The Lucifer Effect is Philip Zimbardo’s account of and reflections on his famous 1971 Stanford prison experiment, in which student subjects randomly assigned to be guards and prisoners in a simulated prison took on the characteristics of their roles surprisingly quickly, with the “guards” ad libbing various forms of abuse and humiliation in order to maintain their dominance over the prisoners. An alarmed Zimbardo cut the experiment off less than halfway through due to the abuse and the way some of the participants were breaking down emotionally. The conclusion Zimbardo draws from the experiment is that people will adapt to their social roles and do what they think they are supposed to in that role, even when doing so is contrary to basic human values in the abstract or in other contexts. He contends that when examining a case such as the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, it is important to keep in mind that situations generate evil behavior in “normal” people, so we shouldn’t automatically respond to evil behavior by assuming the perpetrators themselves are abnormally evil. In retrospect Zimbardo believes he himself is an example of this, in that he waited too long to end the Stanford prison experiment and thereby risked emotional damage to the participants, because he himself had gotten caught up in the role of psychology experimenter.
I was familiar with the Stanford prison experiment before reading this book, and have always found the subject quite interesting. Not surprisingly I quite enjoyed Zimbardo’s thought-provoking discussion of the experiment, though for whatever reason I did find my attention lagging for perhaps the final third of the book.
But mostly I was quite engaged while reading this book, and I find I have more to say about it than about most books I read. I’m going to deviate a bit from my usual form in these essays and adopt a question-and-answer format to organize some of my thoughts.
Did Zimbardo make the right call in stopping the experiment early?
Had it been up to me, I don’t think I would have stopped the experiment when Zimbardo did.
But if I had, I believe it would have been on different grounds.
Zimbardo was most focused on the suffering, the harm. I would be more concerned with the consent.
Sometimes people choose to go through something difficult, painful, risky, traumatic, etc., for a variety of reasons. It may be to challenge themselves, to toughen themselves up for future experiences, to bring about a certain mental and emotional intensity that makes them feel vital, to impress someone, to bring about certain consequences that are important enough to them to override the sacrifice, or even something as simple as their receiving something in exchange for the ordeal—e.g., money—that they feel makes it a worthwhile trade.
I don’t believe in forcing such challenges on people. But if it’s something they’re doing by choice, then I’m inclined to leave them be.
Not that I would never intervene or put a stop to things if I could. But like I say, for me it’s far more a matter of examining if there is something dubious about the consent, rather than ascertaining the degree to which the person is suffering. Whereas for Zimbardo, the opposite seemed to be the case.
I would further say that all else being equal, the easier it is to revoke consent, the less inclined I am to paternalistically intervene because the person is being harmed.
If you hire some drill sergeant style personal coach to berate you constantly to work out and diet and do all the things that are good for you that you have struggled with due to a lack of self-discipline, then even if you complain about it and seem to be unhappy with his treatment of you, it’s not for me to somehow prevent him from continuing to provide this service to you. As an autonomous human being, you get to decide if undergoing the unpleasantness of dealing with this guy is worth whatever good you think it’s doing. And if and when you decide it isn’t, you—not me—can fire him at will.
Whereas irreversible consent is something I’m not so comfortable with. The whole “can your present self bind your future self?” raises all kinds of questions about autonomy and coercion and related matters.
Consider the difference between these two cases, for example: The officer training program in An Officer and a Gentleman with Richard Gere, versus a soldier in the current volunteer military going through some form of boot camp or basic training and being sent off to war. Both are hellish in their way. I wouldn’t consent to either one. I would have some doubts about the mental health of anyone who would consent to either one. I’m not convinced of the ultimate benefits for society as a whole of either of these things.
However, though they have many things in common, one very important difference is that in the first case the person’s consent to undergo the suffering and abuse and such is always revocable. A large part of the drama of the movie is the whole question of whether the participants will succeed in sticking it out, since they always have the choice of walking away. Whereas in the second example, participants are not allowed to change their mind. Their initial consent is treated as binding on their later self, and if they attempt to cease participating, the powers that be feel justified in punishing them severely.
So while it’s certainly possible to approve of both or neither, the second has a major additional element of concern for anyone who assigns disvalue to imposing suffering on someone contrary to their (present) will.
But in the experiment, that complication isn’t present. It’s not as if the participants bound themselves for two weeks and we are now having to decide whether to give them a break and change the rules in the middle of the experiment. They have always had the freedom to change their mind and walk away. To intervene now and “protect” them by ending the experiment prematurely is paternalism. Perhaps a case can be made that it is justified paternalism, but at the very least I would give the participants’ consent to continue the experiment a great deal of weight.
So I look at it now with two questions in mind: Is their continued consent tainted in some way, such that it’s not really consent or it’s only sort of consent, and thus it deserves no weight or less weight than full consent? And, are other factors—that is, the harm Zimbardo perceives and is most influenced by—of sufficient weight to override the consent factor?
As to the first matter, the most troubling thing by far to me is that it appears some of the participants became convinced that they were not free to quit after all, as a result of the one unbalanced prisoner telling them—why is unclear—that he’d tried to quit and not been allowed to. So even though it remained objectively the case that they always were free to leave, subjectively they thought that option had been removed.
That undercuts consent significantly. For me to be free to do something, I not only have to have the opportunity to do it, but I have to know I do, and know how to go about doing it.
That the experimenters didn’t bring about these false beliefs matters little. Once the participants think they can’t quit, then in an important sense their continued participation is non-consensual.
I believe once the experimenters became aware of this misimpression, they were under an obligation to unambiguously re-inform the participants that they were still fully free to quit at any time. That may well have adversely affected the “illusion” that was making the experiment so valuable, but so be it. I would have chosen to risk weakening the experiment in that manner, over continuing it in a way that was arguably non-consensual or putting an end to it entirely.
Another consent-based objection that I’m considerably less sympathetic toward is that some of the participants may have still been aware they could quit, yet due to the inherent pressures of the situation made an unwise choice to continue, and that that did not really constitute continued consent because in a sense they were of diminished capacity.
Pride was the likely culprit in most such cases. For example, one prisoner reluctantly continued despite his mother’s protests because he didn’t want to shame himself and feel like less of a man in his father’s eyes (and his own). Some would see that case as especially troubling because Zimbardo manipulated the situation to encourage the prisoner to feel that way.
No doubt people make questionable decisions under powerful and distorting influences all the time, but I think we have to tread very carefully in labeling those decisions as somehow non-genuine or non-autonomous.
People have all kinds of reasons for the choices they make, influenced by all kinds of values and character traits. I’m prepared, as noted above, to say that continued participation in the experiment is non-consensual—or at least significantly less consensual—if it is based on the false belief that “If I announce a decision to quit, it will be turned down and I will be laughed at and punished for even trying to quit.” But I’m not prepared to say that if the decision (regardless of whether I agree or disagree with it) is based on a person’s desire to challenge and test himself, his need to feel like a man, his desire to practice for when he may be arrested and imprisoned for real for antiwar or other protest activities, his desire for money, his belief that this experiment is providing benefits to science and humanity, his competitive urge to outlast his fellows, etc.
I would make the call on a case-by-case basis (which is basically what they were doing before the decision to halt the experiment entirely). If an individual is so out of it as to be basing his decision to continue on delusions, then yes, his consent is becoming less and less meaningful. Otherwise, have some respect for autonomy and their desire to continue.
But the other question is, are the participants being so severely damaged by the experiment that their consent to continue should be set aside and the experiment ended?
Clearly this is what Zimbardo believes, and he thinks it’s obvious and that he was only blinded to it at the time by being too close to the experiment and having his thinking distorted.
I think you can make at least as good a case that his being so close to it is what caused him to pussy out.
When we’re not talking about coercion or a violation of autonomy, but instead about something’s beneficial and harmful consequences, then for me I don’t think the consequences for the direct participants deserve any more or less weight than the consequences for anyone else. (Sort of. It depends on if we’re talking moral ontology or moral epistemology. I would say, as a rule of thumb direct consequences are much more ascertainable and measurable, while the more indirect the consequences the more speculative and uncertain they are, therefore it’s generally correct to focus much more on the pros and cons of the immediate situation. But not because those costs and benefits are somehow more important than others.)
But I don’t know that even if we focused exclusively on the harms and benefits to the participants that I’d be inclined to have halted the experiment prematurely. And once we add in the indirect impact on other people down the line, I think things would come out even more strongly in favor of continuing it.
Of course the participants were disliking much of what was going on, even to some extent being traumatized by it. But I’ll bet the harm was mostly short term, while some of the benefit had the potential to be more lasting.
Think about what these individuals are learning about themselves, both good and bad, that they can put to use in the future. They’re gaining a much better sense of their strengths and weaknesses, where they need to improve, what they need to guard against. They’re being given reasons for being humble, perhaps learning to be more understanding and compassionate toward others who behave in less-than-heroic fashion in trying circumstances. They’re earning the sense of accomplishment of taking part in an experiment that will ultimately be famous and regarded as very beneficial in advancing our understanding of certain psychological facts. They’re going to be able to say “No matter how much I hated it, I endured.”
And remember, I’m not saying “I know better than they what’s good for them, and I think we should force them to continue no matter how much they want out.” They want to continue. It’s the opposing side that would be saying, “We know better than they what’s good for them, and we think we should force them to quit even though they want to continue.”
Who knows what people can endure, if they choose to tough it out. I still have a videotape from 1982 of one of the most amazing sports performances I’ve ever seen. It was a woman participant in a triathlon, leading the eleven hour race most of the way, now staggering to the finish almost completely spent. Once she got within two hundred yards or so, she was alternating walking and running. A little closer and what little control she’d had left of her mind and body faded away. Disoriented, she had to be pointed in the right direction. She collapsed, got up, collapsed, got up, collapsed. She shit and pissed herself. She collapsed a final time just a few feet from the finish line. Unable to get up, she crawled from there. She finished. (In second place, as another woman passed her while she was crawling.)
Why didn’t someone stop it? Why didn’t one of the organizers of the event realize the error of their ways, pity this human being who was so thoroughly beat mentally and physically, and put an end to this avoidable human suffering by preventing her further participation?
Because in almost all cases it’s best to let the individual decide how much is too much. Let the person himself or herself determine if they’re benefiting enough to outweigh the suffering of what they’re going through.
I don’t know if some of the participants in this experiment will be traumatized in a way that adversely affects them the rest of their life, or if they’ll look back on it as one of the most valuable experiences of their life to learn and grow from, or both, or neither. But in order to take the decision out of their hands and force them to quit, the evidence better be very strong that this is damaging them in a significant and permanent way that they are not in a position to assess for themselves.
Then there’s still the matter of the consequences for other people besides the participants. This I think adds more weight in favor of continuing the experiment.
It’s not like this is some neutral activity they’re doing to pass the time. It’s something they’re doing because they have every expectation it will further the understanding of some things that are of importance to human psychology. And by all appearances it has done just that. People are still talking about it decades later. Zimbardo is writing a book about it decades later and applying the lessons learned to contemporary real life situations.
None of those benefits would have come about had he been “enlightened” enough back then to recognize the supposed evil of the experiment and decided against conducting it. On the other hand, had the experiment been allowed to run its course for the full two weeks, one would have to think considerably more would have been learned.
To summarize, autonomy trumps the cost/benefit analysis of the consequences, so the main thing I’d have done in designing the experiment (or redesigning it on the fly as it was going on and the flaws were exposed) is to better safeguard consent. That includes making sure everyone was always aware that they were allowed to quit at any time, and what they had to do or say to quit.
(Humble suggestion: Let’s learn a little something from sexual deviants. In the S&M community, they have the concept of “safe words.” A “safe word” is a predetermined word that acts as a signal that one of the participants wants out, and upon the uttering of which the proceedings must immediately and completely stop. So for instance if the word is “fiddlesticks,” then no matter how much the submissive is crying, complaining, begging for mercy, screaming in pain, etc. while being whipped, beaten, kept in bondage, verbally abused, sexually abused, and so on, then it is assumed everyone is still “in character” and the submissive is getting what he at some level, as a masochist, wants. But as soon as he says “fiddlesticks,” then it is understood that he genuinely wants things to stop, and his wishes must be immediately respected. Something like that could have been used in this experiment to better distinguish when the participants were basically play acting or “method acting” that they were prisoners who wanted out of their confinement and suffering, and when they were signaling that they were experimental subjects genuinely calling for an immediate end to their participation in the experiment.)
Furthermore, individuals should have been closely monitored to see that their mental and emotional state had not deteriorated so much that they were delusional and no longer able to meaningfully consent, and if that point were reached, the decision could be taken out of their hands and their participation ended if doing so were determined to be in their self-interest.
It’s entirely possible these changes—mainly making sure they were always conscious of the option to quit—would have made it harder for the participants to stay “in character” and made the experiment even less equivalent to real imprisonment and thus less revealing of the psychological dynamics of such situations and less valuable overall. Or for that matter it might have resulted in them all quitting early. In that case, so be it, because, again, respecting the autonomy of the subjects trumps the consequences.
But if meaningful consent from enough of the participants to keep the experiment going happened to persist, then the experiment should have continued to the completion of the full two weeks. That is, unless the damage to the participants (or, less likely, to other people later or to society as a whole) was clear and significant and irreversible, with the standard for that being quite high.
And I don’t think at the time the experiment was prematurely halted, it had reached that level of severe harm that would have outweighed the benefits of its continuation.
So the experiment should have been allowed to continue, not to satisfy the cruel impulses of the experimenters, but to respect the decision of the participants to endure, and to bring about the benefits that greater knowledge of these psychological phenomena can lead to.
I fault Zimbardo for not better safeguarding consent. He let the prisoners operate under apparent false beliefs because doing so was making their experience more like that of real prisoners and thereby was making the experiment more valuable, and then he lost his nerve and stopped the experiment early. He should have done neither. He should have made sure that the subjects’ continued participation was always meaningfully consensual, and if it was he should have let the experiment run its two week course.
Beyond issues of non-consensuality or harm to the participants, what else was flawed about the experiment or should give one pause in interpreting its conclusions? To what extent did it succeed/fail in creating something sufficiently like prison conditions to warrant believing that its lessons can be applied to real life prison and prison-like situations?
Obviously the main difference is that the participants knew this was going to last only two weeks, and for that matter sort of knew it could last even less then that since they could quit at any time. It’s a hugely different situation psychologically to be incarcerated for real with no option to leave.
No doubt the experiment would have been a more accurate reproduction of the prison experience if the participants had been tricked into thinking they’d been incarcerated for real, but that’s not a morally acceptable option.
But it’s interesting that this difference didn’t seem to have the impact one would expect. I share Zimbardo’s surprise that the prisoners became as distraught, hopeless, and defeated as they did, given that they knew it was all just a brief role playing game.
One thing that stood out to me, just in comparing what I was reading with what I learned about prison from the years I spent in a volunteer program visiting with the guys at the Washington State Reformatory, is that the experiment was quite a bit worse than real prison as far as the constant petty humiliations of the “count” and such. As bad as prisons are, my understanding is they’re typically not lining people up and making them recite rules and sing like some fraternity hazing bullshit.
That style of breaking a person down through constant humiliation and reminders of his powerlessness seemed less like prison to me and more like the boot camp in Full Metal Jacket, or some brainwashing type re-education facility in a totalitarian Communist state, or one of those expensive torture facilities American teenagers who smoke pot are sent to to cure them. Most prisons I think are more about, “Let’s stick them somewhere and make sure they don’t escape.” I don’t think they put so much effort into concocting diabolical ways to destroy people psychologically (with the exception of the occasional lunatic like the sheriff in Arizona that everyone loves because he makes prisoners wear pink panties and all that).
I think there are just too many prisoners who would tell them to go fuck themselves because they’d prefer the punishment over cooperating with such humiliation. So there’d be constant conflict. I don’t see it as conducive to a smooth running facility. I mean, yes, if they could do it so thoroughly and so consistently as to be dealing solely with utterly defeated, obedient zombies, then I suppose that would be an easy to run facility. But I think reaching that goal is a lot harder with real life prisoners than with these experimental subjects.
And in this experiment you had a roughly one-to-one ratio of staff to prisoners to conduct the petty, demoralizing games. What prison could afford to hire that many guards?
Maybe more of this goes on in real prisons than I realize and I’m too influenced by my experiences, which were all at a prison that was unusually pro-rehabilitation and respectful of its inmates. But even when my friend Jerry described in detail his time in IMU (Intensive Management Units—where they throw the “worst,” most recalcitrant prisoners), as awful and dehumanizing and all the rest as the conditions were, I don’t recall it sounding like this kind of juvenile sadistic hazing, with people chanting and doing jumping jacks and such.
(And for what it’s worth, I think this kind of brainwashing/humiliation/hammering-home-the-message-of-powerlessness form of confinement would be even more nightmarish than regular prison to me, just due to my personality, values, phobias, strengths and weaknesses, whatever. If forced to make a choice, I would go to prison before I would go in the military or one of those cult-like drug rehabilitation things. Actually I’d probably choose death over any of the above, but assuming that’s not an option, I would feel slightly less hopeless about retaining some minute amount of human dignity in prison compared to these other places.)
So even though it’s the Stanford “prison” experiment, and they added various trappings like visitors day and parole hearings and the like to make it more prison-like, I think what they put together was actually more like certain other horrific coercive institutions than like real prisons, and so the lessons learned might apply even more reliably to those non-prison environments.
Another difference is in real life you don’t have the guards and prisoners starting from scratch and making it up as they go along. The overwhelming majority of prisoners have already been “hardened” by earlier negative experiences, including earlier forms of incarceration such as in juvenile facilities. They’ve developed a whole elaborate set of habits, defense mechanisms, strategies, knowledge of what they can get away with and what they can’t, hustles, ways of competing with or forming alliances with their fellows, etc. Similarly, a new guard learns the ropes from veterans who’ve developed ways of doing things that “work” in some sense. It’s not like they’re all new at the same time; the new ones can mostly just follow along until they get comfortable.
I don’t want to overstate that. No matter how deeply you’re enmeshed in a criminal subculture, no matter how many times you’ve been through the revolving door, there’s always going to be an element of shock, of disorientation, of depression, when you’re suddenly deprived of your freedom. But I think that factor is stronger and more likely to leave you floundering if you have zero experience with it, and there isn’t even a pre-existing culture around you of people who’ve been through it all and learned the ropes that you can attempt to connect with or learn from.
As far as this factor goes, maybe the experiment is less like a typical prison, and more analogous to some Eastern European country quickly overrun by Nazis, and now all the Jews (largely naïve civilians with no experience dealing with a criminal justice system) are tricked into gathering in the city square for some bogus “registration” and then whisked away to a concentration camp.
So on top of the physical conditions themselves—the confinement, the crappy food, the menacing guards, etc.—the experimental subjects had to contend with the additional debilitating and disorienting factor of unfamiliarity. They’re dealing with all this in a vacuum, with less in the way of internal resources than real prisoners would typically have.
So while I take it that one of the lessons is supposed to be the surprise that even “good” people like ordinary college students and squares can show sadistic qualities, turn on each other, display character flaws, and in general behave decidedly non-heroically in a prison environment, I would contend that it’s actually less surprising that we’d see that out of these folks than out of “real” guards and prisoners. I’d think panicky squares thrown into a totally new world with challenges importantly different from what they’re used to and where they have no relevant bearings, would be especially prone to make stupid, weak, or even cruel moves.
Another difference that comes to mind again has to do with the experimental subjects’ awareness that they’re in an experiment. I already mentioned their awareness that they can quit any time they want, but I think it goes beyond that.
I sensed that the participants often were unsure what the “rules” were. Not the rules of the “prison,” but the rules of the experiment. Compounding the problem was that one of the rules they were clear on was that they weren’t supposed to step out of character and refer in any way to this being an experiment.
So for instance, they knew they weren’t supposed to say, “I need to pause here for a second and ask a question. These letters you’re having us write. Are we supposed to write fictitious letters to fictitious people, like asking my non-existent wife to remain faithful to me while I’m in the joint the next ten years, or are we supposed to write letters to our real friends and family asking them to visit us here at Stanford and such?”
In a real prison you at least know the issues you’re dealing with are real; you aren’t in this gray area where you have to play make believe and try to act out how you think you would behave. The participants in the experiment are dealing with an ambiguous situation that’s sort of a prison and sort of not.
Zimbardo seems puzzled or alarmed at times the way the prisoners play along with made up facts—such as accusations thrown at them by make believe parole board members—or the way that one prisoner looks for convoluted technicalities about his contract that might give him a right to leave, rather than just announcing he’s quitting the experiment. He sees this as an indication that the pressures of incarceration are somehow damaging them psychologically, making them lose touch with their own identity as they internalize their roles.
But I think they’re just trying to guess at the ambiguous rules for their roles, and trying to abide by them for as long as they’re in the experiment. It’s not necessarily the case that the circumstances have driven them to some delusional state where they think they really did commit crimes, or really do need a lawyer, or really do need to convince a parole board they’re rehabilitated; more likely they’re intentionally playing make believe because they think that’s how the experiment’s supposed to work. (Though in other respects they did seem to be passing into some sort of delusional or disturbed or depressed state, which as noted several paragraphs above, is interesting and surprising.)
Some might say the willingness to play along in itself is what’s disturbing though, that the participants did the things they did and endured the things they endured just because they guessed that’s what the authority figures in the situation—the people running the experiment—required of them. But that’s a quite different phenomenon. That wouldn’t be “Wow, look how willing people are to obey their captors when they’re imprisoned;” it would be, “Wow, look how willing people are to try to abide by the rules of a psychology experiment they’re voluntarily participating in.”
Which is quite a bit less disturbing. They’re going along with abusive behavior and such in a situation that’s a murky combination of make believe and reality, but ultimately make believe. I don’t think that’s enough evidence to jump to a more general conclusion about people being too willing to go along with authority. Just as I don’t think my willingness to play by the rules when I play Monopoly means I’m of a submissive and obedient personality type that will lead to my collaborating with evil when the government turns dictatorial.
A game’s a game. The experiment’s participants know it’s a game (mostly). Reality is reality. Real guards and prisoners know it’s reality.
Something I think is maybe less of a difference between the experiment and a real prison is that the guards in the experiment were supposedly limited to non-physical punishment and control devices, so they had to be inventive in coming up with verbal and psychological humiliations and such.
I say “supposedly,” because a lot of what they were doing was intended to and did cause physical suffering, not just emotional suffering. When people are confined in small rooms, or even smaller closet-type rooms (the “Hole”), when they are bound, when they are sprayed from a fire extinguisher, when they are forced to sleep on the floor without a blanket, when they have food crammed into their mouth and face in an effort to force them to eat, and so on, this is not non-physical abuse.
Granted, they weren’t beaten up with fists and night sticks, but that kind of thing is probably less prevalent in real prisons than people think. Yes, occasionally guards will “goon” a guy, but it’s not like that’s the routine way of controlling prisoners. It’s there as a last resort—which it wasn’t for the guards in the experiment—but prison staff members nearly always gets their way without having to resort to it. So I don’t know that this was a huge difference between the experiment and reality.
Anyway, not surprisingly, the experiment only duplicated the psychological reality of a prison to a very limited degree. In numerous respects there were dynamics present in the experiment that would have been absent in a real prison, as well as dynamics absent in the experiment that would have been present in a real prison. So one must be cautious about generalizing too much from the experiment.
In spite of that, my feeling is the experiment is at least somewhat informative about real life. That’s just my gut; I’d need to do a lot of research about psychology experiments in general, and what the literature says about their reliability in mirroring the real world versions of what they purport to be studying. But I’m inclined to believe an examination of this experiment can indeed help us to understand some things about human nature, and how people react to certain situations, including being prisoners or imprisoners.
Can anything about life in general or people in general be learned from the experiment that is applicable beyond extreme or unusual cases such as prisons or Abu Ghraib?
On pp. 179-180, Zimbardo states:
[A] System [involves] extensive networks of people, their expectations, norms, policies, and, perhaps, laws. Over time, Systems come to have a historical foundation and sometimes also a political and economic power structure that governs and directs the behavior of many people within its sphere of influence. Systems are the engines that run situations that create behavioral contexts that influence the human action of those under their control. At some point, the System may become an autonomous entity, independent of those who initially started it or even of those in apparent authority within its power structure. Each System comes to develop a culture of its own, as many Systems collectively come to contribute to the culture of a society.
…It is evident that one does not appreciate the power of Situations to transform one’s thinking, feeling, and action when caught in its grip. A person in the claws of the System just goes along, doing what emerges as the natural way to respond at that time in that place.
This really struck me, because it fits with some things I believe, and that I have even tried, clumsily, to write about. When I read it, I was like one of those eighteen year old girls in a freshman poetry class who writes “Yes!” in the margin of her book next to a passage that speaks to her in a deep way.
One thing I was thinking about the most as I read this book is whether or not Zimbardo would end up interpreting the experiment as illuminating only very extreme situations, such as Abu Ghraib. What I would say instead is that it is potentially much more generalizable, and that the above quoted paragraphs apply to “normal life,” not just to abnormal situations.
Imagine you were Zimbardo, and you watched your experiment get out of control, with people so emotionally damaged by the environment that they couldn’t function rationally, and where the dynamics of the situation left so much out of the control of any individual that even if they somehow did manage to retain their humanity and rationality and try to ascertain and do the right thing, forces beyond their control would negate it anyway. And so they just sank deeper and deeper into irrationality, unfreedom, dehumanization, and mutual barbarity, with their minds all the while concocting more and more elaborate delusions and ideologies to block the reality of their situation from them. And imagine that you lacked the prerogative to end the experiment, that it likely had no end.
Welcome to my world.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t feel any great urgency about ending the experiment. I’m used to seeing things that appall me at least as much as what Zimbardo saw in the experiment appalled him. It just didn’t seem that unusually bad to me.
In my observation, it’s simply not the case that the only time people get caught up in systems and behave abominably is in extreme cases like a prison situation. I think if we could view human behavior from the perspective of a rational being from another planet—not a bad role model by the way—we’d be struck by how the norm, not the exception, of human behavior is sheeplike conformity to systems no one fully understands or controls. Systems that have us abusing each other in bizarre and elaborate ways, systems that leave us with precious little control of our own lives, systems that most people are not even conscious exist since they are such a pervasive part of their reality, just as they aren’t conscious of the air they breathe. Systems that it’s so hard to imagine alternatives to, or how to get to those alternatives, that most people never try.
What would the alien think about people getting up every morning at the clanging of a device that artificially cuts off their sleep before their body is ready to awaken, spending eight to ten hours engaged in activity that they do not want to be doing (and feeling fortunate that they have the privilege of doing so compared to the people who are trying and failing to be allowed to do so), passively accepting (if not actively insisting) that the benefits of the activity be distributed in a way that is hugely disadvantageous to them, and never rebelling against any of it? Or knowingly deceiving and manipulating people into doing things that are contrary to their self-interest, and feeling not the slightest pangs of guilt about it? Or training at length in the use of armaments and then obediently traveling to far away places to use them to blast to smithereens men, women, and children they’ve never met and have never interacted with so as to generate any legitimate grievance, and feeling that anyone who does not do as they do is a disloyal weakling and coward?
These aren’t highly unusual behaviors that arise only in highly uncommon circumstances. They are the utterly normal behaviors that arise from the most common of systems that make up the context of our lives.
So I don’t see the experiment as displaying a frighteningly bizarre perversion of the normal human experience. We do that crap all the time, just in different forms. Yeah, there is, sometimes, a difference in degree—I’d rather live the life I’m living now than be in prison—but often not even that. Indeed, a huge portion of the world’s population is enmeshed in systems that give it a more miserable existence than anything the subjects in the experiment endured.
I remember reading an essay about Lord of the Flies that warned against interpreting the novel as merely claiming that even the most civilized of people have an evil, uncontrollable, barbaric part of them that can come to the surface in very bizarre circumstances, such as being left as a group to their own devices on a deserted island in their adolescence before their moral and rational faculties have had a chance to mature. Because, the essayist reminds us, even as we applaud the arrival of adults on the island to save the day, what were those adults doing in their own world—the adult world—while the events of the book were taking place (the 1940s)? Conducting genocidal world war, creating and maintaining some of the most inhumane and totalitarian dictatorships in history, generating recurring worldwide economic recessions and depressions, etc.
So if what one gleans from the Stanford prison experiment is, “Normally we’re doing just fine, but let’s be real careful about extreme situations like Abu Ghraib where some people are given too much power over other people, and let’s see how the insights gained from the Stanford prison experiment can help us in avoiding or at least lessening the impact of such extreme situations,” then I think you’re missing the point.
Instead I think the lesson should be, “Look around you and realize how much of life involves unhealthy power relations and horrific systems that only a moron or a devil would intentionally create, and let’s see how the insights gained from the Stanford prison experiment can help us to change and deal with such a world.”
Given the passage I quoted above, I would think Zimbardo himself recognizes that the problem is with complex systems in general and not only “extreme” ones, but from the book as a whole I don’t know that I would say that. I think his remarks can be read either way, but if anything he seems more often to treat only Abu Ghraib-type situations as comparable to his Stanford prison experiment, which I find disappointing.
What is your reaction to how the guards behaved? What if you had been picked as a guard?
Zimbardo was unpleasantly surprised at how quickly and thoroughly most of the guards embraced their roles and took to abusing the prisoners. One thing I noticed though—which is a little encouraging—is that there was considerable reluctance early to abuse the prisoners. The experimenters needed to prod the guards multiple times to be more obnoxious. So it’s a little disingenuous to say, “Hey, look how sadistic they became just by being placed in the role of guards,” because in fact it took more than simply placing them in a position of authority to bring that side of them out.
The experiment originally focused on the prisoners as its subjects, with the guards more as supporting actors instructed in how to treat the prisoners. Because the guards’ behavior was more specifically determined in advance rather than being allowed to evolve naturally from the situation, we have to be even more careful in drawing conclusions from the guards’ behavior than from the prisoners’ behavior.
I’m curious what would have happened if the guards had been subjects from the start, and had been given a more general goal—like to just make sure the prisoners don’t escape, or to do whatever makes the prisoners most likely to be good citizens upon release, or whatever—and not told that they have to pursue that goal specifically by humiliating and “breaking” the prisoners and making them aware of their powerlessness. Would they still have done the things they did, because that’s the natural behavior of people in a “guard” role, or would they have experimented with “softer” treatment to influence the prisoners in the desired direction?
Because it’s not so much that they passed up the option to use more carrot and less stick on its merits, or that they were incapable of responding humanely no matter what the prisoners did. For the most part, the more compassionate alternatives had been removed from the table by the instructions they’d received, not by something inherent in an imprisonment situation.
It is interesting though, and distressing, that once pushed in the direction of breaking down the prisoners, they did indeed go farther and farther down that road. They especially warmed to that “count” nonsense. That was thoroughly creepy. That’s the stuff that was getting to me as I read the account of the experiment.
If I had been a participant, and had been put in the role of guard, that petty humiliation, hazing kind of abuse is the stuff I would have had the most difficulty doing.
I don’t mean so much that I’d find it morally objectionable. If I were convinced everyone’s participation in the experiment was totally consensual, and I were convinced that in the long run this experiment would do more good than harm, then I wouldn’t object to the experiment and I wouldn’t think it would be wrong for a person to play a part in it, and therefore I wouldn’t think it would be wrong for me to play my assigned role in it. Even if the prisoners were experiencing some pain and distress, I would regard that like a case where I was a doctor and someone voluntarily was undergoing some medical treatment for research purposes that causes a certain amount of discomfort. If I’m supposed to treat the prisoners a certain way, and they’re consenting to continue participating and accepting such treatment, I don’t think I or the other guards would be morally obligated to quit.
So it wouldn’t really be that I’d think my participation put me in the wrong. It would be more that that kind of behavior is so anathema to me in real life (whether as the perpetrator or the recipient), that I don’t know that I could get past the very powerful negative associations in my mind to even play act that I was treating someone that way.
And I’m almost sure I’d have a much greater natural aversion to that kind of psychological domination and humiliation than I would to physical coercion, even though I’m a strong believer in a moral code of nonviolence, and most people would regard the physical coercion as a much more clear cut case of violence.
Put it this way: Let’s say I had a choice to be a guard in one of two such experiments. In one, I had to run the “count” and do the hazing type humiliations of prisoners. In the other, my job was to use physical force to compel a prisoner to remain in a small cell.
Imagine such a cell walled in on three sides and open on one, with the prisoner inside and me standing in the opening like a wrestler or a defensive football player, there to physically prevent him from leaving. (I guess we’d have to add that I’m one of multiple people in that role working in shifts where I get relieved pretty much whenever I want, otherwise I’d be even more unfree than the prisoner, even more limited in my sphere of movement.) If he tries to get out, I tackle him to the ground, or body block him back into the cell, or grab him and throw him back in, etc. Whether he tries to bull his way through me, or elude me, or trick me in some way, I have to counter his every move with physical force to keep him unfree. (Of course we’re still talking about a case where he can quit the experiment whenever he wants, so he’s not really unfree.)
I would have very little problem being a guard in that second scenario. I’d much rather use physical force on a consenting experiment participant than the verbal abuse. It would just feel like a sport or a game. But even to play act the psychological cruelty would be very, very difficult for me.
I suspect what I would do if I were a guard in the original experiment is I’d be like one of the ones who was somewhat uncooperative with what the experimenters wanted—took the mirrored sun glasses off, skipped as much of the “count” and such as they could—to see if I could handle even that much. And if it was getting to me, I’d quit.
I don’t think I would be even more uncooperative than that, like by facilitating a prisoner escape or trying to subvert the experiment in some way. Zimbardo was disappointed that even the guards that weren’t so gung ho in their abuse did nothing to step in and try to stop it, or even to take their fellows aside between shifts to talk to them about changing their behavior, but I don’t think I would have felt obligated to do that. If I believed the prisoners were consenting to their suffering to further the experiment, and I was unwilling to participate due to personal squeamishness rather than moral objection, I wouldn’t have a problem with other guards doing what they were doing.
So clearly I disagree with Zimbardo on this point, unless we interpret him as saying that the guards should have realized the prisoners’ participation was no longer consensual or that the experiment was doing more harm than good. Because under that interpretation, I agree that a guard who came to that conclusion should have not only quit, but tried to get the experiment itself stopped. But instead I think he’s saying, since these guards didn’t rise up in protest in a situation of make believe abuse that was shading into a gray area of sort of make believe and sort of real, then it follows that they (and people in general) are too unwilling to rise up in protest in a situation of real abuse, and I think that analogy is a stretch.
What is your reaction to how the prisoners behaved? What if you had been picked as a prisoner?
I found it much easier to identify with the prisoners than the guards, since in real life I’m far more likely to end up a prisoner than a guard, plus I know many prisoners well and don’t know any guards well.
So my reading was affected by a “that could be me” feeling. That simultaneously made the material more interesting to me, and created an aversion to immersing myself in it. The way that manifested itself is I would put off reading the book for hours or days to avoid being upset by it, but then once I did start reading I would find that it was really holding my interest and I would read more than I intended.
The rapidity with which the prisoners (or at least most of the prisoners most of the time) conformed to what the guards required of them was of course disappointing. But again I think we have to understand the context. There’s a difference between cooperating with one’s captors when one has been thrown into prison against one’s will, versus going along with what one has been led to believe is required of one to continue an experiment that one has consented to participate in and is being paid to participate in. The motives differ, what it says about a person’s character differs, etc.
So it’s disturbing to me, but to a lesser degree than perhaps many readers (and Zimbardo), since the behavior in the experiment is only partly generalizable to real life.
There was less thought of collective action than I would have expected. It was easier to manipulate them and make them turn on each other than I would have expected. The whole “If A doesn’t do what I want, I’ll punish B” stuff you wouldn’t think would get B to blame A for his punishment, since it’s so blatantly obvious it’s the authority figure who set up this arrangement and is doing the punishing that is to blame. But I guess people go for that pretty routinely.
The “best” prisoner in my mind was clearly the hunger strike guy. He resisted nonviolently to the best of his ability.
Zimbardo faults him for not more effectively communicating what he was doing and why he was doing it, and facilitating others joining him in more of a collective protest. I think that’s quibbling. I think 90% of the value of what he was doing was just that he was manifesting inner strength, defending his human dignity, and providing an example to others of what was possible. 10% of the value was the p.r. stuff. Yeah, it would have been great if he had also been a skilled strategist and such, but the mere nonviolent resistance by itself is highly admirable to me.
One tricky thing in connection with that is that it’s difficult or impossible for someone like him to avoid inconsistency at some level. As a matter of principle, he wouldn’t eat the sausages when ordered because to do so would be to acknowledge that he is powerless and is obligated to obey the guards’ orders, no matter how silly, pointless, petty, or demeaning. OK, then why does he follow the order to hold them in his hands, and to sleep with them? Wouldn’t whatever principle inspires him to defy the order to eat the sausages apply to most or all of the other orders of the guards?
To me I think they really are the same in principle, and one is guilty of inconsistency by cooperating with some orders and defying others. I suppose what I would say though in his shoes is something like this: “I’m obligated to follow none of the orders given to us by these guards to humiliate us and break us and make us turn on each other. Ideally I would ignore all such orders out of principle, and accept whatever consequences ensue from my defiance. However, I recognize that I am imperfect and that I have to pick my battles according to my strength. If I take a stand on principle on one or infrequent occasions, I believe I can endure the consequences of their retaliation. If I cooperate never, I anticipate much more severe consequences that I do not have the strength to face. As much as it is a flaw to stand up and be willing to suffer for my principles only sometimes and only partially and only imperfectly, I believe it would be worse to stand up for them never and cooperate with the guards all the time to be ‘consistent.’”
So he is very much an imperfect warrior, but better that than not to resist at all.
When I imagine myself in the role of prisoner—going back to some things I said earlier—I think the reason I find it so unnerving is that there is such an emphasis on the psychological control and humiliation. It isn’t just that you have to take abuse, but that you have to actively accept it and participate in it.
I always assume in a situation like imprisonment, that the one thing I would want to do—at least in the early going—is just shut down and do and feel as little as possible and just be very passive. As bad as it would be to be thrown into a cell and ignored, or even physically abused to some extent, I imagine myself just being resentful and stoic about that stuff, and going into an emotional shell as a defense mechanism. The result being that I could put up with a decent amount of that, though of course disliking it all the while.
But this stuff about chanting “It’s a wonderful day, Mr. Correctional Officer,” and doing push-ups on demand, and singing their numbers, and all that nonsense, that requires such a higher level of active obedience that I know that would be a much bigger issue to me. I would either not do it and suffer the consequences, or it would pain me enormously more to do it than to passively receive the other forms of abuse.
For instance, in the experiment I almost certainly wouldn’t have cooperated with the humiliation once I had an awareness that the alternative would be no worse than some time in the “Hole.” That’s not even a close call for me. I’d rather spend ten hours locked in a storage closet than spend ten minutes doing jumping jacks and behaving like an ass for the amusement of the guards.
In real life, unlike the experiment, no doubt there are things I could be threatened with a lot worse than some time in the closet, that would make cooperating in the hazing rituals the lesser of the evils. So it’s not possible for me to say simply that it is beneath me to behave like they had the prisoners behaving, and that I would never do it under any circumstances.
If I were somehow forced to do it, I suppose I would still try to shut down as much as possible. So I imagine I would be doing it in a very detached, automaton sort of way. I’d strive for the maximum disconnect between what I am inside, and what my body is doing that is externally observable. Of course if the torturers are perceptive enough and care enough, they’ll be able to recognize this and will insist on eliminating the disconnect. And I have no doubt eventually if they put enough effort into it, they would succeed and break me. I have no illusions that I have some sort of perfect strength of will in that regard.
But I think—and maybe I’m dead wrong—the low level of pressure present in this experiment would not have been enough to defeat me the way it seemed to defeat most of the prisoners. I would have tried to avoid quitting the experiment—treating that as very much a last resort—but I’m pretty sure I would have defied things like the “count” humiliations and openly encouraged others to do the same, even though I knew the guards would retaliate with hole time and such.
A related question is whether I would have preferred to be a guard or a prisoner. I’m almost sure I would have preferred the prisoner role. There’s a lot to dislike about both, but my guess is I would have quit as a guard sooner than I would have quit as a prisoner.
As far as if I had to make that choice in real life, I would say ethically I would almost certainly feel I was a better person if I opted to be a prisoner. I don’t want to say for sure I would choose that, but I believe it would be the right choice.
Aside from the right and wrong of it, if we’re talking purely about comfort level, I would hate both, but certainly being a prisoner seems even more nightmarish, just due to the almost complete loss of freedom. (I think people greatly underestimate just how huge that is.) The mere fact that guards get to go home at night and spend the bulk of their time away from the prison environment is a big factor in favor of preferring to be a guard.
So I would feel morally obligated to be the oppressed rather than the oppressor, and I would hope that is the choice I would make, and it’s possible that is the choice I would make, but I cannot rule out that out of weakness I would choose the other way.
Is there anything in Zimbardo’s general position that you find weak or unconvincing?
Well, one is his claim that acknowledging the power of situational factors has no bearing on personal responsibility, which more or less sweeps aside centuries of philosophical debates about how concepts like free will and moral responsibility are impacted by causal explanations of human behavior, by just asserting that there’s really no impact at all.
This means he’s probably what philosophers call a “soft determinist” or “compatibilist.” That’s become a very common position in philosophy and the social sciences, but I’ve never been convinced by it. At the very least it has enough prima facie implausibility that I would want someone to argue for it rather than just assert or assume it.
His position is that even though people’s behaviors are determined by their circumstances, that doesn’t excuse ill behavior or in any way reduce people’s moral responsibility for what they do.
Which to me is baloney. I say a person is morally responsible for his behavior to precisely the degree that he was capable of behaving in different ways in the same situation. The stronger the situational factors (or any other factors outside of his control), the less his freedom and responsibility. If his behavior can be wholly attributed to such factors, then his responsibility is zero.
There’s a French expression “tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner” that I believe means “to explain is to excuse” or “to understand all is to forgive all.” I think that’s correct, and I think almost everyone outside of academia would agree with that expression.
It’s true that if you asked “regular” people if they agreed, many would balk at it and fear it as some form of liberal claptrap, but if you dig even a little bit, I’ll bet close to a hundred percent of the time it’s not really this claim they disagree with. It is instead the notion that human behavior is ever fully explainable in terms of genes and environment and situational factors. I think almost everyone—again outside of academia—treats it as stunningly obvious that we have a form of “free will” that prevents such causal factors from ever fully determining our behavior.
So the skepticism wouldn’t be about the premise that a complete causal explanation of human behavior would eliminate personal responsibility; the skepticism would be about the premise that such a complete causal explanation of human behavior is possible even in principle.
Maybe they’re wrong and he’s right that attributing behavior to situations doesn’t reduce a person’s moral responsibility, but at the very least it’s an arguable point.
I sense in cases like this that an author is being influenced more by making his positions palatable to readers than by their being true.
I think Zimbardo (not necessarily consciously) wants to guard against turning off readers by making them think he’s somehow excusing wrongdoers, so he throws in some claims about the situational explanations not lessening moral responsibility. But unfortunately I think what he’s done is provide premises from which the conclusion they fear really does follow, and then said, “Well, let’s make believe it doesn’t, so that way you can accept my premises and yet not have to accept any implications of them that you don’t like.”
How do the other experiments Zimbardo talks about relate to the Stanford Prison Experiment? Do they bolster the lessons he seeks to draw from his experiment?
It’s interesting that he brings up many other experiments as corroboration. I’m not sure how closely related they all are, but they’re mostly interesting and important on their own merits.
The ones where people don’t know it’s an experiment carry the most weight with me, like the Third Wave experiment where high school students very readily cooperated with Nazi-like requirements.
I wouldn’t say I find the results of these experiments surprising. They mostly fit my pre-existing impressions of human nature, or at least human nature as modified by normal socialization in the modern world.
Although I can quibble with just about all of the experiments, their cumulative weight is impressive (and depressing). If they all had the same flaws you could maybe dismiss them, but instead each has its own pros and cons and yet leads to the same conclusion that people are rotten and stupid.
I do think, though, that mostly the experiments are trying to prove something we have much more direct evidence of anyway. Like if I built a robot cat to resemble a real cat as closely as possible, and then noted that it chases mice, thus justifying the conclusion that real cats probably chase mice as well. But don’t we already know that from watching, um, real cats?
I know the response is that the point of something like the Stanford Prison Experiment is to neutralize as many as possible of the factors other than the prison situation itself, so as to identify how much impact the situation alone has on behavior. So the idea is if we look only at real prisons, we can’t be confident of how much of the nastiness is attributable to the situation and the generic guard/prisoner relationship itself, as opposed to the prisoners being bad people to begin with, the guards being power-hungry poor people with few other employment options, and so on. Whereas in the experiment, those factors are controlled for—all the participants are chosen from a pool of “normal,” “mentally and emotionally healthy” folks, and assigned to their roles at random.
But to me it’s kind of a silly hypothesis anyway that prisoners (and perhaps guards) are uniformly evil to begin with and that’s why the prison environment is what it is, and so I don’t put a high priority on refuting it. Yeah, I’m sure on average prisoners and guards are more morally flawed than the population as a whole, but if you spend any time with prisoners—and if you open your eyes to the ways that “normal” people on the outside abuse each other that we tend not to be outraged by because we’re so used to them—you’ll quickly see that the difference isn’t anywhere near as great as it’s made out to be.
It’s not as if any existing criminal justice system is even remotely close to perfect in incarcerating only the “worst” people. We don’t need an experiment to create a prison with a varied population. Real prisons are full not only of folks who’ve consistently engaged in very evil behavior, but also people who are mostly good with an occasional lapse, people who are almost always good with only one major lapse, people who are guilty only of violating silly or unjustified laws that aren’t about evil behavior to begin with, and people who were erroneously imprisoned and are innocent of violating even unjust laws.
And similarly, while certain personality types and socioeconomic backgrounds and such are no doubt overrepresented amongst guards, it’s not as if there isn’t huge variety in the guard population, including the subset of guards that engage in whatever kind of behavior we’re interested in studying.
So we can base our conclusions about situational factors on real prisons, which is an approach flawed by the fact that it doesn’t refute the notion that prisoners and possibly guards are not like “us” in that they were all just rotten to begin with (a position I argue doesn’t much need refutation), or we can base our conclusions about situational factors on experimental arrangements that differ from prisons in many, many ways, which is flawed due to all the disanalogies. (No matter how you try to tweak the experimental set-up, there will always be a huge gap between a real prison environment and a bunch of college kids playing make believe and knowing all along that they’re in a psychology experiment.)
I regard the former as a much less flawed source of information from which to draw conclusions. In trying to control for a—in my opinion not very important anyway—potentially causally relevant factor, the experiment unavoidably adds a great deal of artificiality to the situation that weakens any conclusions drawn from it.
But they’re both valuable, and it’s not like we have to choose one or the other. They both carry some weight, and they’re both flawed. Observing real human behavior I think tells us more about prison than observing the experiment, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t better still to have and take into account both.
My reaction to the other experiments is similar. Imagine two of our totally rational, objective aliens from outer space. One has access only to the Milgram experiments. One has access to all of human history itself, but no access to the Milgram or other such psychology experiments. I’d say the evidence the former has is mildly to moderately suggestive that this particular species has a disturbing willingness to engage in cruelty when urged to by an authority figure, while the evidence the latter has overwhelmingly leads to the same conclusion.
But again, that doesn’t make the experiments completely superfluous. I think they add a little bit to the already damning pre-existing evidence that most people are frightfully ready, willing and able to behave abominably toward each other when their social reality provides the slightest sanction for doing so.
I know when I was reading about them I consistently reacted to the experiments as interesting and at least moderately enlightening about certain aspects of human nature. However, on reflection it may be that I was reacting not so much to the inherent merits of the experiments, but more to the fact that reading a book about them makes me more conscious of certain important things I already knew at some level from other—and better—evidence, and causes me to focus some attention on related important and interesting matters.
Much like a novel about war doesn’t really constitute evidence about war, but it may cause people to look more closely at real wars (where the real evidence is) and to see them from certain new perspectives or with certain helpful new hypotheses in mind.
But I do really like using psychology for things like what Zimbardo is doing in this book—determining what factors make people behave in especially rotten and stupid ways, both situational factors and factors that influence the development of their dispositional selves. Psychology experimentation is a very imperfect methodology for doing that, but not one of zero value, especially when it is used to augment rather than replace the evidence of the behavior in the real world.
What struck you about the Abu Ghraib material specifically?
One thing that stood out to me was the estimates that a fairly small percentage of the inmates were likely guilty of anything significant.
Even in the most liberal criminal justice system where the rights of the accused are most meticulously safeguarded, human fallibility means there will be some small number of innocents who are punished. But in a situation like Abu Ghraib, we’re talking about things like a massive, indiscriminate rounding up of all males within a certain age range, where innocence will be the norm rather than the exception.
Normally I’m suspicious of movies and such that attempt to win the audience’s sympathy for human rights by portraying innocent folks being tortured and brutalized (e.g., an innocent person imprisoned, a flawless woman as a victim of spousal abuse, honest and hard-working Okies being screwed by the powers that be in their trek to California, etc.), because they imply that it’s not torture and abuse in and of themselves that are wrong, but just the torture of “good guys.”
But in a case like this, it’s interesting to contemplate just how much of the torture was dished out against people who likely the Americans had no beef with in the first place.
So we’re not even talking about the pros and cons of torturing “terrorists,” but torturing lots and lots of people because a few might be terrorists.
One thing that also came to mind in reading the Abu Ghraib material is that I think it’s naïve to believe people (which is to say, Americans) would never do things like this by design and in a way that is intended to be at least somewhat public. I don’t find it puzzling that it happens, nor that it wasn’t better kept secret.
Zimbardo correctly points out that it was not just a matter of a few “bad apples” acting contrary to what was expected and desired of them by the people who put them there, that instead the situation (the “barrel”) made their behavior quite likely, even if they weren’t horrible people going in. I would just say, though, that I don’t think the American decisionmakers were unaware of the psychology of the situation and were caught by surprise that some of their soldiers did what they did. To a significant degree, such “barrels” are manufactured intentionally, by people who believe it’s imperative that their side be willing and able to fight dirty (though in their minds most of them would make the distinction that our enemies do it because they’re evil; we do it because if we didn’t we’d be defenseless against such evil enemies).
And since a big reason for torture is to terrorize a target population, full and effective secrecy is not appropriate. I’m sure those calling the shots were less than pleased about cell phone photos and such revealing the torture to the American public, but it’s certainly not supposed to be kept secret from Iraqis. They’re supposed to get the message that the U.S. and it’s allies will fuck with people to the extent of rounding up mostly innocents and torturing them if they don’t get their way.
So it’s all well and good to seek to improve our barrelmaking skills so that we’ll be capable of avoiding making barrels that generate apples that torture, but that presupposes that we don’t want any apples that torture, and I’m not convinced that such a goal is even close to universal.
In spite of all that I’ve written, I could write considerably more about this fascinating topic and book. But I have to stop somewhere, so I’ll cut it off here. Certainly I recommend The Lucifer Effect as an important and educational book.