The Heart of the Matter

Examining the forces that spawn monstrous behavior

Magazine Issue
March/April 2007
The Heart of the Matter

In April 2004, the world was shocked by the publication and broadcast of horrifying photos coming out of a military prison near Baghdad. One showed a petite, female American soldier leading around a crawling, naked Iraqi prisoner on a dog leash. Another showed more naked Iraqi prisoners stacked high in a human pyramid, while American soldiers stood nearby, grinning for the camera. The photos showed prisoners forced to masturbate, to fake fellatio, and to perform other denigrating activities, each image more hideous than the last. This was America’s initiation into what’s now known simply as Abu Ghraib, after the massive prison facility now synonymous with systematic torture and degradation of Iraqis by the American military.

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo, along with millions of other Americans, watched the parade of depravity in disbelief that spring. Little did he know that soon he was to be personally drawn into this national nightmare, called upon to serve as an expert witness—and ultimately as counselor and friend—to one of the torturers, Ivan “Chip” Frederick.

Defending a torturer was an unlikely role for Zimbardo. The Stanford University professor, a lifelong pacifist, trained Vietnam War protestors of the 1970s in how to peacefully (and effectively) oppose America’s war in Indochina. He was opposed to American intervention in Iraq, and found the recklessness of the American military operation there appalling and unacceptable.

So what landed such a peacenik on the witness stand, defending a military guard who’d already pled guilty to the atrocities with which he was charged? Zimbardo had sympathy for Chip Frederick because he’d witnessed the transformation of perfectly decent young men into monsters three decades earlier. Not only had he witnessed the making of sadists, he’d orchestrated the process, in a now-infamous psychological experiment, the classic of the psychological literature known as the Stanford Prison Experiment.

The experiment began in the summer of 1971 as an undergraduate class project on the psychology of incarceration. Zimbardo, the professor overseeing the project, created a mock prison in the basement of the psychology department building, and volunteers were randomly assigned to roles as either prisoners or prison guards. Things started going wrong almost immediately. Even though the guards were randomly chosen, they took to their newly acquired power with gusto, verbally and physically mistreating their fellow students, who’d drawn the prisoner’s lot only through bad luck. As Zimbardo watched the TV images out of Abu Ghraib, he was painfully reminded of similar cruelty—including the forced sexual deviance—he’d witnessed at Stanford.

The student-guards were so inhumane that the experiment had to be terminated prematurely, and the project is often used as a case study of research ethics gone awry. In fact, it’s Zimbardo’s amazement and shame over his own indifference to his students’ welfare—his “evil of inaction,” as he calls it—that led him to the witness stand in the Abu Ghraib trial. He felt compelled to testify about what he’d learned regarding the contributions of temperament and social forces to evil. In his new book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, he writes for the first time about the lessons that the Stanford experiment offers for Abu Ghraib and other atrocities.

The main message of The Lucifer Effect is that there are no bad apples, only bad barrels. That’s Zimbardo’s controlling metaphor for the power of the situation to trump individual disposition. In the book, he puts the military’s top brass on mock trial, prosecuting them for creating the system and the authorizing a situation that contained the psychological prerequisites for changing the soldiers into sociopaths. He leaves it to the reader to act as jury and decide who’s more culpable, Chip Frederick or his commanders.

He took the stand for Chip Frederick to make the case that the military system itself is culpable for what went wrong at the prison, for allowing the extreme stress and lack of accountability that fosters evil behavior in otherwise decent folks. His argument failed. Frederick is now serving eight years in Leavenworth federal prison. His argument lost out to the prosecutor’s, which was basically that individuals are responsible for their own behavior and that the entire military shouldn’t be indicted because of a few aberrant sociopaths.

This emphasis on the power of the individual, Zimbardo notes in the book, is at the core of American culture and the helping professions, including most brands of psychological assessment and treatment. He aims to shake up the belief in the strength of individual character, which he sees as fundamentally flawed. In place of the medical model of evil, emphasizing individual treatment and cure (or more commonly punishment), his book offers a public health model for understanding the potential to do evil. As with the public health approach to any disease, this model focuses on prevention—on building up personal resilience to the social forces that can dehumanize us. Zimbardo takes the social principles he’s learned from the Stanford Prison Experiment—and other experiments in social psychology—and turns them on their head, creating a 10-step program to combat nefarious social influences like those at Abu Ghraib. Reams of social science tells us that people aren’t Jekyll-and-Hydes; they become torturers incrementally, through subtle desensitization and dehumanization. Zimbardo believes we can similarly build up our resilience in increments, gradually moving toward goodness and enhancing our potential for heroism, rather than our potential for evil.

Although Zimbardo never explicitly compares his 10-step program to addiction-recovery programs like AA, the parallels are hard to resist. Both evil and addiction involve the subversion of good character by selfishness and fear, and like the more well-known step programs, Zimbardo’s directly addresses these character flaws. It’s spiritual in tone, yet rooted in solid psychological concepts.

For example, he borrows from Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer’s notion of “mindfulness,” noting that those who move through life on automatic pilot are most vulnerable to the social influences that can dehumanize us. Especially in new situations, Zimbardo says, we must be mindful not to rely automatically on old habits that might no longer apply.

Zimbardo’s 10-step program emphasizes the importance of admitting mistakes and asking forgiveness. This may smack of pews and stained glass to some, but it’s a cornerstone of all addiction-recovery programs, and grounded in solid behavioral science. Confession undermines cognitive dissonance, which can motivate unhealthy or unsavory behavior. Honest reality checks defuse the discomfort caused by dissonance.

Zimbardo’s program emphasizes personal responsibility, starting with seemingly small things. If this sounds moralistic, it is: one way to pave the way to everyday heroism, he believes, is to swear off “venal sins and small transgressions, such as cheating, lying, gossiping, spreading rumors, laughing at racist or sexist jokes, teasing, and bullying.”

As indicated earlier, Zimbardo’s sensibilities are rooted in the ’60s counterculture. He believes that the personal is always political, and others of his steps are more overtly political than spiritual. In one pointed allusion to the commander-in-chief who’s ultimately responsible for Iraq and Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo admonishes would-be heroes not to sacrifice personal and civic freedoms for the “illusion of security.”

These are all simple and teachable steps that individuals can take if they want to groom themselves (or their children) to be heroes rather than torturers. Zimbardo calls his 10-step prescription a “starter kit,” and urges readers to study and explore the principles in more detail on his website,

In the end, Zimbardo is an optimist who believes in everyday heroism. Pure embodiments of evil, like Hitler and Stalin, are florid but rare, he says; it’s the “banality of evil”—the enlisting of everyday decent folks against all their instincts—that poses the real peril.


Wray Herbert

Wray Herbert has been writing about psychology and human behavior for more than 25 years. He has been the behavioral science editor at Science News, the editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, health and science editor at US News & World Report, and a columnist for Newsweek, Scientific American Mind, and The Huffington Post. He is the author of On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Minds Hard-Wired Habits.