The following is a segment of the Truth and Education Commission blog that focuses primarily on Philip Zimbardo and his book “The Lucifer Effect.” This also addresses psychology and relies on some material covered in The Fundamentals of Psychology. I have indicated that the material he has written clearly seems to indicate that he hasn’t been sincere about many things.
I have attempted to back this up with some work by Philip Greven and Alfred McCoy who have both reviewed Stanley Milgram’s work and raised some legitimate objections. These objections could easily apply just as much to Philip Zimbardo’s work as well if not more so.
Since then I have written the following to him in early summer of 2010:
I’m skeptical about some aspects of your work including the motivation. You claim to have been an opponent of the Vietnam War yet you accepted grant money from the Office of Naval Research.
Furthermore a close look at your work seems to imply that it may have been more about studying obedience to authority or manipulation tactics than it would be to study actual prison culture. If you were studying prison culture I would have expected more references to other studies. If you were studying obedience to authority with the best interest of the public in mind I would have expected you to have done more to inform the public much sooner. If this had happened it might have prevented the Abu Ghraib incident from happening in the first place. Alfred McCoy has stated that he believes Stanley Milgram may have been working for the CIA as you should know since you cited his book in your book. The same explanation could just as easily apply to you if your experiments and many of the other ones you described from other researchers.
I haven’t received any response from Philip Zimbardo since; apparently he has stopped responding to feedback about August 2009. One of the leading reviewers of his work that he highlights on his web site is Dr. Phil who has some serious credibility problems. This shouldn’t be considered strong evidence that there is something wrong with his work but if he was more inclined to work with more credible academic sources he might have a greater claim to being peer reviewed. Dr. Phil may be very popular in the Mass Media but he basically caters to the simple beliefs of many of the least educated people. This is hardly what I would consider a good source to help him present his work if he is sincere.
The following is the original review as it appeared on tripod or to read the full blog as it originally appeared go to Truth and Education Commission
One example that might be worth considering is the hypothesis presented by Philip Zimbardo in “The Lucifer Effect” (2007). Philip Zimbardo indicates that he believes people father up the chain of command should be held responsible for the abuses and torture in Iraq and other locations around the world. He presents himself as an authority primarily because of an experiment he conducted in 1971 known as the Stanford Prison Experiment and a review of other similar research projects. He attempt to argue that the situation was the primary cause for the abuses at Abu Ghraib. There should be no doubt that many of his claims have some legitimacy however a closer look may indicate there may also be some flaws in his work or even a conflict of interest. This doesn’t mean his work should be dismissed especially since some of it may be relevant and it may be better in some ways than most other sources; however it should be held to a thorough review by other people in the appropriate academic fields and he shouldn’t be the lead source of review for this as I will indicate.
There are several ways to confirm or refute Philip Zimbardo’s work including some criticism from Phillip Greven and Alfred McCoy; a review of his career in chronological order which isn’t necessarily the way he presented it; and a review of the way other prison researchers conduct their work to see if it supports his work. The biggest problem may be that he seems to claim the Stanford Prison Experiment was primarily to study prison psychology but if that were true this may not be the right way to go about it.
The criticism from Phillip Greven and Alfred McCoy was actually directed at the work of Stanley Milgram but it could just as easily be applied to the work of Philip Zimbardo. In his book "Spare the Child," Philip Greven criticized Milgram for declining to look into the background of his research subjects to see how they were raised. He claimed that he might have done a much better job if he had read Alice Millers book “For Your Own Good”; however this wasn’t a very good example in Milgram’s case since Milgram went to press first. It might have been better if he sited Benjamin Spock or other work that went to press earlier; however in Philip Zimbardo’s case he didn’t go to press until 2007 so even though he wouldn’t have known about it when he did his experiment he could have and perhaps should have known about it and many other good books similar to it when he wrote his The Lucifer Effect. Greven, Miller and many other psychologists that studied the upbringing of children have found that violent behavior and disciplinarian teaching encourages violent behavior later in life and it encourages people to be more likely to follow orders blindly which should be applicable to the work that Philip Zimbardo did. The early upbringing of a child is just the beginning. Child abuse often leads to bullying in school which could be followed by hazing. Hazing is a manipulation tactic that involves using coercion to encourage conformity this is similar to what they do in boot camp and in religious organizations. There were similarities present during the Stanford Prison Experiment. The situation that Philip Zimbardo claims to be an important factor is of course part of it but the earlier upbringing may be just as important if not more important. If he reviewed the upbringing of his subjects he could have found out if the ones that were more violent came from a more violent background with more abuse from their parents and perhaps bullying or hazing later. In the beginning of The Lucifer Effect he indicated some knowledge of this when he said that someone he grew up with became violent partly because of the way he was abused by his father; however he provides little more review into this subject throughout the rest of The Lucifer Effect. There may be few hints but unless the reader is looking for it he won’t find these.
Alfred McCoy indicated he thought Milgram may have been working for the CIA. McCoy didn’t directly indicate he thought Philip Zimbardo was working for the CIA but he did claim there were similarities with the Stanford Prison Experiment. McCoy has been researching the CIA for over thirty years. In the case of Milgram he claimed that he came to this conclusion for several reasons including the fact that Milgram initially tried to get a grant to research the use of mescaline on people which was turned down. This is similar to several of the projects that the CIA has been involved in the past that were exposed including a similar research project on the use of LSD. Milgram did his research project with the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation that was supported by the Office of Naval Research (ONR). Other requests for support that weren’t supported by the ONR were turned down and when his career was in trouble as a result of the controversy around this study he was hired by someone that just left the ONR and this saved his career.
McCoy also claims that several of the most prominent psychologists of the twentieth century including Milgram and several former members of the American psychiatric association and the American Psychology Association may have contributed, unwittingly or not, to research to help the CIA understand how to use coercion tactics and psychological torture. In Philip Zimbardo’s case he received his grant directly from the ONR. Philip Zimbardo claims to be an opponent of the Viet Nam War which should raise some doubt about why he was doing this type of research with a grant from the ONR. Why would he accept the grant and why would they give it to him if they had opposing goals? One possibility worth considering might be that he was only providing a token opposition to the war and he may have used this to lessen the criticism that may have been even greater than what Milgram faced otherwise. A review of his anti-war activities could either confirm or refute this hypothesis. If he was a sincere anti-war protester he almost certainly could have done more to warn the public about the manipulation tactics he was studying. Another indicator of why this project was done could be the potential uses it could have had and whether or not they would have known when they were in the planning stage. Even if he wasn’t working for the CIA he knew he was receiving support from the ONR which was a branch of the military; and he knew or should have known that this could have potential benefits for improving the way boot camp is run and other coercive activities including those eventually used at Abu Ghraib.
Also it is virtually guaranteed that even if Philip Zimbardo didn’t know it the CIA would have taken notice of this research or any other research like it since it would help them with coercive activities. There have been several investigators of the CIA that claimed that they consulted with Psychologists working in the academic world; former CIA director William Colby even admitted this before congressional hearings. He couldn’t have known it would be used this way assuming it was but he could have anticipated the possibility and done more to warn people much sooner.
A review of his career in chronological order could help understand what the primary focus of his research was and whether or not it is research into prison behavior or other activities. He was a classmate of Milgram in high school and they both told the story about how Milgram was the smart one and Philip Zimbardo was the popular one and the later found out that each of them wanted the other distinction. He claims he grew up in the Bronx and he learned how to be street smart and become the leader of the crowd. He acknowledges using the basement later used by Milgram in his Obedience to authority experiment. He also acknowledges that he discussed it with Milgram and in 1969 he conducted another lesser known study that was a variation of Milgram’s obedience to authority experiment. His Stanford Prison Experiment appears to be as much about obedience to authority as it is about prison activities. He followed this up with another project to help people opening a new jail conduct a mock prison which seems to a lot like his Stanford Prison Experiment; this didn’t involve realistic research about actual prison life for the same reason as the first experiment but it could have advanced research in manipulation tactics. He reviews dozens of other research projects that were primarily about obedience to authority.
A review of the way other prison researchers conduct their work might help indicate whether or not the way he went about things with his Stanford Prison Experiment was the right way to go. He claims that the reason he didn’t study people in current prisons was because they would have a hard time getting in and out of them without better cooperation from authorities and that they wouldn’t be able to observe everything. This is partially true. Both Dorothy Otnow Lewis and Lonnie Athens researched prison behavior and they had problems obtaining cooperation from authorities to conduct their interviews but they overcame them and things seem to have gotten easier for prison researchers in the late eighties and nineties. There appears to have been much more cooperation based on a review of the books about several mass murders and books by the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI. These improvements in cooperation escalated after 1971 when Philip Zimbardo did his research project. Philip Zimbardo could have gone about things in a different way that probably would have been much better if he was primarily interested in researching prison behavior but it is conceivable that he didn’t find out about that until after he did his experiment.
Even though there were problems with studying activities there were also other problems with the way he went about it perhaps even more serious problems. His prisoners and guards weren’t real. They weren’t brought up in a criminal environment or trained as guards. There was no trial or many of the other activities that would have been relevant and important to researching prison life. He still could have and should have found out of the research done by others by the time he wrote The Lucifer Effect in 2007. If this was primarily about prison research you would have expected him to do much more to cite the work of other researchers to confirm his findings. There is very little of that in The Lucifer Effect except for a few token statements which are mostly accurate about general principles and some claims that some of the people went on to conduct more research in prisons but he doesn’t review their work. The Lucifer Effect spends much more time discussing research projects into methods that could be used to manipulate people than it does in discussing legitimate prison research. If this research is presented to the leaders and withheld from the public it may enable them to manipulate the public and lead them into wars against the best interest of the public. There are many cases within The Lucifer Effect where he confesses to manipulating people as part of the experiment. There are also some cases where this seems as much like a form of espionage as it does a research project into prisons. He says that the conditions of the experiment were that they could quit the experiment at any time if they chose. Later when many of them clearly indicated that they wanted to quit but didn’t come out and say it clearly that “I want to quit in accordance with the agreement” he ignored them and tried to coerce them to continue. He attempted to convince someone to inform on the other prisoners which could have been similar to a prison incident and he didn’t agree or at least not initially; perhaps if it went on longer it would have worked and he could have cut a deal with someone. He attempts to put what he refers to as a spy in their ranks when one prisoner is released as a replacement. This spy winds up sympathizing with the prisoner and doesn’t provide any “actionable intelligence”.
The use of this term seems more like something the CIA would use than something an undercover cop would use; they would probably more likely to refer to it as evidence that could be used at trial. There is an incident where they are concerned that the prisoner released would come back and disrupt the experiment. They go to great lengths to prevent this. When one of the parents expresses concerns about his son he confesses to appealing to his “masculine pride” when he asks “Don’t you think your son can take it?” There is reference to a perceived conspiracy to use this experiment to find out how to imprison Viet Nam protesters after someone finds out the project is being funded by the ONR. This conspiracy theory is dismissed out of hand without explanation except that he claims he is opposed to the war so that isn’t the case. He makes no attempt to explain why a war protester is accepting money for research from the ONR or to explain why they would provide it if they couldn’t use it to help accomplish their goal. This doesn’t mean the conspiracy about them using the experiment to arrest people protesting the war is true; it almost certainly isn’t. However the experiment could be used to better understand how to run boot camps and manipulate people. Many of the activities they are conducting are similar to the activities that the CIA participate in and as some people including Alfred McCoy and Philip Zimbardo himself indicated it is similar to what went on at Abu Ghraib.
Philip Zimbardo claims that he changes his attitude after he is confronted by a younger research assistant whom he is also dating that raises concerns about the experiment. He initially claims he doubted whether or not she “could ever be a good researcher if she was going to get so emotional about a research procedure.” This statement may be valid from a scientific point of view; however from an ethical point of view it may be different. After she responds he later agrees to end the research project but he still goes on with a semi-mock procedure where a public defender related to one of the prisoners comes in and conducts interviews with the prisoners. He states that he will file reports with a real court on Monday. Only then does he tell the public defender and the prisoners that he is ending the experiment. After he ends the project he writes ”Then and there I vowed to use whatever power that I had for good and against evil, to promote what is best in people, to work to free people from their self imposed prisons, and to work against systems that pervert the promise of happiness and justice.” This sounds like something that people like Howard Zinn have attempted to do; however Howard Zinn seems to have been much more active in his attempt to achieve this goal and to the best of my knowledge he never mad such a dramatic statement; instead he demonstrated his sincerity with his actions. If you revue the work of Howard Zinn and other war protesters you will find much more activity to protest against wars than what I know of Philip Zimbardo; as far as I can tell his claims to be against the war were all vague general claims without addressing the problems of the war the way other war opponents that I’m aware of until recently. This seems to have changed with the writing of The Lucifer Effect and his opposition to the torture in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. For the most part his current work may be changing to a point. He is right that more people higher up should be held accountable for this scandal and that the situation is a major factor although it may not be quite as important as earlier upbringing as indicated by Philip Greven.
However there are still some problems including the end of The Lucifer Effect where he tries to reinforce hero worship to a point and encourage people to be obedient to a benevolent authority in what he seems to refer to as a reverse Milgram experiment. The problem with Hero worship is that the most effective solutions aren’t dramatic or heroic they are mundane practical things that can be done to solve problems before they escalate. As indicated by Greven and many other researchers violence early in life leads to violence later in life; once you understand this than it indicates the way to solve this problem involves teaching young parents to avoid abuse and spanking instead to spend more time with their children doing little mundane things. This is hardly perceived as heroic yet it is an example of ways to solve problems. Heroism is often based far more on hype biases and lies than on practical solution. Once you have a hero they are often put above reproach and biases tend to escalate. A similar problem comes up when teaching people to be obedient to a benevolent authority since the authorities they have obeyed in the past have always portrayed themselves as benevolent and he doesn’t put more than a toke amount of focus how to recognize which authority is benevolent or not and setting up a set of checks and balances. Until there is a better education system and the masses do a better job learning for themselves to tell who is good or not there may be little choice but to encourage some people to obey authority; however if this is necessary there can still be more done to set up a set of checks and balanced controlled by educated people and set up a plan to educate the rest.
Philip Zimbardo also reviews the ethics of his own project; however he doesn’t focus much if any attention on what the research may be used for. He claims that from an absolute version of ethics the rule is first do no harm which he didn’t obey since he acknowledges that he did psychological damage to the subjects of his experiment. He also reviews a relative version of ethics which weighs whether society gains more than they lose from the experiment. This is based on the assumption that the people being used for the experiment will pay a price but if it goes well then the information gained from the experiment will more than justify the expense. There is no way of knowing for sure whether or not this will happen until after the experiment is done but that is what they are aiming for.
This is based on the assumption that the research information gained from the experiment would benefit society instead of being used to harm society. The experiments that were committed by the third Reich were of course considered unethical because not only did they harm the research subject but they also were used to learn how to kill much more effectively. This is actually standard procedure for military research although it receives little attention. If the military produces a more powerful bomb they’re learning how to kill more efficiently. In the case of Philip Zimbardo’s experiment he is studying psychological manipulation tactics many of which were partially understood by a lot of demagogues. This could be used for better by warning the public, or worse by withholding the research from the public and providing it only to those who are using it to manipulate the public. Philip Zimbardo didn’t do either one of these instead he did something in between. There was some information shared with some members of the public but not the majority. This could give him some degree of plausible deniability. The information was much more widely available to the college educated and the members of the military and the CIA than it was the vast majority of the public.
He would have had more plausible deniability if he had published a first edition of The Lucifer Effect in the seventies. This couldn’t have included research that hadn’t been done or any information about the incidents in Abu Ghraib since they hadn’t happened and perhaps if the public was warned they might never have happened. He could have followed it up with improved editions as more research became available. Instead he did a few TV shows and perhaps provided more detailed reports to those within the academic community. Philip Zimbardo for the most part ignores the ethics of how his research was used and even goes so far as to claim ignorance when it was used for the Navy’s Survival Evasion and Escape (SERE) program. The SERE program may have been used to develop methods to overcome resistance to torture as well as to develop it. Philip Zimbardo was doing this research project with a grant from the ONR he should have known or at least suspected it could be used for this purpose. Another aspect of his research which should have been considered more carefully was the fact that he relied on the help of research subjects who had a hard time paying for college. They were paid fifteen dollars a day which wasn’t very much for this type of research even in 1970. Like a lot of other researchers he relied primarily on the lower or middle classes for his research and the benefit was evaluated and controlled by the upper classes. Like participants in this research project, Stanley Milgram’s project and many others the people participating in the research were happy to know that the research was being done for the benefit of science which was presumably being used to help everyone in society.
A closer look almost certainly will indicate that this is a false assumption. The benefit of this research project is controlled by those in the academic community, the most powerful political institutions and the Mass Media. Unfortunately in most cases especially this one the benefit is provided first to the rich with access to and education and then to a lesser degree to the public but the quality of the education the public as presented by the politicians and the Mass Media is routinely distorted and often involves indoctrination instead of education or insufficient review for the majority of the public to understand.
Philip Zimbardo was the president of the American Psychology Association in 2002 and is now director of the Stanford Center on Interdisciplinary Policy, Education and Research on Terrorism. This may mean he has some influence in the academic community and perhaps in the political community on how to deal with terrorism. His handling of this may be flawed as well; he cites a study of four hundred al-Queda members by Marc Sageman which claims that three quarters of these people came from the middle or the upper classes. This may be true but I suspect it may also be out of context. I don’t know for certain what all the contributing factors are that lead people to become what the USA labels as terrorists but I suspect that generally speaking two of the leading causes are indoctrination that includes coercion and some form of legitimate grievance although they may not be able to express it very well. The indoctrination could include child abuse early in life from those that raise them and mythology about Armageddon and the demonization of those they consider enemies. The legitimate grievance may be more difficult to recognize in some cases since we now have complex systems that control all the most powerful institution in the world which many people can’t comprehend. However they may see that the people that control the systems get the benefit and those that do a large portion of the work pay the price. They are aware of the collateral damage that is done by many sources including the USA military. The people living in the Middle East receive a different version of the news than the people in the USA; while the US media downplays the fact that the CIA has intervened in foreign countries to overthrow governments the people in the Middle East live with it and perhaps even exaggerate it in the other direction. The truth is almost certainly somewhere in the middle and a truth commission that sorts through the details to get it may help reduce violence than ignoring inconvenient facts. Philip Zimbardo doesn’t seem to do much to acknowledge many of the legitimate grievances except for the torture which is now so obvious it should be beyond dispute.
Philip Zimbardo displays more familiarity with the CIA and their activities than he does with prison psychology. This doesn’t mean he always presents them accurately though. Even if it turns out that Philip Zimbardo is sincere it is worth considering the possibility that if there is reform there will be someone involved that may have an ulterior motive and they may attempt to subvert the process one way or another. Even if Philip Zimbardo isn’t entirely sincere it wouldn’t be appropriate to dismiss his work in its entirety either; when it comes to manipulation tactics some of the people who understand them the most are those who have used them in the past. A close look at Mien Kampf indicates that Hitler understood war propaganda and manipulation tactics better than the vast majority of the public but it also requires discretion while sorting out the details; for example when he describes manipulation tactics he attributed them to the enemies including the WWI opponents, the Catholics and of course the Jews. In the case WWI opponents and the Catholics he was at least partly right but in the case of the Jews they didn’t have the power and there is little or nothing to indicate they were a legitimate threat at that time. Instead he was of course catering to the prejudices of his followers perhaps because this was the most effective way to manipulate them.
Another thing worth considering is the fact that although many people may not have the critical thinking skills to recognize his flaws others clearly do and Philip Zimbardo may know this. If that is the case why wouldn’t he do a better job manipulating the public and why would he provide so much information about how to avoid manipulation tactics? One seemingly farfetched possibility is that this may be for some people another obedience to authority experiment and a partially controlled disclosure plan. As time goes on more people will come to learn how to understand these principles and they may realize that Philip Zimbardo isn’t being completely sincere. This would enable some members of the public to cope with the truth gradually. Believing this hypothesis without further evidence would be foolish but even if it isn’t true it may work out that way in the long run. If there is a truth commission it will help to learn how to sort through the details and check facts and the public should be involved in that. There will almost certainly be some people who don’t come out with the truth unless they realize they have no choice and it is in their own best interest. Many members of the public may also have to do a better job dealing with the fact that their leaders haven’t been nearly as honest with them as the public wants to believe. Many members of the public have developed an emotional attachment with some of their leaders and an emotional distrust of others and in some cases they may not have gotten either one right. A truth Commission may have to do as much to de-cultify many people as it does to educate them.
Informing the public of these indoctrination or manipulation tactics needs to be a very important part of a truth commission so they can learn ho to avoid being taken in again and led to one war after another for the wrong reasons. If Philip Zimbardo had done a much better job organizing his research and presenting it to the public thirty years ago then much more could have been done to prevent the wars that have occurred since then. The fact that this didn’t happen can’t be changed so it will be important to do it now in the most effective way possible and even though Philip Zimbardo probably hasn’t been as sincere as he could have been he could still make partial amends by helping to educate the public now if his work is checked. If he is called out and punished to severely when he was coming out with at least part of the truth and an important part then others may be reluctant to follow suit. Whether Philip Zimbardo or others like him disserve some form of immunity may not be the most important issue but whether or not it is the most effective way of getting the truth out and reforming the system without a revolution that “eats its own children”.
For a follow up blog about Philip Zimbardo and other potential bias see Corruption or Bias in the American Psychological Association and Eli Roth’s Milgram/Obedience experiment much more extensive than most people realize
Additional information at the following sites:
The “Lucifer Effect” by Philip Zimbardo excerpts from beginning and end
“Does Psychology Make a Significant Difference in Our Lives?” article by Philip Zimbardo
"Abu Ghraib: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is NOT Us" by John Spritzler
To read about the Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo (discretion advised as indicated above) see:
For another critical review of the Lucifer Effect see: