What makes us tick

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2011-07-04 09:47
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Seventy-eight year-old Phil Zimbardo is one of the world's best-known psychologists. During his forty-year career as a Professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, Dr. Zimbardo entertained and informed thousands of students in his classrooms and many hundreds of thousands more via his Public Broadcasting System program, Discovering Psychology.

Zimbardo is perhaps best-known for an experiment he conducted in August of 1971 when he turned the basement at Stanford into a simulated prison. As he told me during an interview this week, Zimbardo was trying to find out whether the goodness of some psychologically and physically healthy college-age males would control a bad situation or whether the bad prison situation would dominate the boys. Regretfully, Zimbardo concluded that the powerful situational factors swamped the otherwise good-natured young men.

Zimbardo had taken a group of like males and randomly divided them into two groups assigned to one of two conditions - either prisoners or prison guards. The guards became sadistic and physically abusive. The prisoners became passive. Zimbardo himself was so caught up in the situation that it took the urging of an outside graduate student to cause Zimbardo to reevaluate what was happening and terminate the experiment after only six days of the planned two-week period.

What makes us tick

Dr. Phil Zimbardo 

I asked Dr. Zimbardo to elaborate on some of the things psychologists have learned that have generally escaped public notice. The first thing psychology does according to Zimbardo is separate evidence-based knowledge from opinion. Psychologists scientifically collect data to test hypotheses. Popular or pop psychology often proposes ideas that might sound plausible, i.e. "men have certain Martian traits and women have certain Venusian traits," but psychologists will only accept those gender differences as real if they can be demonstrably confirmed. Scientific psychology is based on data, not opinion.

The field of psychology has begun to move in the last ten years from its traditional roots that focused on diagnosing and treating mental illness to a positive psychology model that attempts to discover and promote healthy behaviors among everyone. In trying to discover links between physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being, psychology is working to overcome negative influences in both our environment and ourselves.

Zimbardo was the first researcher to study shyness. He found that certain societies had twice the rates of shy persons as other societies.

For example, Chinese and Japanese had the highest rates of shy individuals while Israel had the lowest. Zimbardo concluded that there were strong cultural forces promoting those differences.

In China, if a child succeeds, honor goes to a large group of persons, including families, schools, teachers, and the society itself. Relatively little credit is paid to the child actor who is merely a conduit for the others. If the child fails however, the child learns that it is her fault because she hasn’t worked hard enough. Zimbardo says that mindset leads persons in Asian countries to seek a low profile, to not stand out, and unfortunately not take chances. The Asian model stifles innovation and leads to greater conformity and higher rates of shyness.

In Israel, children are often praised for doing little. The Yiddish term is "kvelling" which roughly translates into making much ado about nothing. When a child fails it is outside forces that have it in for the children because of the fact that they are part of an oppressed race. The overall mindset encourages Israelis to take chances and promotes risk-taking.

On a personal note, many years ago I took one of my students who was very shy to hear Zimbardo lecture about that topic. She told me the experience had changed her life when I met her several years later. At the time of our subsequent meeting, she was three months away from enrolling in a doctoral program in psychology.

Zimbardo's current passion is the Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) of which he is the President and Founder.

What Zimbardo is interested in finding out is what makes ordinary people do heroic things. Why, for example, does someone put his life at risk to help a stranger in need? How can ordinary people develop heroism?

Zimbardo believes that people can be coached to become more heroic, to act with moral courage. We can all learn to be heroic; there is no hero gene. In a collectivist culture, like China’s, that may mean that the impetus for heroic behaviors should come from the top down, promoted by the government. The government changes the norm from sitting back to stepping forward. In the West's individualistic culture, the approach might be just the opposite as people learn to assert themselves independently in order to produce heroic outcomes.

Dr. Zimbardo is encouraged that scientific psychology is spreading. He said that he had learned from his publisher that 200,000 students in China have used his textbook "Psychology and Life," which is now in its 20th edition. One of Zimbardo's greatest pleasures is hearing regularly from students and learning just how excited they have become about psychology. You can learn more about Zimbardo's many projects at the following link.

The author taught psychology for many years in the San Francisco Bay Area and now lives in Beijing.