Social Influence: Zimbardo talks toTED

Zimbardo video highly recommended

Philip Zimbardo shares his ideas about why good people do bad things and how we can all be heroes in his TED talk filmed in 2008 on the Psychology of evil.

TED Talks for inspiration

The organisation TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) hold two annual knowledge sharing events featuring international speakers from a wide range of disciplines. These talks are shared online at TED 2012 is currently in progress (at time of post).

Philip Zimbardo on monsters and heroes

As part of TED 2008, Philip Zimbardo was invited to talk about his research.  Zimbardo talks for 23 minutes about the Lucifer Effect, his experience as an expert witness in the Abu Ghraib trial, his ideas about where “evil” behaviour comes from (the influence of disposition, situation and the system/institution) and, of course, his famous Stanford Prison experiment (with some interesting footage of a participant talking about the initial suppose arrest phase of the study). Zimbardo also talks about Milgram’s research (AS Unit 2, Social Influence) and the power of deindividuation and anonymity (useful for A2 Aggression in Unit 3). The video contains some powerful, yet distressing, footage from the Abu Ghraib trial which may or may not be appropriate for the classroom but is certainly thought provoking.

Beyond the specification: enriching ideas

After all the focus on negativity Zimbardo turns to a more positive outcome of understanding the impact of the situation and the system on the individual. In his closing argument he proposes that we should all see ourselves as “heroes in waiting”, as he puts it, because just as the situation can create the power that makes us to do something “bad” it can also give us the opportunity to do something “good” if we take the opportunity presented to us. He goes on to argue that heroes are ordinary people and outlines some interesting examples of ordinary heroes.

AS Unit 2: Social Influence

This may provoke an interesting discussion in the rather vague “social change” part of the AS spec for Social Influence (Unit 2). Zimbardo’s ideas about being a hero and speaking out suggest that social change can occur when individuals or groups see others given “power without oversight”, as Zimbardo describes it in his video. When an individual or group speak out against atrocious behaviour and expose the wrongdoings of a system, social change can occur.

In the classroom

Here are some possible uses of the video as a learning resource:

  • Zimbardo’s TED Talks video could be shown as part of a Psychology Society/club as an “after hours” screening  and hold a seminar style discussion afterward to talk about the ideas presented (or put a link on your VLE)
  • Use parts of the video in class to compliment teaching of Milgram and Zimbardo’s studies as part of AS Psychology and/or study of Aggression at A2
  • Recommend this a video for all Sixth Formers to see in your Sixth Form (as part of an PSHE or Personal Development style programme) to explore the idea of the “ordinary hero” and being aware of the damage done when power is given without responsibility or transparency

The Psychologist (June 2012): Milgram and Ethics

Whilst on the subject of social influence, it’s worth pointing out that June’s The Psychologist (BPS, vol. 2, no 6) included an article on a replication of Milgram’s electric shock obedience study carried out in France in 2010, in the context of a game show. This study was reported in the media (e.g. BBC news online) back in 2010 but has just been published in the European Review of Applied Psychology (“The prescriptive power of the television host”; Beauvois, Courbet and Oberlé, 2012). The study is most noteworthy for yielding an 81% obedience rate (450 volts applied to the “other contestant”) compared with Milgram’s – already alarming – 62.5%.

I remember when I was studying my A Level Psychology being told that studies such as Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s would never happen again due to the ethical issues. According to the BPS article (The Psychologist) the researchers in the French study did not feel that the procedure was unethical, hence their replication. The article provides a useful stimulus for studying obedience and ethical issues in Psychology.


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