In 1971, researchers at Stanford University created a simulated prison in the basement of the campus psychology building. They randomly assigned 24 students to be either prison guards or prisoners for two weeks.
Within days, the “guards” had become swaggering and sadistic, to the point of placing bags over the prisoners’ heads, forcing them to strip naked and encouraging them to perform sexual acts.
The landmark Stanford experiment and studies like it give insight into how ordinary people can, under the right circumstances, do horrible things – including the mistreatment of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
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What is the distance between “normal” and “monster?” Can anyone become a torturer?
Such questions have been explored over the decades by philosophers and social scientists and come up anew whenever shocking cases of abuse burst upon the national consciousness, whether in the interrogation room, the police station or the high school locker room.
Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “banality of evil” to describe the very averageness of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann. Social psychologists pursued the question more systematically, conducting experiments that demonstrated the power of situations to determine human behavior.
Philip Zimbardo, a leader of the Stanford prison study, said that, while the rest of the world was shocked by the images from Iraq, “I was not surprised that it happened.
“I have exact, parallel pictures of prisoners with bags over their heads,” from the 1971 study, he said.
At one point, he said, the guards in the fake prison ordered their prisoners to strip and used a rudimentary sex joke to humiliate them.
Zimbardo ended the experiment the next day, more than a week earlier than planned.
Prisons, where the balance of power is so unequal, tend to be brutal and abusive places unless great effort is made to control the guards’ base impulses, he said. At Stanford – and in Iraq, he added – “It’s not that we put bad apples in a good barrel. We put good apples in a bad barrel. The barrel corrupts anything that it touches.”
To the extent that the Abu Ghraib guards acted at the request of intelligence officers, as some have argued, other studies performed 40 years ago by Stanley Milgram, then a psychology professor at Yale, also can offer some explanation, researchers said.
In a famous series of experiments, Milgram told test subjects that they were taking part in a study about teaching through punishment.
The subjects were instructed by a researcher in a white lab coat to deliver electric shocks to another participant, the “student.”
Every time the student gave an incorrect answer to a question, the subject was ordered to deliver a shock. The shocks got progressively stronger, at the researcher’s insistence, with labels on the machine indicating jolts up to a huge 450 volts.
The shock machine was a fake, however, and the “students” were actors who moaned and wailed. But to the test subjects, the experience was all too real.
A stunning 65 percent of the participants obeyed the commands to administer the electric shocks all the way up to the last, potentially lethal switch, marked “XXX.”
Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz and one of the lead researchers in the Stanford experiment, said that prison abuses can be prevented.
“The basic message of the study is that prisons are, basically, destructive environments that have to be guarded against at all times,” he said. He added that regular training and discipline can keep prisons from degenerating into pits of abuse, but the vigilance must be constant and include outside monitoring.
Without outsiders watching, Haney said, “What’s regarded as appropriate treatment can shift over time” so “they don’t realize how badly they’re behaving and, as in this case, they take pictures of it.
“If anything,” he said, “the smiling faces in those pictures suggest a total loss of perspective – a drift in the standard of humane treatment.”
Experiments like those at Stanford and Yale are no longer done, in part because researchers have decided that they involved so much deception and such high levels of stress – four of the Stanford prisoners suffered emotional breakdowns – that the experiments are unethical.