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April 06, 2007


Zimbardo's analysis of the situational basis of acts like those of Fredericks at Abu Ghraib is not meant to excuse such behavior. Rather, his purpose is to focus attention on the conditions that foster prison brutality (he became active in the prison reform movement) and on the people and systems that allow or even fpster such conditions. Dealing with a "few bad apples" avoids looking clearly at the barrels and the barrel makers, ensuring that evil will continue to exist and even be encouraged.

Zimbardo wrote a pop review recently about the famous Milgram experiments, similar to his own prison experiments, in which subjects were told to administer electric shocks (which they did not know were fake) to another subject (who they did not know was one of the researchers) each time the subject answered a question wrong. He touches on several real-world correlates, but does not explicitly bring up Abu Ghraib. It is worth reading the blue sidebar on the right-hand side of the page, his "10 stepping stones to mindless obedience," and checking off how each of them has been used by President Bush and complicit Republican leaders. For example:

Making the exit costs high and making the process of exiting difficult; allowing verbal dissent, which makes people feel better about themselves, while insisting on behavioral compliance.


Offering a "big lie" to justify the use of any means to achieve the seemingly desirable, essential goal. (In Milgram's research the justification was that science will help people improve their memory by judicious use of reward and punishment.) In social psychology experiments, this is known as the "cover story"; it is a cover-up for the procedures that follow, which do not make sense on their own.

In addition to Abu Ghraib, as Mimikatz discusses, and the more obvious examples like the Jim Jones cult, one of the more provocative real-world correlates he invokes are Palestinian youths turned into suicide bombers, and an exploration of the "barrel" (or "barrel-makers") in that case.

I was a Stanford student in the late 60s so the 'Stanford Experiment" was one of the foundations of my world view. I've personally been in another situation where some 'best and brightest' were corrupted by a bad barrel, presided over by an authoritarian leader. The common thread is the denial of due process in its largest, not necessarily legal, sense. This is the darkness in which neutral barrels are made into bad barrels. Men are emotionally and ethically as malleable as sculptor's clay. The founders understood this and called for a system of laws tempered by the mercy of men, not the other way around.

It is *extremely* difficult to sell the importance of due process to the man on the street, who tends to regard it as a nicety. It is not a nicety - it is the lynchpin of freedom. Habeus corpus is due process. Roberts Rules are due process. Non-politicized US attorneys are due process. The right to a trial by one's peers is due process. Congressional oversight is due process. Anything else is a shortcut to Hell. QED, Bush 43.


file this one under "Tales of Science gone Bad"

sounds like "the Stanford Experiment" would make a good movie

let the world see what george bush shoulda known

At a less heinous level, what you describe happens in large law firms and the government every day.

kaleidoscope, indeed -- one might consider humans finely adapted to getting along with each other socially, and what that means in practice is picking up on what's expected of one and responding appropriately. I've got no background in social psychology, but I'm sure it's been suggested before that "good" behavior is as much a response to expectations as the nasty behavior in the Milgram experiment is.

Not sure how this idea fits with the prison experiment -- does it say that in the absence of enforced expectations, humans are naturally abusive and we need "good" expectations imposed by society to raise us to a higher level? Or does it just say that those expected to occupy a dominant position, will fulfill that expectation -- even brutally?

Terrific post Mimi, as per usual. This is why the ancients talked about "original sin." They recognized in their own way that there was a social dimension (history) and a personal (moral) dimension. A lot of us, myself included, feel a loss at what we see has happened in terms of the politicization of the US Attorneys. The facts are though that for women and people of color in this country, the Judiciary has rarely granted them equality in confrontations with European American men. This isn't a new phenomenon, it constantly needs to be retranslated. Throughout history, usury was pretty universally considered a very serious sin. The financial services industry no longer suffer from that kind of stigma. The Lucifer Effect sounds like an excellent work, because the tension between the historical and the moral is something that needs to be translated for each generation. Obviously theists have not done a terrific job of managing this tension, but the serious shortages in our health care delivery system confirm that science, in and of itself doesn't always do a better job. There are no easy answers.
OT, I think it's also important to look at social virtue and private virtue. Sara just brought up the 1stMN at Gettysburg. Those were primarily European American abolitionists fighting to end slavery. Not all Union regiments fought with that kind of bravery, discipline, and military skill. Hugh Thompson, Jr. at My Lai is another positive example of an individual rising against the tide to prevent further damage. Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, and many of the African Americans who were lynched also come to mind. IMVHO, the neocons have overemphasized personal interpretation of evil (at the expense of the social dimension), because it's easier to control. If you control the press and the courts, you can tell people you're rich, because you just worked harder than everyone else. It's not accurate in their case, they cheated. It appears, however, to be what they believe.
You're probably way ahead of me on this, but maybe the FDL Book Salon would consider hosting the author? I know they are going through some transition over there right now wrt the Sunday Book Salon.

Great post Mimikatz! I ordered the book!

John Casper, thanks for a very interesting comment.

People who cheat to win know that they cheated to win so they have to bully away and stamp out any efforts that arise that may reveal they cheated. Cheaters who win always have a chip on their shoulder and often hold it against the people who don't have to cheat to win. They tend to admire each other while they detest the real winners and look down on the "losers." What I find so interesting is how the game never changes. The same people who cheat in school tend to go on to cheat in business and in life. The only difference is that the stakes are higher but so are the rewards. If they could control the means for revealing and punishing them for cheating then they could cheat at will. It's an amazing, brazen gaming of the system of government and justice. It rather reminds me of playing chicken. Will they get to run out the clock before the Dems in Congress uncover and expose their game?

John Casper, I strongly suspect organized religion is not free from suffering from the prison experiment effect, and I'm certain that health care management is not being run by scientists. (Rest of your point is very good, just had to pick that one nit.)

Thanks emptypockets. I didn't take sufficient care with what is a massively complex issue in moral philosophy as well as the philosophy of science. I certainly did not mean in any way to imply that organized religion has has been in any way free from the "prison experiment effect." Long before the Spanish inquisition, there was religious "shunning," which was just as lethal (long term) in societies that had no distinction between religion and state. The European holocaust of the 1940's was a wake up call to both Western moralists and scientists that neither had solved the problem. On balance, over the course of human history, I would have to say that (the modern understanding of) science, because it is so much younger than moral philosophy/religion, is far, far less responsible for the history of human evil than religion. At the same time, the global reach (colonialism) of Europeans since the Middle Ages, however, is based almost solely on our technological/scientific achievements. Those came about imho in part because Western Xtianity (Luther's conflict with Roman Catholicism) was a very important factor in the rise of science. I'm not trying to make a value judgement, just explain the disproportionate influence that Europeans exerted over the entire world (relative to their population) from the Middle Ages on. As Asia and other continents catch up technologically, I do not see that European dominance continuing.

Zimbardo does stress the role of both expectations, rules and oversight in creating "good barrels", as argonaut suggests and constraining the tendency for those in the dominant position to abuse those who aren't.

He urges people to examine their everyday situations to see the extent to which they "go along" with minor breaches. He also stresses the need for altruism, for seeing beyond the self to consider the welfare of others.

Preoccupation with self and shoring up the sense of self seem to be at the foundation of evil. He rather chillingly describes in the preface what used to be called cupiditas, (the opposite of caritas), people who have such a vast hole at their core that they use everyone and everything around them to try to fill that hole. Institutional restraints can go only so far with such people, and woe to us when they are allowed to get control of an institution.

I often forget Zimbardo's point in my daily life. Humans are conditioned social creatures, with thousands of years of evolution behind us. The power of social pressures, which for years have helped us survive and prosper, should never be underestimated. We are shaped by those around us much more than we realize, and it takes vigilence in daily life to realize when you are being pressured and to push back.

John Casper, I'm not sure the prison experiment can be interpreted in terms of science or religion. Each of those is a culture -- there is a distinct culture of science, separate from the practice of science, and likewise for religion -- and as a subculture within the mainstream each I think opens the door to its own prison experiment experiences. How can church leaders have covered up and shuffled about child sex abuse, except clearly to them, at the time, in that social environment they were in, it seemed like the "normal" thing to do? Certainly, personally in science, I think nothing of packing a tube of DNA or even bacteria or other genetically modified lab organisms in my bag when going to visit a collaborator-- it's normal practice, we know it is not dangerous, but I could clearly imagine a scare-tactic expose piece by some ill-informed media outlet raising huge cries and alarms over it.

Each institution has its own social norms, and what's needed is an internal gyroscope to check these against one's absolute moral beliefs -- this is what was lacking in the prison experiments (both in the subjects and the experimenters) and what is so rare that it makes heroes out of folks like Joe Wilson for having it.

I think the best solution, short of trying to get everyone to develop a stronger absolute sense of morality -- which is not easy -- is to frequently cross-check your work with people from outside your immediate culture, and sincerely listen to their response. From Mimikatz's post above, that was what worked in the prison experiment example, and I think that outside viewpoint is what's needed in most cases.

Is the metaphor of a barrel different than the metaphor of an echo chamber in any way?

An excellent and thought provoking post; as evidenced by the comments here. FYI, there is a movie on the Stanford Prison Experiment currently in production; I am not sure whether or not Zimbardo is involved, but the movie should be released in 2008. There is also an interesting German film titled "Das Experiment" based on Zimbardo's research.

emptypockets, off topic, but you have mail at your yahoo address

The barrel is intended to be a metaphor for the institutional structure, such as norms and supervision, or lack thereof. The ech chamber is a feature of a kind of barrel that reinforces certain messages and prevents people from questioning what they are doing.

Some of Zimbardo's key techniques for avoiding capitulation are mindfulness (avoiding being on autopilot), detachment (not getting so caught up in what you are doing you lose sight of your values), practicing compassion and altruism toward others and reinforcing your own allegiance to just authority and willingness to resist unjust authority.


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