Dear Me, Future Psychologist. Yours Truly, Dr. Phil Zimbardo

It’s time for the next installment of Dear me, future psychologist, a gradPSYCH Blog exclusive in which a prominent psychologist writes a letter to his/her 16-year-old self. We hope you enjoy these letters and glean some invaluable wisdom and guidance as you decide whether to enter graduate school in psychology, as you navigate the challenges of graduate school, and as you make decisions about your career and life.

This letter is from Dr. Philip G.  Zimbardo. Dr. Zimbardo is the Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University, two-time past president of the Western Psychological Association and past president of the American Psychological Association. He became known for his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment and has since authored numerous psychology books, text books and other notable works, including The Lucifer Effect, The Time Paradox and The Time Cure. He is also the founder and president of the Heroic Imagination Project.




FROM THE DESK OF Phil Zimbardo:

Greetings to my youth-filled, 16-year old, skinny Phil!

From my ripe, old vantage point of 83 years of age, I want to share with you some psychological wisdom I have gathered over many decades of teaching, conducting a variety of research studies, writing books of all kinds, and  making educational videos.

First, I recall that you still live in the South Bronx of New York City, where you were born and bred, and now you are attending James Monroe High School, after returning there from a year’s journey with your family to North Hollywood, California. One of your most interesting classmates is Stanley Milgram, who was voted the smartest kid in the senior class, while you were voted the most popular boy. Nice award, especially recalling that you were the least popular student last year at North Hollywood High School!  In fact, you were openly shunned by everyone because they thought you had Mafia connections, because you were a Sicilian from New York, and therefore potentially dangerous.

But what changed in going from most undesirable kid to most desirable kid in a short time? In your discussions with little Stanley, he suggested that it was the “situation” and not your personality that had changed. You were the same inner person, but that was defined differently in those two different situations. So keep an eye on that kid – when Stanley grows up, he might have something significant to say about situational forces dominating individual dispositions.

I understand that you are interested in the dynamics of prejudice between minority groups, notably Puerto Ricans and Blacks in your Bronx neighborhood. Continue to study that interesting dynamic when you get to college, and ideally you could publish the results as one of the first studies of inter-minority prejudice, and at the same time it will start you on your publishing career in psychology– with an undergraduate publication head-start.

Talking about college, you will enroll as a freshman in 1950, excited to take the “introduction to psychology” course, and you will be totally disappointed. Psychology then was really boring, especially for someone who is interested in the dynamics of human behavior. Instead, you will sit through lectures about rats learning to navigate through Y mazes, and college student research subjects learning to navigate memory drums to remember nonsense syllables. Your textbook will be filled with endless facts that you have difficulty connecting to anything significant in your life. At the end of the course, you will get smacked down with the only C grade in your academic history, and will rationally decide that psych is not for Zimbardo.  You will make a smart decision to then double-major in sociology and anthropology to get a broad background in understanding human nature.  However, your abiding interest in doing empirical research will drive you back into psychology in your senior year, and will be the platform from which to go on to graduate training at Yale University in 1954.

You will come into your own as a competent researcher interested in a variety of topics, conducting research on all of them, and beginning to publish extensively in the best journals of the day, including as senior author in Science. Among your research publications will be some on exploratory and sexual behavior (in rats!), dissonance theory, and attitude change. And then you will discover your real calling  — a love for teaching psychology, by always blending entertainment and education —  even as the first grad student to teach intro psych at Yale.

Your first job at New York University will enable you to expand your research into social affiliation and the cognitive control of motivation, and broaden the base of courses you become qualified to teach. Although you have a heavy teaching and research load, and spend a lot of time commuting in New York, somehow you will find time to be a social-political activist in leading academic protests against the immoral, illegal Vietnam War (protests you continue and expand when you move on to Stanford University in 1968).

It will seem that everything in your life up to this point was preparing you to be a professor at Stanford University – one of the best psychology departments in the world. With remarkable colleagues to interact with and brilliant students to teach and conduct research with, you will work your butt off but love every moment of it.  Soon you will be: teaching more students (in classes of over 1,000) in a greater variety of courses than anyone in the history of your university; conducting research on more than a dozen different topics; writing a leading introductory textbook (Psychology and Life) for 12 editions; creating and narrating the 26-program educational TV series (Discovering Psychology), which will introduce psychology to millions of students around the world;, and then become the Superintendent of The Stanford Prison Experiment, for which you will become most well-known—for better or for worse.

Your childhood curiosity to understand why some of your buddies gave into the temptation – for example, by dealing drugs — while you and others did not, will be expanded into a broader concern for why so many people around the world do evil deeds, and how that impulse and reaction can be refocused into creating ordinary, everyday heroes. Your book on these issues, in The Lucifer Effect, will reach a global audience with the message you and little Stanley chatted about during recess at Monroe High:  never underestimate the power of social situations to exert transformative power over individuals in both negative and positive directions.

Thinking back on the long career you’re about to have, sweet innocent kid, I wanted to mention the three lines of research that I imagine you will be most proud of: shyness, time perspective, and heroism. After completing the Stanford Prison Experiment, you will begin to use the metaphor of shyness as a self-imposed psychological prison, and start teaching about it, doing multi-method, cross-cultural research on shyness; creating the first shyness clinic in the world (still in operation decades later); and writing books for the general public to help shy people function more effectively.

Since childhood, you were always perplexed with the dramatic difference between you and your father — his living in the moment, in a hedonistic present, and you always focused on future goals. The answers will come by your creating a fuller understanding of the psychology of time perspective, developing the first valid and reliable measure of time perspective differences, writing popular books about the subject, for researchers and others for therapists, and then creating an international time perspective movement.

Gotta run, but lastly, I imagine you will discover that your most important contribution of all is the most recent one: Creating the Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) as a San Francisco-based nonprofit.  Its mission will be to teach people, especially youth, how to be everyday heroes, or heroes-in- training, who are willing to stand up, speak out, and take wise and effective action in challenging situations in their lives.  Your new ideas about heroism– as an antidote to evil—will encourage new research on this topic, which was not previously recognized in psychology until you highlighted its importance.  But perhaps more significantly, the educational programs you developed with your team, by crafting positive action orientations around a variety of topics in social psychology, will have a global impact when schools at all levels and businesses and other institutions begin to incorporate your ideas into their educational and training programs.

OK, enough looking back for me and looking forward for you. My time is nearly up, but yours and your cohort’s new time is about to begin, and hopefully will make the world better by making psychology’s messages more compelling and appealing to young and old alike.

In the end, I choose to believe for me and for my beloved psychology:       THE BEST IS YET TO COME!

Editor’s Note: Dear Me, Future Psychologist is inspired by the Dear Me book series by Joseph Galliano. Special thanks to David A. Meyerson, PhD for creating this series for the gradPSYCH Blog. Please check out other letters in this series from:

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