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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 02-May-07


Wednesday 02-May-07

Lucifer in prison

I recently had the delightful opportunity to attend a lecture by psychology legend Philip Zimbardo (who is doing the 'tour of the book' for The Lucifer Effect), which of course I took.

Zimbardo is the guy who did the famous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, where he took two random groups of students, made one group prisoners (in a mock prison environment) and the others as.guards. The experiment was intended to run for two weeks but had to be stopped after six days as the guards were becoming brutal and sadistic whilst the prisoners turned into withdrawn, cowering wrecks. Just being put into roles was enough, it seems for non-characteristic behaviour to emerge.

In the early days of social psychology this was a remarkable finding. What is tragic is that its lessons have not been learned. Zimbardo was called as a defence witness for one of the American guards involved in the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. After Saddam Hussein's atrocities, it seemed as if the Americans were following in his footsteps as appalling photographs of naked prisoners appeared with bags over their heads, wires attached to them and forced into degrading acts.

What Zimbardo's experiments showed, however, was how decent people can quickly descend into inhuman acts when placed in certain contexts. This was the core of his argument in defence of the guards -- they were not evil people and were largely victims of circumstance. 'Hang on a minute' I hear you say, but consider this: imagine you are a reservist, called up to serve in a deadly hell-hole where you never know if the citizen passing by is about to kill you. Then you get put in the lowly position of prison guard where you work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for months on end. You are engaged in interrogations where breaking down the will of the prisoner is standard operating procedure. You live in the prison, sleeping is a spare cell. Supplies of water and power are unreliable. The prison is randomly bombarded and several friends have been killed. Sometimes it's just you, a couple of others, 1000 prisoners and no commanding officer. Don't you think you might crack?

The real problem for the US government was that explicit photos had got out and they had been severely embarrassed. So they needed a scapegoat and the soldier was the fall-guy. People since then have got off lightly for worse crimes -- but then there were no photographs.

Zimbardo was quite clear -- it's the system that is really to blame. The subsequent investigation came up with the same conclusions that Zimbardo did over 35 years ago. He was clearly frustrated and has now changed his focus to understanding heroism. And his first hero is the guy who blew the whistle on Abu Ghraib, and whose only reward has been death threats. To understand how people fight off those huge pressures to abuse -- the Lucifer Effect' as Zimbardo calls it -- and helping people to resist influence, may be to help the human race forward, which would be a great legacy.

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