The sickening predictability of our capacity for evil

Not everyone was surprised by the news of abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Seattle Times/May 6, 2004
By Jerry Large

People are predictable. Advertisers and politicians have stacks of data that tell them how we will react to a given message. Good moviemakers know what will make us laugh and what will make us cry. Teachers see different students form the same cliques year after year.

We're always free to break the mold, but we don't always.

What happened in that prison is just what we should have expected; not because the guards were evil or sadistic, but because they are human. They were in circumstances that nurture the kind of behavior those photographs document. It's what happens in prisons if steps aren't taken to prevent it.

If you've taken a psychology class you've probably heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

In 1971, a team of psychologists, headed by Stanford University Professor Philip Zimbardo (who has been besieged by media interview requests in recent days) set out to study how normal people would react to playing the roles of guards and prisoners ( They put an ad in a Palo Alto newspaper offering to pay young men $15 a day to participate in the study for two weeks.

They tested applicants and weeded out all but the healthiest, most stable young men, most of them college students.

The experiment began with 18 bright, well-balanced subjects. Randomly, half were assigned to play guards and half prisoners.

They were placed in a mock prison constructed in the basement of a campus building.

Guards wore uniforms and sunglasses and worked in three, eight-hour shifts. Prisoners wore smocks with numbers on them, chains on one ankle and stocking caps. They were incarcerated 24 hours a day.

Everybody took it lightly at first, but the participants began to take on their roles as the first day advanced.

Some of the prisoners thought the guards were enjoying their power too much. They rioted the second day. The guards began trying to break the prisoners.

They had them clean toilets with their bare hands and came up with other ways to humiliate them. The humiliation got worse each day.

It was especially bad when guards thought staff members weren't watching. Guards even forced prisoners to simulate sex acts. All of the behavior was being taped by a hidden camera.

I was part of a seminar in which Zimbardo discussed the experiment. He said a mother who saw how terrible her son, a prisoner, looked was especially disturbed. (Several prisoners had emotional breakdowns, a few so badly affected they were released early.)

But Zimbardo took the boy's father aside and said, "Can't your boy handle this?" The father, who had looked worried too, reacted in the predictable way, by persuading his wife to let it drop.

On the fifth evening, Christina Maslach came in to have a look at her future husband's project. She was a new professor at Berkeley, and she was shocked by what she saw.

She and Zimbardo argued about it, but the next day he ended the experiment, eight days early.

Zimbardo realized he had gotten into his role as prison superintendent as much as the students had gotten into theirs. Things that seemed horribly wrong to Maslach, an outsider, had become normal to the participants.

Prisoners tolerated increasing abuse because they had begun to think of themselves as prisoners; the guards dished it out because they now believed that was the right thing to do to a bunch of worthless, sneaky prisoners. The transformation from normal young men took almost no time.

Zimbardo told our group that society puts too much emphasis on the nature of a person who commits evil and not enough on the situations that breed evil acts. He talked about the ways in which good people are seduced into evil, something he has spent a career studying:

Start with beliefs that justify your actions. Have permission to engage in usually taboo acts. Escalate gradually. Displace responsibility and undercut dissent. Suppress individuality by having people wear uniforms, for instance.

He mentioned Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram's work. Milgram, like most people, started with the premise that Hitler was evil, but he wanted to understand why all those ordinary people carried out Hitler's madness.

Milgram asked people to administer electrical shocks to another person. They met the other person, who then sat on the other side of a wall. The subjects were told they would be helping the student on the other side learn by administering shocks when he or she answered questions incorrectly.

An experimenter in a lab coat supervised. The student was actually an actor and there were no real shocks.

At first the learner answered correctly. The first errors were punished with a mild shock, but each time the voltage went up. The student began to complain, subjects balked but were reminded of their duty and pressed on. The other person began to yell, then scream. I have a heart condition, I want to stop, the other person yelled.

The subjects wanted to know who would be responsible if something bad happened. I will, the experimenter said. The shocks kept going until there was a loud thud on the other side.

At this point, men gasped and women often cried, but 65 percent of more than 1,000 subjects had done something they wouldn't have believed themselves capable of.

Prisons can establish safeguards against abuse, encourage reporting of misbehavior and treat it seriously, foster the attitude that inmates are fellow human beings, make each individual responsible for his behavior.

But it's not just prisons that have a problem. Any institution where individuality, dissent and morality are sacrificed for some other goal is liable to support evil.

I pulled out a copy of a speech Zimbardo gave the seminar of journalists I attended. His advice to good people: Dissent, disobey, rebel.

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