From Heavens to Hells to Heroes

Our prison simulation tried to create a psychology of imprisonment in the minds of all participants and staff, with all-powerful guards dominating powerless prisoners. The realistic elements including actual mass arrests and booking by the city police, visits by a prison chaplain, public defender, and parents in visiting hours, parole board hearings, along with unplanned prisoner rebellions and guards’ abuse and torture of prisoners. The experiment had to be terminated after only 6 days because nearly half the prisoners had emotional breakdowns in response to the extreme stress and psychological torments sadistically invented by their guards. The situational forces had overwhelmed many of these good, intelligent college students.

Abu Ghraib Abuses

Fast forward next to April 2004. Horror images flash across our television screens of humiliating abuses of Iraqi prisoners by young American soldiers; men and women Military Police in Abu Ghraib Prison. The military commanders condemn these criminal actions of a “few bad apples,” asserting that such abuses are not systematic in our military prisons. The images were shocking to me, but familiar because they were so similar to what I had seen in our mock Stanford Prison-- Prisoners naked, bags over their heads, forced into sexually humiliating poses. Could the perpetrators of these evils be like the good apples in my prison? Could they have been corrupted by the “bad barrel” of the Abu Ghraib Prison within the bad barrel of war? To what extent was their behavior shaped by the same kinds of social psychological forces that operated in the Stanford Prison Experiment, such as dehumanization? My conclusion, after having become an expert witness for one of those military policemen, and reviewing all the evidence of the many investigations into these abuses, was that the parallels were palpable, the same psychology was at work despite different settings. One of the investigative reports by the Schlesinger Committee highlighted the fact that the “landmark Stanford study” should have been a cautionary tale for the military in preventing the Abu Ghraib abuses.

My new book, ‘The Lucifer Effect’ presents a detailed analysis of the psychological transformation of good apples immersed in bad barrels, both in mock and real prisons. Such an understanding does not excuse immoral behavior, rather it makes us aware of how the to change those features of situations, like military prison environments, that can exerts such corrosive influences on even our best young soldiers who temporarily play various roles on those stages. Historical inquiry and behavioral science have demonstrated the “banality of evil”—that is, given certain conditions, ordinary people can succumb to social pressure to commit acts that would otherwise be unthinkable. Just as Lucifer was transformed from God’s favorite angel into the devil, I argue that many good, ordinary people can also be seduced by situational forces to engage in evil deeds.

I also question how well any of us really knows what we are capable of doing in new situations where we might be given authority and control over others. We want to believe that we are good folks fully aware of the inner moral constraints on our behavior, and of course different from the bad folks on the other side of the line separating good and evil. But the dangerous thought to consider is that line being permeable, like cells of our body that allow movement of chemicals across their boundaries. Any thing that any human being has ever done, that is imaginable, becomes doable, by any of us in the same situation. It is a humbling corrective to our moral arrogance of assuming superiority without fully appreciating the situational forces that may have driven others just like us to become perpetrators of evil at that time in that place.

Good news: We can resist powerful situations and even become heroes

We need not be slaves to situational forces. In all the research that my colleagues in social psychology and I have conducted, we find that although the majority conform, comply, yield, and succumb to the power of the situation, there are always some who refuse, resist, and disobey. They do so in part because they are more sensitive to these situational pressures, more “street wise,” and are able to engage effective mental strategies of resistance against unwanted social forces. Some of what they know intuitively is how to spot and identify wolves dressed in sheep’s garments, smiling faces of con men and slick sisters with hot deals concealing manipulative intent. They are also more aware than most people of how their own thinking can contribute to distorting the scene before them, and thus needs some mental correcting.

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