Renowned Psychologist Guest Lectures at Webster Vienna

Zimbardo, of ‘Prison Experiment’ fame, teaches Webster students
Zimbardo Webster Vienna 2007
Zimbardo received an honorary doctorate at Webster Vienna's 2007 commencement.

The celebration of Webster University’s Vienna campus’ 25th anniversary in 2005-06 did more than look back at a quarter century of accomplishments. It threw down the gauntlet for future growth and fundraising at the University’s second-oldest international campus.

At a fete marking the milestone and honoring longtime faculty members and alumni – and attended by University President Richard Meyers and members of the University Board of Trustees – the biggest news may have been the announcement of a new fund to attract an internationally acclaimed guest lecturer to Webster Vienna every year.

Named after the current director of Webster Vienna’s Professional Development Center, the Dr. Elizabeth Ortner-Chopin Endowed Visiting Professorship was established by Reinhard Ortner to honor his wife’s long association with the University.

Two years later, that fund is paying very visible dividends.

In 2007, the fund attracted world-renowned psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo to lecture and teach psychology to Webster Vienna students. In 2008, the fund will bring University of Michigan political scientist Andi Markowitz to campus. Diane O’Donoghue, a Freud and visual culture scholar at Tufts University, is lined up for 2009.

Zimbardo’s stay in Vienna exemplifies the confluence of Webster’s liberal arts foundation, global reach, and philosophy of international learning.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

A professor at Stanford University since 1968, Zimbardo is a household name in psychology circles, with some 300 published works. His work is frequently part of the coursework in Webster psychology classes ranging from intro courses to Holocaust Studies. But he is known to the wider public thanks to his “Discovering Psychology” series on PBS, as well as his famous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment.

The landmark Prison Experiment put college students in roles as prisoners and prison guards in a simulated prison environment for several days. The subsequent actions of the “guards” and “prisoners” spiraled the experiment into unexpected territory, uncovering stunning details about human nature and the ability of social situations to distort people’s self-identities, values, and morality to the point that they will commit acts they previously thought unthinkable.

The experiment became so intense, Zimbardo’s team had to end it early.

As he describes it: “Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended prematurely after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.” [Note: details of the experiment can be found in the slideshow at www.prisonexp.org.]

During his Webster Vienna lectureship, Zimbardo covered some of these issues – including mind control, time perspective, shyness, madness, and torture – in an intensive psychology course with 20 Webster Vienna students who, he proudly notes, represented 12 different nationalities.

‘Psychology of Liberation’

Zimbardo capped his impressive term at Webster Vienna with an inspiring speech (PDF) at the campus’ 2007 commencement ceremony. As the recipient of an honorary degree, Zibardo was delighted to give the featured address, and he used the forum to commend Webster’s tradition of “reaching out across national boundaries” to educate students “who represent the finest qualities of their many, diverse nations.”

Zimbardo prefaced his speech by noting his fascination with the human mind’s wide capacity to be kind or cruel – often under the influence of social conditions that can make “rational people behave irrationally, sane people act crazy, and good people do bad things.”

The abuse by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib is an example of this phenomenon, one he said had remarkable parallels with his Stanford Prison.

Yet the inspiration for Zimbardo’s Vienna address was more optimistic: A personal mission to liberate people from what he calls their “psychological prisons.”

“It has become part of my agenda to act as an agent for social change in promoting the psychology of liberation,” he said. “In recent years, I have been devoting more of my intellectual energy and academic credibility to discovering new ways in which I can help liberate people from various prisons of the mind and of the spirit that diminish human dignity, reduce personal autonomy, and curtail freedoms of expression and association.”

Chief but not alone among these “prisons” is shyness. Years ago Zimbardo was the first to systematically investigate shyness in adults – previous efforts had focused solely on children. Today, the Shyness Clinic he helped create has treated shy adolescents and adults for the past 30 years.

Shame, too is such a prison – one that Zimbardo used personal experience to describe. “As a child growing up in poverty in the ghetto known as the South Bronx in New York City, I was often shamed by social workers, clinic doctors, and others who made it evident that me and my kind of poor people were a burden on their society,” he said. “I still remember the sadness and anger I felt.

“Shame is one consequence of prejudice and discrimination. To combat that evil, we must find new ways to encourage tolerance for diversity, and to celebrate differences among us as contributing to the beautiful composite that is the mosaic of human nature.”

Reflecting on his theme, Zimbardo asked Webster graduates to consider ways in which humans limit their own personal freedoms – whether through law, personal prisons, or social conditions. He called upon the graduates to oppose these forces and to see the capacity for heroism within themselves to help liberate others.

“This is an invitation to join in a global community that supports those forces that strengthen the bonds of the Human Condition – starting with justice, peace, and love,” he said, “Through acts of kindness, generosity of spirit, and a vision that always seeks to make others feel special, worthwhile, understood, and embraced as our kin, especially when they are not of our kind.”

Finally, in a challenge that parallels the mission of Webster’s College of Arts & Sciences, Zimbardo called upon graduates to use their Webster University education to become global citizens on a personal quest to make a difference at home and abroad:

“I encourage you to be optimistic about your ability to change systems to work for people, not against them. And finally, though you may be usually timid and reserved, from now onward I hope that you will be ready and willing to put on the hero’s mantel to act when most others around you are passive – acting both to help others in need and to oppose injustice and inequality where ever you find it.”