Dr Phil Zimbardo: My journey from creating evil to inspiring Heroism

Dr Phil Zimbardo - My journey from creating evil to inspiring Heroism

Dr Philip Zimbardo is a Professor Emeritus at Stanford University. He has been described as ‘a legendary teacher, someone with gift of enthralling his audience and packing a powerful message.

We are honoured to be hosting a 2 hour A level event for students online event with Phil Zimbardo in October 2022.

Stanford Prison Experiment: Becoming a prisoner or guard

The Stanford Prison experiment has become one of the be best-known, and controversial, studies in psychology history. Conducted in 1971 by psychologist Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues, the team set to create a simulated prison environment to experiment and explore the impact of becoming a prisoner or guard.

Philip Zimbardo was a former classmate with the psychologist Stanley Milgram who is best known for his famous obedience experiment. Zimbardo was looking to expand on Milgram’s research and further investigate the impact of situational variable of human behaviour.

Zimbardo and his team of researchers were looking to see if participants who were physically and psychologically healthy, who knew they were participating in the experiment, would change their behaviours when positioned in a prison-like setting.

Selecting participants

A mock prison was setup by Zimbardo and the researching team in the basement of Stanford University’s psychology building. The psychology researchers then selected 24 undergraduate students to play roles as both guards and prisoners. Participants were selected from a group of 70 volunteers who had no criminal background and lacked any psychology issues or significant medical conditions. Volunteers were paid $15 a day to participate in the study which was intended to last one to two weeks.

Creating a setting and building procedures

In order to recreate the prison environment, 6×9 foot prison cells were designed to host three prisoners and three beds. Additional rooms were set up across from the cells which were designed for the jail guards and wardens. Finally, one tiny room was designed to us as solitary confinement and another small room functioned as the prison yard.

The 24 selected volunteers were randomly assigned to be in either the prison group, or the guard group. Prisoners were sent to stay in the mock prison for 24 hours a day during the study. Guards were assigned into three man teams and placed on eight our shifts. After each shift, guards were allowed to return home until their next shift. Hidden and cameras and microphones were used to monitor and observe the behaviour and actions of the guards and prisoners.

What the findings showed

The Stanford Prison Experiment was intended to last fourteen days however, the experiment was stopped after just six days due to what was happening to the student participants. Guards had become abusive towards prisoners and prisoners had begun to demonstrate signs of extreme stress and anxiety.

As part of the experiment, prisoners and guards were allowed to interact autonomously however, interactions had become hostile and dehumanising. Guards had begun to behave in an aggressive and abusive way towards prisoners, while prisoners became passive and depressed.

Of the 24 volunteer prisoners, 5 of the prisoners began to experience severe negative emotions, including crying and acute anxiety and to be released from the study earlier than the 6 days it took to end the entire experiment.

Whilst the study was set out to observe behaviours, the researchers themselves had begun to lose sigh of the reality of the situation unfolding. Phil Zimbardo, who acted as the prison warden, overlooked abusive behaviours acted out by prison guards. Graduate student Christina Maslach voiced objections to the conditions within the simulated prison and morality of continuing the experiment. In later years, Christina and Phil went on to marry.

Learning from these observations

The Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated the powerful role that situations can play in human behaviour. Guards were placed in a position of power and they began to behave in ways they wouldn’t otherwise act in their day to day lives or other situations.

Criticisms of the Stanford Prison Experiment

In the years which followed the Stanford Prison Experiment, many critiques have come fromthe study:

  • Ethical Issues: The simulation experiment could not be replicated by researchers today as it would fail to meet the standards established in numerous ethical codes.
  • Unrepresented sample: Participants were mostly white, middle-class males which makes it difficult to apply the results to a wider population due to the lack of representation.
  • Lack of realism: The setup doesn’t match the real-world situation it intended to emulate. Whilst care was taken to mimic the prison environment, many environmental and situational variables makes it impossible to perfectly recreate prison life therefore participants are likely to behave differently in the lab than what may happen outside the lab.


Phil Zimbardo maintains that despite the criticisms of his research, it does not undermine the main conclusion of study that situation forces can alter individual actions both in a positive and negative way.

Creating evil to inspiring Heroism

Watch and listen to Zimbardo live on 12th October 2022 hosted by EduConferences.

Phil Zimbardo will engage us with his views on the nature of evil, his personal encounters with evil, then revisit the Milgram obedience studies, and also explore his Stanford Prison Experiment.

Then we will be treated to the pioneering work he conducted on Shyness and it’s treatment, as well as the psychology of Time Perspective.

Finally, he will extend Matt Langdon’s hero presentation with an introduction of women as heroes.

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