Zimbardo, Philip 1933–
Few psychologists are as famous as Philip George Zimbardo. Zimbardo is known both for his flamboyant behavior (e.g., he is rumored to have worn a black cape decorated with a Z ) and for his research, teaching, and promotion of psychology. His work has had a meaningful impact on the social sciences and the general public. Zimbardo received his PhD from Yale University in 1959. He became a professor at New York University in 1960 and in 1968 joined the faculty at Stanford University, where he remained until his retirement in 2003. This entry discusses just a few of Zimbardo’s important contributions.
Zimbardo obtained fame in 1971, when he conducted what has become known as the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE). Zimbardo randomly assigned twentyfour normal college students to the roles of prison guard and prison inmate in a mock prison set up in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. The experiment was to last two weeks but was terminated after six days because some participants became the role they were assigned to play; some guards acted sadistically and aggressively toward inmates, whereas some inmates exhibited depressive-like symptoms, anxiety, and extreme anger. Zimbardo’s experiment led him to conclude that the behavior of guards and inmates in real prisons is created more by their roles than by their personalities.
Zimbardo’s SPE is a classic in psychology. It revealed the power that situations and roles can have in shaping behavior. Zimbardo frequently speaks on this topic and has even pointed out parallels between his experiment and the 2004 Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. Zimbardo’s experiment, however, is not without its critics. Some critics (including Zimbardo) contend that it was blatantly unethical because of the extreme stress placed on inmates, whereas other critics challenge the conclusions of the SPE because of its methodology (e.g., the data collection was limited; guards were given instructions on how to behave).
Although Zimbardo is most known for his SPE, he has contributed to psychology in other important ways. After the SPE, Zimbardo and colleagues embarked on a program to investigate debilitating shyness. His research led to over thirty publications on this topic alone and to the creation of a shyness clinic. Zimbardo is also an instrumental voice in promoting psychology to the general public. He has authored a popular introductory to psychology textbook, Psychology and Life, that was in its eighteenth edition in 2007. In 1990 he narrated the PBS television series Discovering Psychology, which discussed almost every area of psychology in an understandable and engaging format. This series introduced many people for the first time to the fascinating world of psychology. Its 2001 updated edition is frequently used in high schools and universities. The possible highlight of Zimbardo’s career came in 2002, when he was elected president of the American Psychology Association, the largest worldwide association for psychologists with over 150,000 members.
Few psychologists are as well known as Zimbardo. The mere mention of his name to others in psychology might lead to stories of his flamboyant behavior or to an engaging discourse about the ethics and conclusions of the SPE. Regardless of what comes to mind when one thinks of Zimbardo, it is difficult to discount the positive impact his research, teaching, and promotion have had on psychology and society.
Fromm, Erich. 1973. The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. New York: Holt.
Haney, Craig, Curtis W. Banks, and Philip G. Zimbardo. 1973. Study of Prisoners and Guards in a Simulated Prison. Naval Research Reviews 9: 1–17.
Reicher, Stephen, and S. Alexander Haslam. 2006. Rethinking the Psychology of Tyranny: The BBC Prison Study. British Journal of Social Psychology 45: 1–40.
Brian P. Meier