I must be too cynical. I thought I didn’t like Philip Zimbardo‘s theatrics, but regardless I really appreciated this NYT interview with him on the universal capacity for evil.
(S.P.E. is the Stanford Prison Experiment, whose pictures here are from that lovely basement hallway, still there behind the 420-40 and 41 lecture rooms.)
Q. What was your reaction when you first saw those photographs from Abu Ghraib?
A. I was shocked. But not surprised. I immediately flashed on similar pictures from the S.P.E. What particularly bothered me was that the Pentagon blamed the whole thing on a “few bad apples.” I knew from our experiment, if you put good apples into a bad situation, you’ll get bad apples.
That was why I was willing to be an expert witness for Sgt. Chip Frederick, who was ultimately sentenced to eight years for his role at Abu Ghraib. Frederick was the Army reservist who was put in charge of the night shift at Tier 1A, where detainees were abused. Frederick said, up front, “What I did was wrong, and I don’t understand why I did it.”
Q. Do you understand?
A. Yeah. The situation totally corrupted him. When his reserve unit was first assigned to guard Abu Ghraib, Frederick was exactly like one of our nice young men in the S.P.E. Three months later, he was exactly like one of our worst guards.
Q. Aren’t you absolving Sergeant Frederick of personal responsibility for his actions?
A. You had the C.I.A., civilian interrogators, military intelligence saying to the Army reservists, “Soften these detainees up for interrogation.”
Those kinds of vague orders were the equivalent of my saying to the S.P.E. guards, “It’s your prison.” At Abu Ghraib, you didn’t have higher-ups saying, “You must do these terrible things.” The authorities, I believe, created an environment that gave guards permission to become abusive — plus one that gave them plausible deniability.
Chip worked 40 days without a single break, 12-hour shifts. The place was overcrowded, filthy, dangerous, under constant bombardment. All of that will distort judgment, moral reasoning. The bottom line: If you’re going to have a secret interrogation center in the middle of a war zone, this is going to happen.
Q. You keep using this phrase “the situation” to describe the underlying cause of wrongdoing. What do you mean?
A. That human behavior is more influenced by things outside of us than inside. The “situation” is the external environment. The inner environment is genes, moral history, religious training. There are times when external circumstances can overwhelm us, and we do things we never thought. If you’re not aware that this can happen, you can be seduced by evil. We need inoculations against our own potential for evil. We have to acknowledge it. Then we can change it.
Q. So you disagree with Anne Frank, who wrote in her diary, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart?”
A. That’s not true. Some people can be made into monsters. And the people who abused, and killed her, were.
On a slightly lighter note. On his conscience:
Q. Why did you pull the plug on the experiment?
A. On the fifth night, my former graduate student Christina Maslach came by. She witnessed the guards putting bags over the prisoners’ heads, chain their legs and march them around. Chris ran out in tears. “I’m not sure I want to have anything more to do with you, if this is the sort of person you are,” she said. “It’s terrible what you’re doing to those boys.” I thought, “Oh my God, she’s right.”
If you ever see the official Stanford prison experiment video, Zimbardo continues: “She was right. And she later became my wife.” Yikes.
Finally, on the Milgram experiment:
Here’s something that’s sort of funny. The first time I spoke publicly about the S.P.E., Stanley Milgram told me: “Your study is going to take all the ethical heat off of my back. People are now going to say yours is the most unethical study ever, and not mine.”
There’s a lot to say about the ethical and methodological dimensions of the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments’ (unfortunate?) legacy on the behavioral sciences. For another day’s post, perhaps.