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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Bringing Out the Best in Business

Philip Zimbardo

Philip Zimbardo, well-known author of The Lucifer Effect, met with the Center's Business and Organizational Ethics Partnership in April to talk about how his seminal work on evil, and the conditions which favor it, can be applied in a business context.

A Stanford University professor emeritus of psychology, Zimbardo first attracted national attention in 1971 with the "Prison Experiment," in which normal students descended into abuse when they were randomly assigned to be "guards" over other student "prisoners." This work, as well as other studies of institutions such as Abu Ghraib prison, has led Zimbardo to identify systemic factors that make good people do bad things.

To define evil, Zimbardo used an aphorism coined by psychologist Irving Sarnoff: "Evil is knowing better but doing worse." The psychological literature, he said, suggests that good and evil are part of everyone's nature and that doing evil in certain situations is "not the exception but the rule." As evidence, he pointed to the famous Milgram experiments where 65 percent of the participants were convinced to deliver what they thought was a 450 volt shock (clearly labeled dangerous) to another person.

Zimbardo's work is focused on identifying the factors that cause people to behave badly. He categorizes these in three groups:

  1. Dispositional - What do people bring into the situation? These are factors, like virtues or vices, that are internal to the person him- or herself. In this approach, people are seen as "good or bad apples."
  2. Situational - What is the social context? This approach includes factors that are external to the person, such as the influence of the group. Continuing the barrel metaphor, Zimbardo suggested that certain situations are like bad barrels, which can ruin even good apples.
  3. Systemic - What is the dominant system and what are its values? These factors Zimbardo translated into questions like, Who creates the barrel? Are there bad barrel makers?

To change how an organization operates, Zimbardo said, you have to pay attention to the systemic factors. "You have to understand the levers of power."

Applying his insights on these factors to the business context, Zimbardo has come up with Ten Steps to Creating Evil Traps for Good People (or less formally, "Lucifer Goes Into Business"). On the positive side, he has also identified 11 Steps Toward Promoting Civic Virtue In Good People.

The Business and Organizational Ethics Partnership has committed to looking at very practical ways businesses can avoid the traps and implement the steps toward promoting civic virtue. This presentation applies Zimbardo's ideas in the context of business organizations.


Oct 16, 2015