Tuesday, April 24, 2007

When given coercive, government-like power, good people turn bad

From the Los Angeles Times


'The Lucifer Effect' by Philip Zimbardo

Where does evil come from? Look in the mirror, the author says.

By Alan Zarembo

Alan Zarembo is a Times staff writer.

April 22, 2007

DURING the Rwandan genocide, the level of participation by ordinary, normally peaceful citizens was greater than the world had ever seen. I spent time there as a reporter in the mid-1990s, just after the slaughter of 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority, largely by their Hutu neighbors. I tried to imagine how I would have acted if I had been born a Hutu in Rwanda and had grown up in a culture that put a high value on pleasing authority, demonizing Tutsis and planning their extermination.

What would I have done? Maybe I would have been a killer too.

This is the kind of admission that Philip Zimbardo, a longtime psychology professor at Stanford University, wants all of us to make. In "The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil," he styles himself a tour guide of the dark side. The book is built on his well-known Stanford Prison Experiment, which is a standard lesson in many Psych 101 courses. Full disclosure: I have written about the study for the Los Angeles Times; Zimbardo references my article in his notes.

In the summer of 1971, Zimbardo placed a want ad in local newspapers seeking test subjects for a two-week study. Offering $15 a day, he sought psychologically stable young men to be randomly selected to serve as inmates or guards in a mock prison set up in the basement of the Stanford psychology department building. Six days into the study, the professor called it off, because some of the guards had become mildly sadistic, forcing prisoners to embrace each other, play leapfrog, defecate in buckets and do push-ups as punishment for defying orders.

Three decades later, that project stands as one of the seminal studies on the nature of evil. Its lesson is that, in the wrong situation, seemingly good people can turn bad. Zimbardo is not talking about individuals with pathologies who unravel in fits of psychotic rage (as appears to be the case with the shooter in last week's tragedy at Virginia Tech), but of rational, stable people. Some of the study's acclaim has to do with Zimbardo's relentless self-promotion. When the project was barely underway, he convinced Palo Alto police to stage the "arrests" of the students and then called in a San Francisco TV station to tape them for the evening news. The public relations push has rarely let up over the years.

So what else is there to say about the study now? For Zimbardo, a lot. Even the first 250 pages of "The Lucifer Effect" are not enough; he often refers readers to his various websites to read more details about those six days in the basement. The book jacket promises the "full story" for "the first time and in vivid detail," but too often this amounts to giving readers large blocks of transcribed interviews and diaries.

The occasion for this latest revival of the famous study is Abu Ghraib. After the scandal broke in 2004, Zimbardo made the interview rounds as a talking head. He has also served as an expert witness in the legal defense of Ivan "Chip" Frederick, an Army reservist who worked at Abu Ghraib. Zimbardo repeatedly highlights the parallels between his study and the abuses of Abu Ghraib: that much of the mistreatment was sexual in nature, that the worst abuses happened on the night shift and that most of the guards were untrained. But the real-life details of Frederick's story — how a flag-flying, churchgoing husband from small-town Maryland wound up attaching an electrode to the hand of a hooded prisoner standing on a box, and then had the now-infamous photo taken as a souvenir — is more powerful evidence of the Stanford Prison Experiment's conclusions than what happened in the actual study.

The chapters on Abu Ghraib are the most compelling part of "The Lucifer Effect": Zimbardo builds a persuasive case for why the prison had all the ingredients necessary to bring out the worst in humans. Guards, who covered their name tags for anonymity, were unsupervised. The rising American death toll outside the prison helped feed an atmosphere in which the prisoners came to be viewed as less than human. The prisoners became mere playthings for the guards. It was as if the guards didn't realize they were doing wrong.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is really misnamed. "Demonstration" seems an appropriate description — or perhaps even television-reality-show precursor, since Zimbardo and his assistants filmed and recorded much of it through hidden cameras and microphones. Originally, the researchers were curious about how the prisoners would adapt to a state of powerlessness. In a meeting with the guards before the prisoners arrived, Zimbardo told them: "We cannot physically abuse or torture them. We can create boredom. We can create a sense of frustration. We can create fear in them, to some degree…. We're going to take away their individuality in various ways." With so many variables and no control group, it is hard to know exactly what was being measured. Obedience? A desire to please authority? The BBC later tried to concoct its own version of the study, with entirely different results: The guards and prisoners formed a peaceful commune. Zimbardo dismissively calls theirs a "pseudoexperiment."

This doesn't mean that the lessons Zimbardo derives from his study are wrong. Throughout history, philosophy and literature, there is ample evidence that he is right. On a hopeful note, though, Zimbardo coins a new phrase — "the banality of heroism" — because ordinary people are capable of great acts. Veering into the self-help genre, he also develops a "10-step program" for resisting the power of situations. Even the Stanford Prison Experiment had a hero: Christina Maslach, who had recently received her doctorate under Zimbardo and was dating him (today they are married; Zimbardo dedicates "The Lucifer Effect" to her), witnessed the guards' behavior and urged him to end the study.

At Abu Ghraib, there was Joe Darby, a young Army reservist who blew the whistle on the abuses. Was there something about his inner core that inclined him to risk his military standing and arguably his life? Zimbardo doesn't think so: He argues that there was little in his background or psychological makeup to distinguish him from Frederick and the other abusers.

The defense of Frederick failed and he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight years in prison. Zimbardo does not argue that he did not deserve to be punished but asserts that situational factors should have mitigated his sentence. He extends blame up the chain of command to President Bush and key Bush administration officials for creating "the System" that facilitated the abuses. An obsession with national security, Zimbardo explains, created an "administrative evil."

"This ideological foundation," he writes, "has been used by virtually all nations as a device for gaining popularity and military support for aggression, as well as repression."

This begs a question that goes largely unanswered in the book. Does Zimbardo's thesis — that evil is a product of circumstance rather than character — also apply to those at the highest ranks of power?

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