Philip Zimbardo (1933-) is one of the most popular social psychologists today. He is recognized for his theories related to situational attribution of behavior, prosocial behaviors, the relationship between obedience and authority, among others. He is especially recognized for the classic and controversial experiment of the Stanford Prison, carried out in the 70’s in the vicinity of Stanford University.

Next we will see a biography of Philip Zimbardo , as well as a brief description of the experiment that led him to be recognized internationally as one of the most representative social psychologists of the 20th century.

Philip Zimbardo: biography of this social psychologist

Philip Zimbardo was born on March 23, 1933 in New York City to a Sicilian family in the Bronx. In 1954, Zimbardo majored in psychology, sociology and anthropology at Brooklyn College .

Later, he did graduate studies in social psychology and finally obtained his PhD in the same area from Yale University. He taught at Yale University, as well as at New York University and Columbia University. He also served as president of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2002, and has received numerous awards recognizing his research as one of the most important contributions to psychology.

He is currently professor emeritus at Stanford University , where he taught for 50 years, and also teaches at the University of Palo Alto in California.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

In 1971, Philip Zimbardo, along with other researchers, conducted an experiment that led him to be recognized as one of the most representative social psychologists of the time.

This is an experiment at Stanford Prison, which aimed to study the influence of the social environment on a person’s character and actions. Through this experiment I wanted to demonstrate how social situations have the power to significantly influence individual behaviour .

In very broad terms, the experiment consisted of simulating a prison on the premises of Stanford University, establishing different roles for each of the 24 men who participated.

Randomly they were divided into two groups: some were guards, while others were prisoners . All of them were university students and had been previously evaluated for good physical and psychological health.

Results and impacts

In exchange for their participation, they were offered financial remuneration and, at the beginning, were asked to wear specific uniforms according to their role. The prisoners were taken to the prison simulating an arrest as well. While there, they were assigned a number and a space. The guards were forbidden to use physical violence and were asked to run the prison as they saw fit.

Although the experiment was designed to last several weeks, it had to be suspended before the end of the first week, because each of the participants had assumed their role in such a way that serious dynamics of violence were being generated .

This experiment concluded, among many other things, that it is the situation that generates both violent and submissive behavior. Furthermore, because of the results that were revealed after the experiment was completed, Zimbardo was called to testify as an expert witness in the trials on the abuses that occurred in the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib.

Some reviews

Because of the conditions under which this experiment was designed and carried out, both Zimbardo and his collaborators have received numerous criticisms. The most widespread is the ethical questioning of the tendency of much scientific research to generate serious stress situations in the participants, in order to test a hypothesis .

On the other hand, the possibility of generalizing their findings has been questioned, due to the homogeneity of the sample they used. In the same way, the presence of gender biases has been questioned (for example, only men participated, including the researchers themselves), in addition to the fact that it starts from considering theories about prosocial behaviors that tend to be measured based on male behavioral models.

Later works: psychology of heroism

Currently, Philip Zimbardo continues to develop studies on prosocial behaviour , more specifically in critical circumstances, and in relation to what he has called “heroism”. He is the founder and president of the Heroic Imagination Project, where he has worked extensively on the “psychology of heroism” and the training of “heroic behaviour”.

Outstanding works

Among Philip Zimbardo’s most outstanding works are The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Go Bad , in which he analyzes the parallels between the Stanford prison experiment and the mistreatment of the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib . Other important works are Psychology and Life , and The Paradox of Time .

Bibliographic references:

  • American Psychological Association (2018). Philip G. Zimbardo. Retrieved August 30, 2018. Available at
  • García Dauder, S. and Pérez Sedeño, E. (2018). Scientific ‘lies’ about women. Waterfall: Madrid.
  • Stanford Prison Experiment (2018). The Stanford Prison Experiment: a simulation study on the psychology of the imprisonment. Retrieved August 30, 2018. Available at
  • Heroic Imagination Project (2017). Our Mission. Recovered August 30, 2018. Available at
  • Nets-The slippery slope of evil (2010). Networks for Science. Recovered 30 August 2018. Available at
  • Biographical Sketch (2000) Philip G. Zimbardo. Retrieved 30 August 2018. Available at
  • Eagly, A. and Crowley, M (1986). Gender and helping behavior: a meta-analysis review of the social psychological literature. Psychological Bulletin, 100(3): 283-308.