Re: Iraq: Responses to Zimbardo

From: Peter Smagorinsky (
Date: Mon May 10 2004 - 09:26:54 PDT

At 10:52 AM 5/10/2004 -0400, you wrote:

>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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