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kottke.org posts about Philip Zimbardo

Five Steps to Tyranny

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 23, 2016

In 2000, the BBC broadcast an hour-long documentary called Five Steps to Tyranny, a look at how ordinary people can do monstrous things in the presence of authority.

Horrific things happen in the world we live in. We would like to believe only evil people carry out atrocities. But tyrannies are created by ordinary people, like you and me.

[Colonel Bob Stewart:] “I’d never been to the former Yugoslavia before in my life, so what actually struck me about the country was how beautiful it was, how nice people were, and yet how ghastly they could behave.”

The five steps are:

  1. “us” and “them” (prejudice and the formation of a dominant group)
  2. obey orders (the tendency to follow orders, especially from those with authority)
  3. do “them” harm (obeying an authority who commands actions against our conscience)
  4. “stand up” or “stand by” (standing by as harm occurs)
  5. exterminate (the elimination of the “other”)

To illustrate each step, the program uses social psychology experiments and explorations like Jane Elliott’s blue eyes/brown eyes exercise on discrimination, the Stanford prison experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo (who offers commentary throughout the program), and experiments by Stanley Milgram on obedience, including his famous shock experiment, in which a participant (the “teacher”) is directed to shock a “learner” for giving incorrect answers.

The teacher is told to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger — severe shock).

The “learners” were in on the experiment and weren’t actually shocked but were told to react as if they were. The results?

65% (two-thirds) of participants (i.e. teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.

The program also shows how real-life tyrannies have developed in places like Rwanda, Burma, and Bosnia. From a review of the show in The Guardian:

But there is no doubt about the programme’s bottom line: tyrannies happen because ordinary people are surprisingly willing to do tyranny’s dirty work.

Programmes like this can show such things with great vividness — and there is news footage from Bosnia, or from Rwanda, or from Burma to back it up with terrible clarity. It isn’t clear why the majority is so often compliant, but the implication is that democracy should always be grateful to the protesters, the members of the awkward squad, the people who challenge authority.

But don’t take it for granted that the awkward squad must be a force for good: in Germany, in the 1920s, Hitler was an outsider, a protester, a member of the awkward squad. When he came to power in 1932, he found that German medical professors and biologists had already installed a racial ideology for him, one which had already theorised about the elimination of sick or disabled German children, and the rejection of Jewish professionals as agents of pollution.

Zimbardo himself offers this final word in the program:

For me the bottom line message is that we could be led to do evil deeds. And what that means is to become sensitive to the conditions under which ordinary people can do these evil deeds — what we have been demonstrating throughout this program — and to take a position of resisting tyranny at the very first signs of its existence.

We Work Remotely

The Milgram experiment in real life

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 23, 2014

You don’t know what you would do unless you’re in that situation.

That’s Philip Zimbardo’s1 introduction to this fascinating and deeply disturbing video, depicting a real-world instance of Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority figures2. In the video, you see a McDonald’s manager take a phone call from a man pretending to be a police officer. The caller orders the manager to strip search an employee. And then much much worse.

The video is NSFW and if you’re sensitive to descriptions and depictions of sexual abuse, you may want to skip it. And lest you think this was an isolated incident featuring exceptionally weak-minded people, the same caller was alleged to have made several other calls resulting in similar behavior. (via mr)

  1. Zimbardo conducted the notorious Stanford prison experiment in 1971.

  2. Milgram’s experiment focused on a person in authority ordering someone to deliver (fake) electric shocks to a third person. Some participants continued to deliver the shocks as ordered even when the person being shocked yelled in pain and complained of a heart condition.

The Stanford prison experiment, 40 years later

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 11, 2011

For the Stanford alumni magazine, Romesh Ratnesar interviewed some of the participants of the Stanford prison experiment for the 40th anniversary of the event. Here’s Philip Zimbardo, the leader of the study:

After the end of the first day, I said, “There’s nothing here. Nothing’s happening.” The guards had this antiauthority mentality. They felt awkward in their uniforms. They didn’t get into the guard mentality until the prisoners started to revolt. Throughout the experiment, there was this conspiracy of denial-everyone involved was in effect denying that this was an experiment and agreeing that this is a prison run by psychologists.

There was zero time for reflection. We had to feed the prisoners three meals a day, deal with the prisoner breakdowns, deal with their parents, run a parole board. By the third day I was sleeping in my office. I had become the superintendent of the Stanford county jail. That was who I was: I’m not the researcher at all. Even my posture changes-when I walk through the prison yard, I’m walking with my hands behind my back, which I never in my life do, the way generals walk when they’re inspecting troops.

(via @tylercowen)

What’s your time perspective?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 04, 2010

A fascinating 10-minute animated talk by Philip Zimbardo about the different “time zones” or “time perspectives” that people can have and how the different zones affect people’s world views.

The six different time zones are:

- Past positive: focus is on the “good old days”, past successes, nostalgia, etc.
- Past negative: focus on regret, failure, all the things that went wrong
- Present hedonistic: living in the moment for pleasure and avoiding pain, seek novelty and sensation
- Present fatalism: life is governed by outside forces, “it doesn’t pay to plan”
- Future: focus is on learning to work rather than play
- Transcendental Future: life begins after the death of the mortal body

Find out which time zone you’re in by taking this survey.

Fun fact: Zimbardo conducted the famous Stanford prison experiment in 1971. (thx, sean)