.
Don’t get me wrong, he’s a perfectly nice person. His work has been important. But part of the reason his work has been important is beyond his control. The Stanford Prison Experiment, as it was constituted with him as the lead researcher AND prison warden, would never be allowed today. Crucial parts of the experiment were immoral or at least amoral. It was poorly constructed, and it strained the psyches of all involved. Yes, it led to great advancements in our understanding of the situational basis of evil, but the experiment itself had the touch of evil about it.
My feelings about the man are as complicated as my feelings about the experiment. ‘Zim’ was, to my knowledge, the only person allowed to drive a car into the main quad on Stanford campus. He had just undergone a hip replacement surgery and so he needed close access, but it was an iconic thing, to drive a car up to the Psychology building from the inside. It was part of the superstar aura that he had. His Intro class was another part of this aura. We used his book. We listened to his high-profile friends guest lecture. We saw him teach us, directly, maybe twice in the ten weeks.
Maybe this is all unfair. By the time you’re a leading professor at Stanford, you’ve had to do some self-pimping. You are an icon in your field. And his chosen field is important — as a German-Jamaican-American, I feel that unpacking the type of evil that happened in the Holocaust is important. Perhaps I avoided that part of myself when I refused to follow the Zimbardo path at Stanford Psychology. Maybe I should have taken advantage. But I wanted to know more about being happy, even if it meant I didn’t know more about how people become evil. So really I should do this: Thanks, Professor Zim, for going places I didn’t want to go.