A Few Good Apples

The Bush administration blamed the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib on the work of a few “bad apples.” But as we found out in the Stanford Prison Experiment more than 30 years ago, even the most morally upright individuals can commit horrific acts. Three years after the evil of Abu Ghraib came to light, it’s time for the U.S. government to finally recognize that good apples can quickly decay in a noxious environment—before it’s too late.

As we approach year six of the war on terror, theres still a lot we dont know about how this conflict is being waged. Since the shocking images from Iraqs Abu Ghraib prison first surfaced three years ago, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has stressed repeatedly that it doesnt condone torture, yet has refused to be transparent about secret detention facilities and interrogation techniques, citing a need for secrecy.

Back in 2004, the U.S. military quickly attributed the behavior of its personnel in Abu Ghraib to the actions of a few bad apples. Looking at the pictures of U.S. servicemen and women subjecting naked Iraqi detainees to dehumanizing acts, it was easy and comforting for Americans to believe that depraved individuals were indeed to blame. But I knew this assumption was flawed, having seen these very images more than 30 years ago, when I led the Stanford Prison Experiment, a project that sought to find out how, and under what circumstances, ordinary people can commit heinous acts. There is little evidence that outrageous practices like those at Abu Ghraib are continuing. But by their very nature, secrecy and anonymity can invite abusewhich is why taking the U.S. government at its word is not good enough.

By 1970, psychologists had revealed that the social power of groups could make individuals conform to false judgmentseven when these groups were composed of strangers. Studies on obedience had also demonstrated that the majority of ordinary people would continually shock an innocent man, even up to near lethal levels, if commanded by someone acting as an authority figure. Other studies showed that the power of anonymity, too, could unleash violent behavior.

But missing from the available body of social science research was the direct confrontation of good versus evilof good people pitted against the evil forces inherent in bad situations. I wanted to find out: Where does the line between good and evil lie in humans when they are exposed to corruptible structures? I decided that what was needed was to create a controlled experimental setting in which my graduate student colleagues and I could test how this confrontation would play out. So we constructed a prison environment in the basement of the Stanford University psychology department building that was designed to convey a sense of the psychology of imprisonment.

The students who volunteered for the experiment were all good apples. It was critical to establish that all participants were physically and mentally healthy, with no history of crime or violence. We randomly assigned each of these volunteers the role of prisoner or guard.

We infused our planned two-week study with dramatic realism: first with the real Palo Alto city police arresting and booking the prisoners, and then later with visits from a prison chaplain and public defender, parole board hearings, and visitors nights. Very soon, even though we never provided our student volunteers with training or specific direction, our mock prison became all too real.

The first sign of trouble was when the guards dealt harshly with an early prisoner rebellion. Over time the guards became increasingly sadistic. Although we restricted physical punishment, the guards on each shift invented a variety of creatively evil psychological tactics to demonstrate their dominance over their powerless charges. Nakedness was a common punishment, as was bagging the heads and chaining the legs of prisoners. Prisoners were also forced into humiliating fun and games. Five students had to be released early because of extreme stress reactions. I was forced to terminate the study after only six days. The bad barrel was proving too toxic for the good apples.

It is difficult to believe that human characternot only the students, but mine as wellcould be so swiftly transformed in a matter of days. Most of the visitors to our prison also fell under its spell. Parents observing their sons haggard appearances after a few days of hard labor and long nights of disrupted sleep did not want to make trouble by taking their kids home, or by challenging the system. Instead, they obeyed our authority, which allowed some of these prisoner-sons to experience full-blown emotional meltdowns later on.

The situation won; humanity lost.

Our research has since become notorious. Institutional review boards will not allow social scientists to repeat it (although it has recently been replicated on several TV shows and artistic renditions). Nevertheless, the Stanford Prison Experiment is now more relevant than ever in its 36-year history, brought into sharp relief by the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib. James Schlesinger, the former secretary of defense who chaired one of the investigations into the abuses, proclaims in a report that the landmark Stanford study provides a cautionary tale for all military detention operations. The report laments that the grim events at Abu Ghraib were entirely predictable when viewed through the lens of social psychology, given that combat conditions might be expected to generate even more extreme abuses of power by military police than were observed in the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Our study is just one of many, however, that reveal the extent to which ordinary individuals can easily be seduced into harming others. Good people are more likely to harm others if they feel anonymous or if they are led to accept a dehumanized conception of others as animals. Its not enough to trust in our own innate goodness: As Abu Ghraib painfully reinforced, evil situations can transform even the best of us into Mr. Hyde monsterswithout the aid of Dr. Jekylls chemical elixir. All the more reason, then, not to blindly trust that the Bush administration has learned the right lessons from its own prison experiments in the war on terror.

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