37. Psychology is my whole life – interview with prof. Philip Zimbardo

Michał, Marek: Professor Zimbardo, do we need psychology in everyday life?

Prof. Philip G. Zimbardo: Oh, absolutely! I think that psychology is now at a position where psychologists have a great deal to say, which is important for ordinary people as it helps them to improve the quality of everyday life. And psychology should not be limited to books or journals at the library, psychology should be given away to the public – more and more in every nation where psychology is an important scientific discipline.

During your lecture you mentioned that there were more social psychologists in Stanford Business School than in Stanford University Psychology Department. Why is that? Do you think psychology is so important in managerial work and business life?

The reason for that is that many leaders in business school are realizing that one of the most important aspects of business is human relationships. It is not simply producing and selling a product, but it is really understanding issues of loyalty to the job, morale, how you make people work together as a team and so on. A lot of basic problems of organizations are psychological problems. But even at the level of making a decision social psychologists and cognitive psychologists understand very well that principles of decision making, of judgement, of negotiating – those are all psychological issues. So I think that the fact that not only Stanford’s but many other business schools in America are increasing the number of psychologists on their staff is a reflection of the awareness in business, that psychology and human relationships are the central parts of business. I think it will be even a bigger trend that business schools will hopefully come to rely more on psychological knowledge.

Are you familiar with the phrase „rat race”? Have you noticed this phenomenon at Stanford University?

One aspect of being caught up in a rat race comes from the notion of the rat on an exercise wheel when a rat is constantly running but getting nowhere. In a last few years in America there is a perception of time-crunch, that everyone I know feel that they are working harder than they ever did. People have less and less time, they are working more hours, they are being more productive, they are spending more time at work, less time in pleasure, at home, at vacations, and they invest a lot of money in time-saving services and devices like microwaves, shopping on-line and many different services and products, that should save your time, but in fact after you have them, you feel like you have less time.

The other thing related to this is that because of worldwide globalization of commerce. Every nation is competing with each other. The company can have a very profitable year, for example one of two years ago Mobil Oil had the biggest profit they had ever had. But instead of rewarding their employees they fired many of them. They said: the profit has to be even bigger, because our competition is not necessarily other American companies, but it is European or Asian companies as well. In order to be more profitable we need fewer workers to work harder and longer. This new pressure on work is everywhere – to do more work, to work more hours, or to have workers who only work part-time, because you do not have to pay benefits, you have no retires.

American society is now very rich. The business is incredibly productive, but still most businesses keep downsizing. Unemployment is low because there are new companies starting. Most businesses now are trying to figure out what is the fewest number of workers we can have to produce our product most efficiently with the highest profit. In a lot of organizations there is a profit lobby, which is now thriving more than ever making efficiency the most important goal. But efficiency always means exploiting workers – fewer workers do more work, and in a long run organizations have to take different perspective. That is: „Yes, you must be profitable, but to do so you really have to engage workers. They have to like the work, they have to be loyal to the company. Otherwise in the long run they will leave. There will be a lot of turnover, they will go to another companies, they will go to whoever pays the highest money. Or they will have a job burnout, meaning that they will not do a good job, the product will not be as good”. So right now there is a rat race – in terms of working hard and working all the time, the boundary between home and the work is now eliminated – with e-mail, cell phones. People feel they are always 'on’, always at work. When going to the vacation, they take laptop, cell phones, printers and so on.

Professor Zimbardo, do you think this phenomenon concerns also students?

Among American students it is much more difficult than ever before to begin a career, to progress… For example in order to publish an article you typically have to do at least two experiments to get one article. Before – when I was a student and I did two experiments – I did two articles. That means it takes me longer to publish a single article, and you need more articles in order to get a job and promotion. So there is a great pressure on students in America – but it is probably true on students everywhere.

Do you think that thanks to knowing and using all or some of psychological rights and rules we can become better people? Does it help us to live our lives in a better way?

I think that what psychological research and psychological theories can do is to help us understand much better why we do things that are destructive and why we do not do things that could help us, help our children, help our society. The hope is that understanding some basic aspects of human nature can help us improve the quality of our life, both as individuals and as a society.

How much more is there to discover in the field of human behavior? What are your predictions for further development of social psychology?

That is a really difficult question. My feeling is that human mind and human relationships are very, very complex. I think we are only at the beginning of understanding the relationships between individuals and society. The psychology is a very young filed. The all of psychology is only a little more than a 100 years old. Social psychology is only 50 years old, so compare to economics, physics, compare to many other fields – psychology is a baby.

I am not sure what those new directions will be, but it is clear that much of social psychology is now oriented towards very practical issues. Issues of how to improve health, how to improve the functioning organizations in business, how to improve education, how to reduce prejudice, how to reduce violence and war. So it is really a very new approach of social psychology to be heavily interested, and be heavily focussed on using knowledge in a pragmatic way. Using knowledge to make a change for the better. And I think this is something that will continue. Before psychology was much more simply an academic discipline, where people did research and developed theories only because they were interesting or because they had intellectual value. Now, especially among social psychologists, a very important basic value is what is the best way in which we can give our psychology away to the public and use it to improve our life.

In the context of psychology of evil – could we predict our future speaking in terms of balance between evil and good? Is the phenomenon of Hitler and Stalin possible to happen once again? Are you pessimistic or optimistic about it?

What we are seeing now is the development of small wars and petty tyrants. But because of what we have learnt from the lessons of Nazis and Stalin, is the world is ready to intervene sooner. The problem earlier with Stalin and Hitler was that other nations did not intervene, looked other way to avoid involvement. And I think now, partly because we have The United Nations, because we have that experience how terrible it could be for the world not to take early actions, it may be ideally. There would never be tyrants at the level at Hitler and Stalin. But one part of human nature is still the desire for power. We see that clearly at this moment – nowadays there are 11 civil wars in Africa alone. Man’s desire for power, territory and status is a basic aspect of human nature and that will not go away.

Our last question is what psychology means to you? Is it your whole life or you just treat it as a job?

Prof. Zimbardo: Psychology is my whole life. I think about it all the time. I am as much a teacher as a researcher. I love to teach and I teach much. I teach large classes, small classes, graduate students, and I am always thinking about what I can do to make my classes more interesting. How I can communicate better. I often try to use the ideas I get in teaching then to do research on them. So I try to make synergy between teaching and research. For me it is all psychology, it is a part of understanding new things about psychology from the research, putting the research back into my teaching, and other people’s teaching. I work very hard to create audiovisual materials not only for myself, but also for other people. I made slide shows to „Discover psychology” series, video cassettes of „prison experiment” to make everyone’s teaching more interesting.

I am also writing textbooks for my students. I am doing my best to make my students have what I call a better introduction to psychology than I did. When I started psychology, the only poor grade I had in my whole lifetime was „Introductory Psychology” – I had a 'C’ grade, and all my other grades were 'A’. In „Introductory Psychology” the class was boring, the book was boring, the teacher was boring, everything about it was boring. So a part of my life is to make up for that 'C’ grade, by doing a good book, by doing a good teaching, by doing good lectures. Also for me – I am a psychologist. Something I do is not a job. I would do it if I make no money, because it’s exciting and fascinating, always changing, and you are always involved with new ideas with students.

Thank you very much for the interview.

Michał, Marek, thank you.