Over the years I’ve asked that question in more and more refined ways. I began to investigate what specific kinds of situational variables or processes could make someone step across that line between good and evil. We all like to think that the line is impermeable—that people who do terrible things like commit murder, treason, or kidnapping are on the other side of the line—and we could never get over there. We want to believe that we’re with the good people. My work began by saying, no, that line is permeable. The reason some people are on the good side of the line is that they’ve never really been tested. They’ve never really been put in unusual circumstances where they were tempted or seduced across that line. My research over the last 30 years has created situations in the laboratory or in field settings in which we take good, normal, average, healthy people—more often than not healthy college students—and expose them to these kinds of settings.
For example, think of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, in which the key variable in transforming Jack Merridew, a good choirboy, into a kid who could not only kill pigs but also then kill Piggy the intellectual is that he changes appearance. He gets naked, uses berries to mask himself, and makes other kids do the same. Then they do something that has been prohibited; namely, they kill pigs they need for food. Once killing is disinhibited, then they are able to kill freely. Is that idea a novelist’s conceit, or is it a psychologically valid concept?
To investigate this I created an experiment. We took women students at New York University and made them anonymous. We put them in hoods, put them in the dark, took away their names, gave them numbers, and put them in small groups. And sure enough, within half an hour those sweet women were giving painful electric shocks to other women within an experimental setting. We also repeated that experiment on deindividuation with the Belgian military, and in a variety of formats, with the same outcomes. Any situation that makes you anonymous and gives permission for aggression will bring out the beast in most people. That was the start of my interest in showing how easy it is to get good people to do things they say they would never do.
It Wasn’t Black or Puerto Rican Kids
I also did research on vandalism. When I was a teacher at NYU I noticed that there were hundreds and hundreds of vandalized cars on the streets throughout the city. I lived in Brooklyn and commuted to NYU in the Bronx, and I’d see a car in the street. I’d call the police and say, “You know, there’s a car demolished on 167th and Sedgwick Avenue. Was it an accident?” When he told me it was vandals, I said, “Who were the vandals? I’d like to interview them.” He told me that they were little Black or Puerto Rican kids who come out of the sewers, smash everything, paint graffiti on the walls, break windows and disappear.
So I created what ethologists would call “releaser cues.” I bought used cars, took off license plates, and put the hood up, and we photographed what happened. It turns out that it wasn’t little Black or Puerto Rican kids, but White, middle-class Americans who happened to be driving by. We had a car near NYU in the Bronx. Within ten minutes the driver of the first car that passed by jacked it up and took a tire. Ten minutes later a little family would come. The father took the radiator, the mother emptied the trunk, and the kid took care of the glove compartment. In 48 hours we counted 23 destructive contacts with that car. In only one of those were kids involved. We did a comparison in which we set out a car a block from Palo Alto, where Stanford University is. The car was out for a week, and no one touched it until the last day when it rained and somebody put the hood down. God forbid that the motor should get wet.
This gives you a sense of what a community is. A sense of community means people are as concerned about any property or people on their turf because there’s a sense of reciprocal concern. The assumption is that I am concerned because you will be concerned about me and my property. In an anonymous environment nobody knows who I am and nobody cares, and I don’t care to know about anyone else. The environment can convey anonymity externally, or it can be put on like a Ku Klux Klan outfit.
And so I and other colleagues began to do research on dehumanization. What are the ways in which, instead of changing yourself and becoming the aggressor, it becomes easier to be hostile against other people by changing your psychological conception of them? You think of them as worthless animals. That’s the killing power of stereotypes.
Parallels with Abu Ghraib
There are stunning parallels between the Stanford Prison Experiment and what happened at Abu Ghraib, where some of the visual scenes that we have seen include guards stripping prisoners naked, putting bags over heads, putting them in chains, and having them engage in sexually degrading acts. And in both prisons the worst abuses came on the night shift. Our guards committed very little physical abuse. There was a prisoner riot on the second day, and the guards used physical abuse, and I, as both the superintendent of the prison as well as the principal investigator (my big mistake—you can’t play both of those roles), I continually told them that they could not use physical abuse. But then they resorted entirely to psychological controls and psychological domination. There is an interesting comparison between police detectives who after being forced to give up brutal third degree abuses in getting confessions, switched to psychological tactics, and they were equally effective in obtaining confessions after interrogation, as my research in the Sixties documented.
Our guards would say things to the prisoners like, “You’re Frankenstein. You’re Mrs. Frankenstein. Walk like Frankenstein. Hug her. Tell her you love her.” And then they would push them together.
We learned that in real prisons one of the things guards try to do is weaken the masculinity in dominance, because prisons are a threat to the guards’ security. And so at Stanford the prisoners wore smocks with no underpants, like dresses. We did that purposely to feminize them. The guards would tell the prisoners that they should line up to play leapfrog. It’s just a simple game, except when you leap over each prisoner your genitals smack each guy’s head. Then they’d say, “You, bend over. You’re female camels.” And when they did their behinds were showing. And then they would tell others, “You’re male camels. Line up behind them. Okay, hump them.” This is a funny play on words, of course, but they had the prisoners simulating sodomy.
These are exact parallels between what happened in this basement at Stanford 30 years ago and at Abu Ghraib, where you see images of prisoners stripped naked, wearing hoods or masks as guards get them to simulate sodomy. The question is whether what we learned about the psychological mechanisms that transformed our good volunteers into these creatively evil guards can be used to understand the transformation of good American Army reservists into the people we see in these “trophy photos” in Abu Ghraib. And my answer is, yes, there are very direct parallels.
One of the distressing things I have to think about is whether or not the results of my research, which I’ve written about extensively, have been incorporated by the Pentagon in its various programs. I hate to think that my research actually contributed to creating this evil, rather than simply helping to explain it. But the situation we have now is that the Army, the Pentagon, and the administration are trying to disown any influence on the specific guards seen in those trophy pictures. One of the many investigations (the Schlessinger Report) into these abuses explicitly states that the Stanford Prison Experiment should have served as a forewarning to those running Abu Ghraib Prison of the potential dangers of excesses by guards in such settings.
It is hard to comprehend what the soldiers were thinking when they took photos of themselves engaged in those abuses—”trophy photos.” I call them “trophy photos” because the analog is to big game hunters displaying their victory over the beasts of the earth and sea. But a more potent parallel are the trophy photos from lynchings of Black men and women over decades. There’s a remarkable book called No Sanctuary which shows that for a hundred years not only did Americans lynch blacks in the South and the Midwest, but they often took photos of their illegal lynchings, including photos of all those people who were involved. These were not only lynching photos, but brutal whippings, and they also burned blacks alive. In some of the pictures young children are photographed watching the spectacle. To make the horror worse, these images were put on postcards, and people would send them to one another, or would frame them and hang them in their living rooms. Talk about dehumanization! The concept of lynching or burning somebody alive is horrible enough, but then to take a picture, put yourself in it, and then send it to your mother to say, “I’m the third one on the left,” is just evil.
The Corruption of Otherwise Good People
These terrible deeds form an interesting analog in America, because there are two things we are curious to understand about Abu Ghraib. First, how did the soldiers get so far out of hand? And secondly, why would the soldiers take pictures of themselves in positions that make them legally culpable? The ones that are on trial now are the ones in those pictures, although obviously there are many more people involved in various ways. We can understand why they did so not only by applying the basic social-psychological processes from the Stanford prison study, but also by analyzing what was unique in Abu Ghraib.
There are several important concepts. First, in both cases there’s the deindividuation, the sense of anonymity. The CIA agents, the civilian interrogators, never wore uniforms or showed identification. In all of the pictures the soldiers were typically not wearing uniforms. They often had their tops off. That’s a violation of military protocol, because even in a prison you’re supposed to be wearing your uniform. In the 1970s the police would do that during student riots against the Vietnam War. They would take off their jackets with their names and ID numbers. I was at Columbia University in a police riot, and I was at Stanford in a police riot, and the first thing the cops did was to take off anything that identified themselves, or put on gas masks when there was no gassing, only to create a state of anonymity.
At Abu Ghraib you had the social modeling in which somebody takes the lead in doing something. You had the dehumanization, the use of labels of the other as inferior, as worthless. There was a diffusion of responsibility such that nobody was personally accountable. The Stanford prison study identified a whole set of principles, all of which you can see are totally applicable in this setting.
The other thing, of course, is that you had low-level army reservists who had no “mission-specific” training in how to do this difficult, new job. There was little or no supervision of them on the night and there was literally no accountability. This went on for months in which the abuses escalated over time. This also happened in my study. Each day it got worse and worse.
And then there is the hidden factor of boredom. One of the main contributors to evil, violence, and hostility in all prisons that we underplay is the boredom factor. In fact, the worst things that happened in our prisons occurred during the night shifts. Guards came on at ten o’clock and had eight hours to kill when nothing was happening. They made things happen by turning the prisoners into their playthings, not out of evil motives, but because this was what was available to break through the boredom. Also at play in the prison in Abu Ghraib was extreme fear among the guards because of the constant mortar attacks that had killed soldiers and prisoners, and escape attempts.
Dehumanization also occurred because the prisoners often had no prison clothes available, or were forced to be naked as a humiliation tactic by the military police and higher ups. There were too many of them; in a few months the number soared from 400 to over a thousand. They didn’t have regular showers, did not speak English, and they stank. Under these conditions it’s easy for guards to come to think of the prisoners as animals, and dehumanization processes set in.
When you put that set of horrendous work conditions and external factors together, it creates an evil barrel. You could put virtually anybody in it and you’re going to get this kind of evil behavior. The Pentagon and the military say that the Abu Ghraib scandal is the result of a few bad apples in an otherwise good barrel. That’s a dispositional analysis. The social psychologist in me, and the consensus among many of my colleagues in experimental social psychology, says that’s the wrong analysis. It’s not the bad apples, it’s the bad barrels that corrupt good people. Understanding the abuses at this Iraqi prison starts with an analysis of both the situational and systematic forces operating on those soldiers working the night shift in that ‘little shop of horrors.’
Coming from New York, I know that if you go by a delicatessen, and you put a sweet cucumber in the vinegar barrel, the cucumber might say, “No, I want to retain my sweetness.” But it’s hopeless. The barrel will turn the sweet cucumber into a pickle. You can’t be a sweet cucumber in a vinegar barrel. My sense is that we have the evil barrel of war, into which we’ve put this evil barrel of this prison—it turns out actually all of the military prisons have had similar kinds of abuses—and what you get is the corruption of otherwise good people.
Understanding the Power of Situational Factors
I was recently engaged as an expert witness for the defense of one of the Abu Ghraib night shift guards in his court martial trial. As such, I had access to all of the horrible images that various soldiers took of their infamous deeds in action, along with most of the reports of the official investigations, spending a day with the defendant and his wife, arranging to have various psychological assessments made, and checking on his background and army reserve record.
In addition to realizing the relevance of my earlier research to understanding some of the forces acting on him and the other night shift soldiers, it became apparent that he was also totally abused by the situation that the military had thrust upon him. Imagine the cumulative stress of working 12-hour night shifts, seven days a week, with not a day off for 40 days! Also regularly missing breakfast and lunch because he slept through them having finished his tour of duty at 4:00 am and sleeping in a small cell in another part of the prison that he rarely left. When he complained about children mixed with adult inmates or mentally ill or those with contagious tuberculosis among the prisoners, he was reprimanded, but rewarded for helping to get confessions by softening up the inmates. Not once was there any official supervision on his night shift that he could rely on. There were insufficient guards, 8 for 1000 inmates and none had been adequately trained for this tough job. His psychological testing and my interview revealed a young man who had not a single symptom of pathology that he brought into that prison; the situation was the pathological ingredient that infected his reason and judgment. Indeed, in many ways, this soldier is an American icon—a good husband, father, worker, patriotic, religious, with many friends and a long history of having lived a mostly normal, moral small town life.
Despite my detailed trial testimony about all situational and systemic forces influencing his distorted group mentality, the judge threw the book at him, giving him eight years in prison and many other penalties. He refused to acknowledge what many of the official investigations clearly revealed, that the abuses at Abu Ghraib could have prevented or would not have occurred were it not for “a failure or lack of leadership.” Some reports list the officers and agencies responsible by name, but they are likely never to be considered bad apples, but only the custodians of a barrel that had some defects. The judge, and juries, in recent military jury trials, minimized the powerful situational and systemic factors that engulfed these young men and women. Their actions were assumed to be products of free will, rational choice and personal accountability. I argue that this is not so when deindividuation, group mind and the host of stress, exhaustion, sleep deprivation and other psychological states are at play. People become transformed, just as the good angel, Lucifer, was transformed into the devil. Situations matter much more than most people realize or acknowledge.
I’ve been teaching bright college students for nearly 50 years, and it’s hard to get them to appreciate the situationist’s analysis of evil, prejudice, or any kind of pathological behavior because our whole society is so wedded to the dispositional perspective: Good people do good deeds, and bad people do bad deeds. It’s part of our institutional thinking. It’s what psychiatry is all about. It’s what medicine is all about. It’s what the legal system is all about. And it’s what religious systems are all about. We put good inside of people, and we put bad inside of people. It’s so ingrained in the way we think, but the situationist’s perspective says that although that may sometimes be true, we need to acknowledge that there can be powerful, yet subtle social forces in given settings that have potentially transformative power over us…