How to Not Be Evil – Dr. Phil Zimbardo (#226)

“The future is always modifiable by our actions.”

– Dr. Phil Zimbardo

Dr. Philip Zimbardo (@PhilZimbardo) is one of the most distinguished psychologists in the world and a professor emeritus at Stanford University. He is arguably best known for his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which students were turned into mock prisoners and guards for a continuous 24-hour-a-day study. The experiment was planned for two weeks but terminated after just six days.

In this podcast, we explore how we — as humans — can do less evil, how you can be a “deviant for day,” mindful disobedience, and much more. It was a blast.

Apart from the above, Dr. Zimbardo has served as President of the American Psychological Association and designed and narrated the award-winning 26-part PBS series, Discovering Psychology. He has published more than 50 books, including Shyness, The Lucifer Effect, The Time Cure, The Time Paradox, and most recently, Man, Interrupted.

Dr. Zimbardo currently lectures worldwide and is actively working to promote his non-profit, The Heroic Imagination Project. His current research looks at the psychology of heroism. The question he poses is: “What pushes some people to become perpetrators of evil, while others act heroically on behalf of those in need?”

Please enjoy this conversation with Dr. Philip Zimbardo — our oldest guest to date!

You can find the transcript of this episode here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

#226: How to Not Be Evil - Dr. Phil Zimbardo

Want to hear another episode with a fascinating scientist? — Listen to my interview with Dr. Peter Attia. In this episode, we discuss optimizing blood testing, training for ultra-endurance sports, consuming synthetic ketones, using metabolic chambers, extending longevity by avoiding certain types of exercise, and much more (stream below or right-click here to download):

Ep 50: Dr. Peter Attia on Ultra-Endurance, Drinking Jet Fuel, Human Foie Gras, and More

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QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…

Selected Links from the Episode

  • Connect with Dr. Phil Zimbardo:

Twitter | Website | Facebook | The Heroic Imagination Project

Show Notes

  • Dr. Zimbardo gives us the background to his legacy (“for better or for worse”): The 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. [07:31]
  • Reflecting on the similarities between the Stanford Prison Experiment and abuses at Abu Ghraib. [13:46]
  • On everyday heroes and resisting the temptation of evil and the power of the group. [17:48]
  • Celebrating the banality of heroism (in contrast to Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”). [19:32]
  • Ordinary people as heroes in training, and The Heroic Imagination Project. [20:28]
  • “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training.” -Archilochus [21:32]
  • “All evil begins with fifteen volts.” — What the Milgram experiment tells us about mindlessly taking the first step. [24:22]
  • Dehumanization of others. [26:26]
  • De-individualization of self (anonymity). [30:14]
  • Diffusion of personal responsibility. [32:05]
  • Blind obedience to authority. “Be wary of authorities wearing false lab coats!” [36:57]
  • Practicing mindful disobedience. [38:45]
  • Uncritical conformity to group norms. [40:34]
  • Comfort challenges and being a deviant for a day. [42:05]
  • Passive tolerance of evil through inaction or indifference. “Tolerance of intolerance is cowardice.” -Ayaan Hirsi Ali [45:20]
  • Perception of time and its impact on our decisions. [47:57]
  • Using time perspective therapy to treat PTSD. [53:54]
  • How an early copy of The Time Paradox had a monumental impact on my own routines and perspective. [57:03]
  • The Dickens Process. [58:15]
  • What is the difference between altruism and heroism? [1:00:44]
  • How the early end of the Stanford Prison Experiment ties in with heroism. [1:02:11]

People Mentioned

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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45 Replies to “How to Not Be Evil – Dr. Phil Zimbardo (#226)”

  1. Hi Tim,

    I’m a big fan of your work – keep it up!

    I’m going to be in San Fran April 14-21st any chance of a quick coffee and a chat?

    I’m sure you get heaps of these requests, I understand if you’re too busy to reply.


    1. Tim,

      I saw that you were in Tokyo. I run a company a few blocks away from the bar you visited.

      I was born in Slovenia, traveled around the world with no money for 19 months, learnt several languages, started a business in Slovenia with PhotoReading from Paul Scheele, then went for a week-long business trip in Japan, fell in love with a Japanese woman, read the book Bushido, decided to become Japanese, I changed my name into Ken Matsunaga… now I’m experimenting how much English can Japanese people learn in 3 months… I call that experiment LifeLanguageBootcamp (

      Well… if you want to see me in Japan, drop me an email or respond here. I’m a fan of your work and I’ve even wanted to work with you on the design of my program to teach people English + international thinking…

      Ja mata, ne.

  2. This is perfect timing, I emailed Dr. Zimbardo this morning to ask if he could share some more of the exercises that were mentioned in the Kara Swisher episode. I hope more of them are reveled here, I cannot wait to listen!

  3. Really great interview, Tim. It’s rare that someone keeps Phil so focused these days – you obviously did your homework and asked good questions.

    I’m on the board of the Heroic Imagination Project, so if anyone is intrigued by the heroism part, I’d like to direct them to some other sites: The Hero Round Table (the TED talks of heroism) – – where Phil has given many talks, Heroism Science – – where the best academic work is highlighted, and I can recommend the best books on the subject if people want.

  4. Tim,

    I love the interesting topics you cover! Thank you!

    I am re-reading the 4-Hour Body & wanted to download Phil’s weight loss Excel spreadsheet, but all the links do not get me there, or not to a blank copy. The link in the book is Please advise.

  5. Hi Tim,

    Just a friendly FYI that kick ass YA author Maggie Stiefvater will be coming through SF to teach a 1 day writing class on Treasure Island with another YA author on May 6. Might be a chance to fit in a local interview for your show? 🙂 I think she’s fairly accessible for media/interview requests. And I’d also be glad to connect you with her via our agent, Laura Rennert at Andrea Brown Lit Agency (in Menlo).

  6. Hey Tim!

    Went to your SXSWedu keynote today and loved it, especially the stuff about your ideal school/class.

    I just wanted to let you know how encouraging and refreshing it is to hear your perspective on learning. I just graduated from Princeton undergrad this past year and wrote my thesis on how Pton educates its students, so a lot of what you’re saying resonates with me.

    Anyway, just wanted to drop you a note saying that I admire your work and hope to one day have as interesting of a life as yours. Thanks for everything you do, Tim! Go tigers!



  7. Good news: you don’t have to use psychedelic to fix whatever past traumas. Bad news: Richard simmons is dead, on the news today. Not sure what your inspiration is ” dead teacher vs overdosed celebrities”, so those ‘ good’ or ‘bad’ can exchange the spots, lol. No, seriously, human race has enough of Whitney Houston and Micheal Jackson already, ok? lol

  8. Tim,

    When I read that this was your oldest interview yet, I thought it would be interesting to interview that French gentelman who at 105 broke the indoor cycling record a couple months ago. Would be interesting


  9. Hi Tim,

    Glad to see you got an old guy on your show. My old wrestling buddies and I are big fans of yours. We’ve been going to the NCAA Div. 1 Wrestling Championships since before you were you. This year should be a good one. Why don’t you come hang with a few crazy old grapplers? We have a great suite and a seat with your name on it. If you want to hear some old wrestling yarns, we got a million of ’em. FYI, Princeton is having its best year in a long time. I’m sure the coach would love to meet you (if you guys don’t know each other already).

    What do you say?


  10. I have recently subscribed to the 5 Bullet Friday, last week or and I know you say its every 1-2 weeks.

    Just wanted to know when was the last one sent so I know to expect one or recheck my spam filter.

      1. So I checked and its not there may be Tim has not sent one.Do you remember when you got the last one.

  11. Really interesting episode. The part of mindful disobedience reminded me of something similar. You observed that we are trained to know when to do this and asked how can we train to know when to do that. Then I remembered in one area it is taught but not for humans.

    My sister is a volunteer guide dog puppy raiser. For the first 18 months of the dog’s life they are raised by volunteers before going to guide dog training school. Once in guide school, one of the most important skills the dog must develop they call intelligent disobedience. It’s so important for the dog to develop; if they can’t do it, they will fail the dog, and it will be “retasked” as another kind of service dog. (ie, rescue, therapy…) Intelligent disobedience is the dogs ability to know when not to execute a command it’s given when that command would bring harm to the person.

    So imagine the dog is given the command to go forward and the dog has a clear path but there is a low hanging ceiling or branch that the person would run into. The dog must stop and not execute the command, though it can move forward it must be aware of person’s space and safety.

    Maybe there is something we can learn from in this example?

  12. Great episode – so glad you were able to get him!

    Really appreciate your efforts to “pull back the lens” a bit and interview people from a different era – people like Dr. Zimbardo are the Titans from a previous generation and I think you’re really hitting on something here. Running these people through the Ferriss interview machine is a great way to let your followers get a snapshot of their life’s contributions, in a format they can perhaps appreciate and digest more easily than more traditional methods.

    Please please please keep this up. If anything, maybe index MORE towards these kind of interviewees – before the opportunity to talk to them is gone forever.

  13. For me this is easily the best podcast to date and I have listened to almost all of them from the beginning. Fascinating insights. I would love to study the interview in more detail. Anyone know where I can get a transcript.

    Stunning interview Tim!

  14. Being a deviant for a day…. I’m currently practicing being a deviant for 6 weeks. Or more specifically, for lent. I’m from Ireland and I have decided to give up alcohol for lent (about 6 weeks).

    Giving up drink itself is easy but I find the social pressure to be the hardest thing. Or rather, the most annoying thing. Everyone saying, “come on, be like us, fit in…”

    For me, the benefit of abstaining from alcohol is not just physical health. The real benefit is gained from resisting social pressure and deciding not to fit it.

    It’s liberating.

  15. Such a powerful interview,

    I thought today would be as good a day as any to draw a square on my forehead, and while I’m at it why not put a circle within the square; what’s the worst that could go wrong this is Vancouver I thought to myself…

    With that said perhaps adding the words; “They Watch You Pee In Silence” was a bit too much…

  16. Hi Tim,

    I really enjoy your podcasts. I think it would be great if you could try crowdsourcing some of your more standard questions to your audience with a voting scheme to upvote/downvote responses. I’d be really curious to see what responses the madness of the crowd (a) generates and (b) latches on to.

    For example, my response to the standard “billboard” question would be: “What is the best and worst thing that happened today?”

    Because you’ve crowdsourced questions before, I think it could be a blast if you tried reversing this and experimented with crowdsourcing answers instead.


  17. Thank you for such a deep episode on the subject we all should be thinking of more often – personal responsibility.

    I believe that the cause for most evil in the world is undeveloped skill of independent thinking and taking responsibility for every decision and action in our life.

    A lot of us, growing up, are taught how to obey authority, starting with parents, often without core understanding of reasons of directives, and we are often punished in one way or the other for questioning that authority, when we don’t understand why things must be done a certain way – that teaches us being automatons, not independent thinkers.

    I’ve been lucky to grow up in a family, when my parents never told me what and how to think – they didn’t have the time, taking care of things, working a lot. I was left often at home alone with a library of books of best thinkers and writers, Russian and foreign, I read a lot, I thought a lot. I could choose to do or think anything, as long as I did not cause harm and respected others and family culture, and as long as I was doing well, health/school. – I could do any sport, read any book, take any course, choose any profession, any religion.

    That turned me into a free-thinker, that does not recognize any authority permanently. Only on case-by-case basis. And every decision I make, every choice – I evaluate and take full responsibility for. It doesn’t mean i know what is right, but at least I know, that what I do, the results of my actions, it’s all aligned with my core beliefs and values.

    Education is broken. People are not taught how to be independent thinkers, how to evaluate complex situations based on their values and experience, on data.

    Such a great topic! Thank you so much Tim and Phil!

  18. I was wondering if Dr. Phil Zimbardo has ever tried to use the same concept of his experiments to get to good results. Like getting kids off dugs, training prisoners to conform to good things. instead of prison experiment try a “Good church Experiment” I wish I could be part of any research done by Dr. Phil Zimbardo.

    1. He hasn’t done it yet, but he really wants someone to do a Reverse Milgram experiment where you ask people to do small, easy good things and then increase the difficulty of the good thing in small steps. For example, people are more likely to put a sign up in their yard if you’ve asked them to put a sign up in their window a week before.

  19. I was really struck by Dr. Zimbardo’s citing the study on the Princeton theological students [33:14] that revealed 80% didn’t stop to help a woman in need because they were rushing to give their best sermon…about the Good Samaritan! In my observation, one of the slipperiest slopes is doing good in one part of our life and using as that as an excuse not to do good in other areas. Malcolm Gladwell does a great story on this in his podcast about The Salon and how the admittance of the first woman may have made it easier for the art world to exclude women afterwards. Did voting for a black president allow people to be more racist in other areas of their life because by voting for a black person, someone can say to him/herself “I’m not a racist.” This part of the show made me recognize how I have to be better at being more consistent in my life about not letting myself off the hook for the “inconvenience” of doing good in one situation because I did something good in another.

  20. Hi Tim,

    I would love to know where you get your quotes,also if you get them from reading books or a concentrated source? Thanks for all you do, I love the weekly email with the goods.

  21. Hello Tim!

    I really enjoy the 5-Bullet Friday especially the quotes you ponder over. Is it possible to provide a link to a bio/profile of whoever you are quoting (under the “Quote I’m pondering” segment)?


  22. Isn’t calling someone hero/devil just as dehumanizing as calling them by their prison number? or categorize someone by their race, region, or sexual orientation…

  23. This is the first time I have commented on any of your shows.

    When Dr. Zimbardo describes how he meets people who are homeless (not homeless people) and chokes up, it’s so moving. I’m going follow his example to meet the next person who asks for money. How simple. We will both feel better.

    Thanks Tim.

  24. Seven social processes that grease the slippery slope of evil

    1. Mindlessly taking the first small step

    2. Dehumanization of others

    3. De-individualization of self

    4. Diffusion of personal responsibility

    5. Blind obedience to authority

    6. Uncritical conformity to group norms

    7. Passive tolerance of evil through inaction or indifference

    Tim lists these out around the 23 minute mark.

  25. Incredible episode. Oddly enough I had a chance to put Dr. Zimbardo’s wisdom into practice…as I was listening to the episode! I was walking to a friend’s house last night, and I saw car spinning out in the snow right in front of their place. I had heard it from over a block away so I knew it wasn’t just a momentary problem. I crossed the street and tried to help push, but it was too icy for me to get good grip. I went up to his window, and offered to go get my friends to help.

    As I was offering, literally 10 people exited their houses and came out to help at the same time. He was out in about 30 seconds. When I got inside my friend’s house, right across the street, I told them what had happened and they said that he had been out there for HOURS. All of those people (including my friends blergh, will forward them this podcast!!) must have been aware that this guy was struggling, and didn’t do anything until they heard me and decided to join. I think a contributing factor was that he appeared to be Muslim, and sadly he looked scared when I approached his window/tried to help. Was so glad I stopped.

    Powerful experience while listening to a powerful episode.

  26. Thank you Tim for another great episode.

    My main takeaway is this:

    – Our personality is absolutely overrated. Thanks to experiments like the ones you talk about in this podcast, it’s obvious to me that our value systems, beliefs, and ethics can change very quickly depending on the environment. Yet whenever something bad happens, we’re quick to focus on the individuals but almost always we ignore the system in which they operate.

    Similar situation happens with government agencies. We have millions of civil servants, good people mostly, trapped in bad systems. In a match between a good person and bad system, the system will always win.

  27. Quite an amazing variety of subjects that Dr. Zimbardo deftly sheds light into.

    During the episode, when explaining the different time perspectives he refers to “positive” and “negative” futures, whereas in the book no such connotation is assigned to future (somewhat strangely and inconsistently with the two other time dimensions).

    Any idea on why? It’d be great to ask him if indeed there is a follow-up episode (together with the tipical “rapid fire questions” which were not used this time). Thanks!

  28. Tim, I am in awe of what you are doing and overwhemingly grateful for your conversations with the extraordinary human beings that I’m privy to thanks to you. You yourself are one of them as well! Thank you for causing life!

  29. Dr. Z, your comment to re-frame and re-code the language “homeless person” to “person that does not have a home” will be with me forever. Not just in being more emphathetic, and less busy, to connect with such folk. But, to remind me of the power of the words we use, and their order…and how this becomes vernacular and culture.

  30. Tim and listeners, Dr. Zimbardo’s interview was powerful and a call to action. Instead of drawing a square on our foreheads, I would strongly suggest we ALL do the other “experiment” mentioned in the show. The experiment that will help our heroic path while making us just a little uncomfortable as we stoics all love. Give to a homeless person the next time one asks, AND look them in the eye, tell them your name, and ask theirs.

    Thank you and let’s all try it.

  31. Dear Tim,

    Thank you for your interview with Dr. Zimbardo who introduced, proposed and shed light on solid and fresh ideas that really could be staked as character flag posts or measuring stick in today’s changing fabric of our society in the U.S.

    If I may add, as the link on Kitty Genovese already detailed accurately, recently Kitty’s brother Bill made a documentary called “Witness” which delves deeper from his personal grief seeped into into the years of his life, decisions he made and turns he took in his life. His bravery is deeply touching. In sum, there were people who reached out and cradled Kitty when she was dying as well as another neighbor who just simply closed his door without doing anything as Mr. Moseley, who took Kitty’s life, had returned the second time to stab the rest of her remaining life.

    Naturally, this story let me sense distrust in people and in myself but it is now important to know, thanks to Bill’s openness and vulnerability, that we have both sides of the character from which and for which we can choose.

  32. From someone who completed her Psychology degree a looooonngg time ago, this episode was fascinating. Who knew that Zimbardo was friends with Milgram? And the actual reason / person that stopped the prison experiment? Wow.