Philip Zimbardo: I’m sounding the alarm – porn and virtual reality are destroying masculinity

Pornography and computer games are causing immense harm to young males and worse is yet to come with improved virtual reality. That is the message of US psychologist Professor Philip Zimbardo, who was recently a special guest of the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival. However, Zimbardo, who is now 83, is best known for his Stanford Prison Experiment, which found that students placed in the role of prison guards soon became abusive, even torturing others cast as inmates. I asked the psychologist why he believed the 1971 study was still so well-known today.

Philip Zimbardo, photo: archive of Jihlava International Documentary Film FestivalPhilip Zimbardo, photo: archive of Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival “To be honest it’s remarkable to me that 45 years later the impact around the world is bigger than earlier.

“There’s almost no place I go where people don’t know it. A taxi driver in Budapest said, Oh, you did that prison study? Students say, I studied your study in high school and I became a psychologist because of you.

“I think there are two reasons why the study has lasting impact. First of all, the design of the study itself was dramatic.

“Most research in psychology is usually one hour. And you prove one thing.

“In my experiment, by design, people lived in this setting 24 hours a day, day after day. The people playing the role of guards worked eight hours a day, and we videotaped everything that was happening

“What it means is you can observe the gradual transformation of human character. This is what drama is all about. This is what movies are about.

“So it’s the only psychological study where you can see the change of people from day one to day two and so forth.

“The second reason is, it’s such a powerful demonstration of how situations change individual behaviour.

“My experiment demonstrates that really good people could do bad things very quickly – and that it could be me.”

“We all like to think that our decisions come from within. Now we see that sometimes we have an assigned role: you’re a prisoner, you’re a guard, you become a mother, you’re a father, you’re a teacher.

“And suddenly you become the role and the role becomes you.

“It demonstrates that really good people could do bad things very quickly – and that it could be me.”

Does that also confirm what many people perhaps feel – that most people have this inherent potential to quickly go bad?

“No, I disagree with that. I think most people are good most of the time, or that most of us have a blend of positive and negative personality traits that come out depending on the situation.”

So are people then more malleable than we like to think we are?

“Oh, for sure. That’s another message of the study: Human nature is malleable.

“It can be modified, sometimes transformed completely, by the experiences we face, by things around us.

Photo: Eric. E. Castro, CC BY 2.0Photo: Eric. E. Castro, CC BY 2.0 “We all like to believe that everything we do comes from within us. That the kind of food you eat, the kind of movies you like, the kind of music you like, the way you dress, the way you do your hair is your taste.

“But in fact all of these things are more likely to be a reflection of your friends, your family, your culture and of the time.”

You acted as an expert witness in the case of one of the guards from Abu Ghraib. What attracted you to that role, or to doing that?

“In 2004 America was humiliated and the world was amazed at the revelation of images – there were about a dozen images – of American in a prison in Iraq called Abu Ghraib degrading, humiliating and sexually assaulting prisoners who they should have been protecting.

“Instead they put themselves in the pictures, doing horrible things…”

We’ve all seen those pictures – they are terrible.

“To be honest, those 12 pictures are not the worst. There are more than 1,000 that I was asked to review to be an expert witness.

“Now what happened was, when those pictures were released, the media came to me and said, Zimbardo, those are exactly like your study: In both cases guards put bags over the prisoners’ heads, in both cases they stripped them naked, in both cases they did sexually humiliating things to them.

“So I got interested in, what is the similarity between my experiment and this real world event?

“In many cases women are divorcing their husbands. They say they would rather have porn sex than have real sex with them.”

“I became an expert witness for one of the guards, really so I could understand the situation better.

“But from the beginning I said, He’s guilty. What he did was wrong, no question about it. He’s in the pictures doing bad things.

“But my goal was to find out how likely it was that he would never have done those things if the military hadn’t put him in an impossible situation.

“The judge wanted to give him 15 years in jail. He didn’t kill anybody – he just humiliated them.

“But the American military wanted to have a show, to say, We’ve punished him.

“And I was able to say, Your honour, Chip Frederick is guilty as charged. However, after spending much time interviewing him, his family, looking at his background and understanding all the dynamics of that situation, I can say he never would have done any of those things if the military had not put him in an impossible situation.

“I said, If Chip Frederick is a bad apple, somebody put him in a bad barrel and that somebody is the bad barrel makers: the Bush administration and the military.

“So I was able to get his sentenced reduced from 15 years ultimately to only four. He still served hard time for four years.”

If we accept that it isn’t a question of a few bad apples but is systemic, what can be done to prevent civilian or military prisons from being like that and treating people like that?

Iraqi prisoner being tortured in Abu Ghraib, photo: Public DomainIraqi prisoner being tortured in Abu Ghraib, photo: Public Domain “I wrote a book called The Lucifer Effect and what I outline in it clearly is that there are three kinds of evil: the evil in people, the evil in situations and the evil in systems, and we have to understand any behaviour at those three levels.

“You have to understand what people, who are different, bring to situations.

“Secondly, what does a particular situation bring out of all the people there.

“Third, what is the system that maintains, justifies and could alter those situations.

“And the idea was, in all prisons there must be very clear rules of what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour by the guards.

“Secondly, there has to be oversight: You can have a rule on the wall, but do they follow it?

“So you need higher order administration seeing if the rules are being followed.

“At Abu Ghraib in three months no senior officer ever went down to the dungeon. That means they told the guards, Do whatever you have to do so we get confessions.

“But there was no limit. So once the guards started stripping the prisoners naked, putting them in a pyramid, doing all these terrible things, there was nobody to say, Limit! Nobody said, You can’t go there.”

In recent times you have been interested in the state of masculinity today and you co-authored the book Man (Dis)Connected: How Technology Has Sabotaged What it Means to Be Male. What is the main way that technology has been harming men and boys?

“I have a sense that young men will put on virtual reality goggles and never take them off. Literally.”

“Young men around the world are growing up in a world of virtual reality and they are giving up what we call social reality.

“They are sacrificing friends for game-playing. Boys begin to play games for two or three hours a day and suddenly they become addicted.

“We have many, many cases in countries around the world of young men playing video games 10 hour or more, seven days a week.

“If you do anything 10 hours a day, the question is, what are you not doing? You’re not reading, you’re not writing, you’re not exercising, you’re not talking to friends – sometimes you’re not having meals with family.

“To make matters worse, in recent years, for the first time in history, there is freely available pornography 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by pressing a button.

“If you’re a young male, here are stunningly beautiful, sexy naked women who in many of the videos want to have sex with you. And it’s free.

“The makers of video games and pornography are mostly men and they’re making them for male values.

“In video games it’s dominance, competition, destruction. In pornography it’s the dominance of women, objectification of women and physical performance.

“For me, as a romantic person, somebody with hot Sicilian blood, what is terrible about pornography is there’s no romance.

“No-one kisses. No-one talks – it’s almost like silent movies, curiously. Women are always there to be dominated and in many cases abused.

Photo: Jeroen Thoolen / freeimagesPhoto: Jeroen Thoolen / freeimages “If you’re a young man and you’ve never had sex, this is your view. You say, Oh, this is what women want.

“Then in many cases they come to prefer video sex to real sex, even if they have the opportunity.

“Because in video sex when the black light comes on, it’s over. You have no obligation. You don’t have to take the girl to a dance, to a movie.

“Also you don’t have to worry about performance. All of that anxiety is gone.

“The problem now is that even married men are doing the same. In many cases women are divorcing their husbands. They say their husbands would rather have porn sex than have real sex with them.”

Given then that we are likely be ever more online and virtual reality will only improve, is this situation hopeless regarding men and porn and games?

“One answer is yes. Hopeless because the video games are going to become more enchanting. Pornography’s going to become more fascinating.

“And what is on the horizon is virtual reality goggles. Which means games aren’t out there, they’re in your head. Pornography is not out there on the computer, naked women are all around you.

“I have a sense that young men will put on virtual reality goggles and never take them off. Literally – go to sleep them, wake up in them and live in that world.

“But in my book we also have many solutions. The main thing I’m saying is, I’m sounding an alarm – bad shit is happening, pay attention.

“We say [in the book] what schools can do, what government can do, what families can do, what women can do, and then what men can do.

“The other last thing I want to mention is that in America 40 percent of all young men are growing up without a father. In England it’s 25 percent.

Photo: archive of Radio PraguePhoto: archive of Radio Prague “What it means is they don’t have a masculine, motivating force in their life.

“They don’t have somebody who says, It’s not acceptable to come home with a C or D on your report card – if you do there will be consequences, you won’t get your allowance or we’re going to pull the plug on your computer.

“And mothers give love unconditionally. They say, I love you anyway – try to do better in school.

“Also mothers are often happy the child is in his room rather than in the street, because in the street you can be in trouble.

“So young men need if not a father masculine identity. Which they’re not getting.

“One of the things we are arguing is that we need to have more male mentor groups. We need to have men step up and say, I’m willing to give up some time on Saturday to take kids to the zoo, to take boys to the soccer game.

“They essentially need to say, I’m willing to be a temporary surrogate part-time father. Because young men in my country need that.”

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