Iraq: Responses to Zimbardo

Date: Mon May 10 2004 - 07:52:54 PDT

Why everyone's not a torturer
By Stephen Reicher and Alex Haslam

Guards and prisoners, taking part in The Experiment for the BBC in 2002
So groups of people in positions of unaccountable power naturally
resort to violence, do they? Not according to research conducted in a
BBC experiment.
The photographs from Abu Ghraib prison showing Americans abusing Iraqi
prisoners make us recoil and lead us to distance ourselves from their
horror and brutality. Surely those who commit such acts are not like
us? Surely the perpetrators must be twisted or disturbed in some way?
They must be monsters. We ourselves would never condone or contribute
to such events.

Sadly, 50 years of social psychological research indicates that such
comforting thoughts are deluded. A series of major studies have shown
that even well-adjusted people, when divided into groups and placed in
competition against each other, can become abusive and violent.

Stanley Milgram at Yale instructed experimenters to give electric
shocks to another
They did so, despite person's cries of pain

In depth: After Saddam
Most notoriously, the 1971 Stanford prison experiment, conducted by
Philip Zimbardo and colleagues, seemingly showed that young students
who were assigned to the role of guard quickly became sadistically
abusive to the students assigned to the role of prisoners.

Combined with lessons from history, the disturbing implication of such
research is that evil is not the preserve of a small minority of
exceptional individuals. We all have the capacity to behave in evil
ways. This idea was famously developed by Hannah Arendt whose
observations of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, led her to remark
that what was most frightening was just how mild and ordinary he
looked. His evil was disarmingly banal.

The latest pictures show detainees being threatened with dogs (AP
Photo/Courtesy of The New Yorker)
In order to explain events in Iraq, one might go further and conclude
that the torturers were victims of circumstances, that they lost their
moral compass in the group and did things they would normally abhor.
Indeed, using Zimbardo's findings as evidence, this is precisely what
some people do conclude. But this is bad psychology and it is bad

It is bad psychology because it suggests we can explain human behaviour
without needing to scrutinize the wider culture in which it is located.
It is bad ethics because it absolves everyone from any responsibility
for events - the perpetrators, ourselves as constituents of the wider
society, and the leaders of that society.

In the situation of Abu Ghraib, some reports have indicated that the
guards were following orders from intelligence officers and
interrogators in order to soften up the prisoners for interrogation.

If that is true, then clearly the culture in which these soldiers were
immersed was one in which they were encouraged to see and treat Iraqis
as subhuman. Other army units almost certainly had a very different
culture and this provides a second explanation of why some people in
some units may have tortured, but others did not.

Grotesque fun

Perhaps the best evidence that such factors were at play is the fact
that the pictures were taken at all. Reminiscent of the postcards that
lynch mobs circulated to advertise their activities, the torture was
done proudly and with a grotesque sense of fun.

'Those in the photos wanted others to know what they had done'
(AP/Courtesy The New Yorker)
Those in the photos wanted others to know what they had done,
presumably believing that the audience would approve. This sense of
approval is very important, since there is ample evidence that people
are more likely to act on any inclinations to behave in obnoxious ways
when they sense - correctly or incorrectly - that they have broader

So where did the soldiers in Iraq get that sense from? This takes us to
a critical influence on group behaviour: leadership. In the studies,
leadership - the way in which experimenters either overtly or tacitly
endorsed particular forms of action - was crucial to the way
participants behaved.

  Many guards in our experiment did not wish to act - or be seen to
act - as bullies or oppressors
Thus one reason why the guards in our own research for the BBC did not
behave as brutally as those in the Stanford study, was that we did not
instruct them to behave in this way.

Zimbardo, in contrast, told his participants: "You can create in the
prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can
create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled
by us, by the system, you, me - and they'll have no privacy.... In
general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness".

Officers' messages

In light of this point it is interesting to ask what messages were
being provided by fellow and, more critically, senior officers in the
units where torture took place? Did those who didn't approve fail to
speak out for fear of being seen as weak or disloyal? Did senior
officers who knew what was going on turn a blind eye or else simply
file away reports of misbehaviour?

All these things happened after the My Lai massacre, and in many ways
the responses to an atrocity tell us most about how it can happen in
the first place. They tell us how murderers and torturers can begin to
believe that they will not be held to account for what they do, or even
that their actions are something praiseworthy. The more they perceive
that torture has the thumbs up, the more they will give it a thumbs up

So how do we prevent these kinds of episodes? One answer is to ensure
that people are always made aware of their other moral commitments and
their accountability to others. Whatever the pressures within their
military group, their ties to others must never be broken. Total and
secret institutions, where people are isolated from contact with all
others are breeding grounds for atrocity. Similarly, there are great
dangers in contracting out security functions to private contractors
which lack fully developed structures of public accountability.

Power vacuum

Another answer is to look at the culture of our institutions and the
role of leaders in framing that culture. Bad leadership can permit
torture in two ways. Sometimes leaders can actively promote oppressive
values. This is akin to what happened in Zimbardo's study and may be
the case in certain military intelligence units. But sometimes leaders
can simply fail to promote anything and hence create a vacuum of power.

'Inmates' in The Experiment in their cells

Is it in anyone to abuse a captive?
Our own findings indicated that where such a vacuum exists, people are
more likely to accept any clear line of action which is vigorously
proposed. Often, then, tyranny follows from powerlessness rather than
power. In either case, the failure of leaders to champion clear humane
and democratic values is part of the problem.

But it is not enough to consider leadership in the military. One must
look more widely at the messages and the values provided in the
community at large. That means that we must address the anti-Arab and
anti-Muslim sentiment in our society. A culture where we have got used
to pictures of Iraqi prisoners semi-naked, chained and humiliated can
create a climate in which torturers see themselves as heroes rather
than villains.

Again, for such a culture to thrive it is not necessary for everyone to
embrace such sentiments, it is sufficient simply for those who would
oppose them to feel muted and out-of-step with societal norms.

Leaders' language

And we must also look at political leadership. When administration
officials talk about cleaning out "rats' nests" of Iraqi dissidents, it
likens Iraqis to vermin. Note, for example, that just before the
Rwandan genocide, Hutu extremists started referring to Tutsi's
as "cockroaches".

The US is trying to limit the damage after an abuse scandal
(AP/Courtesy The New Yorker)
Such use of language again creates a climate in which perpetrators of
atrocity can maintain the illusion that they are nobly doing what
others know must be done. The torturers in Iraq may or may not have
been following direct orders from their leaders, but they were almost
certainly allowed to feel that they were behaving as good followers.

So if we want to understand why torture occurs, it is important to
consider the psychology of individuals, of groups, and of society.
Groups do indeed affect the behaviour of individuals and can lead them
to do things they never anticipated. But how any given group affects
our behaviour depends upon the norms and values of that specific group.

Evil can become banal, but so can humanism. The choice is not denied to
us by human nature but rests in our own hands. Hence, we need a
psychological analysis that addresses the values and beliefs that we,
our institutions, and our leaders promote. These create the conditions
in which would-be torturers feel either emboldened or unable to act.

We need an analysis that makes us accept rather than avoid our
responsibilities. Above all, we need a psychology which does not
distance us from torture but which requires us to look closely at the
ways in which we and those who lead us are implicated in a society
which makes barbarity possible.

Alex Haslam is a professor of psychology at University of Exeter and
editor of the European Journal of Social Psychology. Stephen Reicher is
a professor of psychology at University of St Andrews, past editor of
the British Journal of Social Psychology and a fellow of the Royal
Society of Edinburgh.

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