If you know of Philip Zimbardo, it is probably in connection with the Stanford Prison Experiment, undertaken in 1971. In that experiment, Zimbardo and others took carefully screened, normal college students and randomly assigned them to be guards or prisoners in a mock prison set up in the basement of the Stanford Psych Department. Nothing happened at first, but after 36 hours the prisoners revolted. The guards asked Zimbardo what to do. He responded, "It's your prison," but cautioned them against using violence. After 6 days the situation became completely out of control, with brutality by the guards and psychological breakdown among the prisoners. But only when one of his former graduate students, after seeing what was happening, tearfully told him she was not sure she wanted to have anything more to do with him did he decide to stop the experiment.
Fast forward to 2004. Zimbardo became an expert witness in the trial of Ivan "Chip" Frederick, one of the MPs accused of abuses at Abu Ghraib, where the Stanford Prison Experiment was in effect replicated in real life. This gave Zimbardo access to documents, photos and reports about Abu Ghraib and caused him to ponder the lessons that were not learned from the Stanford Experiment.
The result is The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. In this long, difficult but very informative book Zimbardo explains both how good people come to do incredibly evil acts but why. The core of the book is a very detailed description of the Stanford Experiment, but Zimbardo also looks at situations such as Rwanda and the Holocaust, along with Abu Ghraib. In a nutshell, Zimbardo argues that we do not have the stable personalities we often think we have; our actions are in fact much more dependent on the situations we find ourselves in. Under the "right" conditions, almost anyone can perform evil acts. Contrary to the typical medical and legal model, such things as Abu Ghraib are not the result of a few "bad apples," but happen because of "bad barrels." As the Stanford Experiment had shown, combining absolute power, secrecy, lack of clear rules and supervision, and boredom could create a situation in which pacifists became brutal guards.
But are "bad barrels" accidental happenings? Zimbardo pushes his analysis further to ask questions about the "barrel makers" (himself included) who allow such conditions to exist. Do certain types of systems encourage "bad barrels?" In the next to last chapter he essentially puts the Bush Administration on trial for the conditions at Abu Ghraib.
But if commission of evil acts is at least as much situational as dispositional (based on the individual personality), what can be done to resist evil? As Zimbardo shows through his own and his colleagues' avid participation in the Stanford Experiment until challenged by a former student, this is a very complex issue. He and all of the other researchers got sucked into the experiment, as it deteriorated slowly over time, thrilled at the behavioral changes they were witnessing. She came in as a substitute on Day 6 when another researcher had to leave for a family emergency. Moreover, she had become romantically involved with Zimbardo once she finished her PhD. Coming into the experiment somewhat unwillingly, suddenly exposed to the degradation that had built up over days, she was horrified both at what she saw and at Zimbardo's reaction when she confronted him. (He told her she would never make a good researcher if she got so emotional.) Ultimately he realized that she was right, that he and the others had also internalized the institutional values of the experiment to the exclusion of their humanitarian values, and he called a halt to the experiment. (Their relationship survived and they are evidently still married.)
The implications of this book, especially his observations on what makes and what prevents situations like Abu Ghraib, and how it relates to our resistance to the Bush Administration and the evil in outr society, are considerable. Delineating the positive lessons will take another post. Suffice it to say that no one can look at himself or herself with quite the same smugness after reading this book.