Biography of Philip Zimbardo

Philip Zimbardo
FilmMagic / Getty Images
Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Philip Zimbardo is an influential psychologist best-known for his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. Many psychology students may also be familiar with his introductory psychology textbooks and Discovering Psychology video series, which are often used in high school and psychology classrooms. He is also known for his research on shyness. Zimbardo is the author of several notable books including The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.

Zimbardo has also conducted important research on the psychology of heroism and is the founder of the Heroic Imagination Project, a non-profit organization aimed at understanding and promoting everyday heroism.

His Early Life

Philip Zimbardo was born on March 23, 1933, in New York City. He attended Brooklyn College where he earned a B.A. in 1954, triple majoring in psychology, sociology, and anthropology. He then went on to earn his M.S. in 1955 and his Ph.D. in 1959 from Yale University, both in psychology.

He taught briefly at Yale before becoming a psychology professor at New York University, where he taught until 1967. After a year of teaching at Columbia University, he became a faculty member at Stanford University in 1968 and has remained there since.

Zimbardo's Career and Research

Philip Zimbardo is perhaps best known for the Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted in the basement of the Stanford University psychology department in 1971. The participants in the study were 24 male college students who were randomly assigned to act either as "guards" or "prisoners" in the mock prison.

The study was initially slated to last two weeks but had to be terminated after just six days because of the extreme reactions and behaviors of the participants. The guards began displaying cruel and sadistic behavior toward the prisoners, while the prisoners became depressed and hopeless.

Since the famous prison experiment, Zimbardo has continued to conduct research on a variety of topics including shyness, cult behavior, and heroism. He has authored and co-authored numerous books, including some that are widely used in university-level psychology courses. Some people may recognize him as the host of the Discovering Psychology video series, which has aired on PBS and is often used in high school and college psychology classes.

In 2002, Zimbardo was elected president of the American Psychological Association. After more than 50 years of teaching, Zimbardo retired from Stanford in 2003 but gave his last "Exploring Human Nature" lecture on March 7, 2007.

Today, he continues to work as the director of the Heroic Imagination Project. The organization promotes research, education and media initiatives designed to inspire ordinary people to act as heroes and agents of social change.

His Contributions to Psychology

Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment remains an important study in our understanding of how situational forces can influence human behavior. The study became a topic of interest after the reports of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses in Iraq became public knowledge. Many people, Zimbardo included, suggested that the abuses at Abu Ghraib might be real-world examples of the same results observed in Zimbardo's experiment.

Zimbardo has also served as an influential figure in psychology through his writings as well as his long teaching career.

Selected Publications by Philip Zimbardo

  • Gerrig, R., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2010). Psychology and Life (19th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Zimbardo, P. G. (1972). The Stanford Prison Experiment a Simulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment. Philip G. Zimbardo, Inc.
  • Zimbardo, P. G. (1977/1991). Shyness: What It Is, What to Do About It. Reading, MA: Perseus Press.
  • Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New York, NY: Random House.
  • Zimbardo, P., Boyd, J. (2009). The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life. United States: Atria Books.

A Word From Verywell

While Zimbardo's best-known experiment took place decades ago, its impact is still felt on psychology today. The images of torture and prisoner abuse that emerged from the Iraq prison known as Abu Ghraib echoed the notorious events that took place in Zimbardo's infamous experiment. While the Stanford Prison Experiment has been criticized for its ethical problems, it offered important insights into the darker side of human nature.

Was this page helpful?
5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Zimbardo P, Haney C, Banks WC, Jaffe D. The Stanford Prison Experiment: A simulation study of the psychology of imprisonment. Stanford University, Stanford Digital Repository, Stanford.

  2. American Psychological Association. Philip G. Zimbardo: 2002 APA President.

  3. American Psychological Association. Demonstrating the power of social situations via a simulated prison experiment.

  4. Stanford University. About Philip G. Zimbardo.

  5. American Psychological Association. Psychological science offers clues to Iraqi prisoner abuse.