A few weeks ago I caught an interview on Democracy Now with the psychologist Philip Zimbardo
in which he discussed, among other things, his new book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil
Professor Zimbardo also had an appearance recently on the Daily Show.
The majority of this interview, and much of the book, chronicles the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. In this study, healthy college students were randomly assigned to play the roles of prison guards or prisoners while ensconced in fabricated prison. The experiment was terminated early, after only 6 days, when the principal investigators realized that their fabricated prison filled with normal young adults had transformed into a cruel reality in which sadistic guards and depressed prisoners went head to head in a malicious power struggle that culminated in scenes much like those captured on film at Abu Ghraib.
In a debriefing dialogue that occurred 2 months after the conclusion of the study, a prisoner confronted a guard about how much he was harmed by the experience. The guard refers to his behaviors as an act and justifies his actions as his successful execution of the study condition. The prisoner, despite his own experiences of transformation, is incapable of understanding how a nice college student was able to be so dehumanizing and degrading; he can’t imagine that he too has the capacity for such cruelty. In fact, he believes that there is something inherently different about the college student who treated him so cruelly:
GUARD: Well, you in my position, what would you have done?
PRISONER 416: I don't know. I can't tell you that I’d know what I’d do. I don't think, I don't believe I would have been as inventive as you. I don't believe I would have applied as much imagination to what I was doing. Do you understand?
GUARD: Yes, I understand.
PRISONER 416: I think I would have been a guard, I don't think it would have been such a masterpiece.
GUARD: I didn't see where it was really harmful. It was degrading…
Some thirty years later, Professor Zimbardo testified on the behalf of one of the officers implicated in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. He states, “…I testified, essentially talking about how the situation he was in and the other seven soldiers were in, in the basement of that dungeon, how that corrupted him and made him lose his moral compass.” Zimbardo continues in the discussion to discuss the role of the system in creating evil and corrupting good soldiers and recommends a certain amount of leniency or empathy for individuals transformed by a stressful, unhealthy, and inhumane system and a correspondingly hard hand for the architects that created and managed that system.
I highly recommend listening to the Democracy Now program,
which was probably one of the best Amy Goodman interviews I have ever heard. I was so enthralled by this story that I had a major “driveway moment” in which I sat in my parking garage at work for…well, a long time.
When discussing the purpose of his new book, Zimbardo states “…what I try to capture in the The Lucifer Effect is that, it’s really a celebration of the human mind infinite capacity to be kind, or cruel, caring or selfish, creative or destructive.” After events like the shooting yesterday at Virginia Tech, I am certain that many of us are struggling with thoughts about human nature, the senselessness of such violence, and the meaning of evil. As human beings, our infinite capacity for hatred, despair, and violence, and our correspondingly powerful abilities to care, empathize, and love, is something we all need to consider.