Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo has been a Stanford University professor since 1968. Zimbardo’s career is noted for giving psychology away to the public through his popular PBS-TV series, “Discovering Psychology,” along with many text and trade books, among his 300 publications. He was recently president of the American Psychological Association.
Dr. Zimbardo conducted the (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiment in the summer of 1971. He recently published a book called The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil in which he discusses the Stanford Prison Experiment, its relevance to Abu Ghraib, and the “banality of heroism.”
Question: What are the sequence of events of the Stanford Prison Experiment?
Answer: The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) was my attempt to determine what happens when you put good people in an evil place: Does humanity triumph or do situational forces come to dominate even the best of us? My Stanford Psychology graduate students, Craig Haney and Curt Banks, and I created a realistic simulation of a prison-like environment—a “bad barrel” into which we placed twenty-four highly selected college student volunteers for a two-week experiment.
On the basis of the assessment from a battery of psychological tests and interviews we had selected them from among seventy-five who had answered the ad we placed in the city newspaper. By a flip of the coin of chance, half were to role-play guards, the rest took on the role of prisoners. Naturally, the prisoners lived there 24/7 while the guards worked 8 hour shifts. Initially nothing happened the first day as these college students from all over the U.S. were awkwardly getting into their roles.
But on the second morning, the prisoners rebelled; the guard’s crushed the rebellion and then instituted stern measures against these now “dangerous prisoners.” From then on, abuse, aggression, and eventually sadistic pleasure in degrading the prisoners became the daily norm. Within thirty-six hours the first prisoner had an emotional breakdown and had to be released, followed in kind by similar prisoner breakdowns on each of the next four days.
Good, normal young men had been corrupted by the power of their role and by the institutional support for such a power differential with their humbled prisoners. The Bad Barrel had proven to have a toxic effect on our Good Apples. Our projected two-week long study was terminated prematurely after only six days because it had escalated out of control.
Question: What brought the Stanford Prison Experiment to an end?
Answer: The guards were beginning to enforce sexually degrading “fun and games” against the prisoners. Obviously, I should have ended the study on my own after witnessing the emotional breakdowns and sexual abuses, but I did not because I had taken on the second role of Prison Superintendent added to that of Principal Investigator, and prison officials are not bothered by such reactions. Fortunately for me someone was bothered, bothered enough to force me to shut down this “little shop of horrors.”
I had invited a number of “outsider” young faculty and grad students to interview everyone connected with our experiment to give me a fresh perspective on what they discovered. One of them was a recent Stanford PhD who as about to be a new assistant professor at Cal Berkeley named Christina Maslach; I had just begun dating her. She came down to our dungeon on the fifth night of the study, and after observing what had become the “normal” final toilet run of prisoners each night, got really distressed.
She saw them with bagged heads, ankles in chains, hands on each other’s shoulders moving along the corridor like a zombie parade as guards shouted abuses at them. “It is terrible what YOU are doing to those boys,” she yelled at me, adding something like, “I’m not sure I want to continue a relationship with you if this is what you are really like!” That double slap in the face was the catalyst for my realizing that the study had worked too well, that those powerful situational forces had also corrupted me. After making all the necessary logistical arrangements, I pulled the plug on the Stanford Prison Experiment the next day.
In The Lucifer Effect, I detail for the first time the full day-by-day and night-by-night chronology of the events that had such a transformative impact on virtually everyone who got immersed in that setting. It is only by seeing the creatively evil ways the guards invented to break the will of the prisoners to resist that one comes to appreciate how a host of situational forces can combine to make good people do bad things.
I believe that such understanding puts us all in a better position to appreciate what the Lucifer Effect really means. Lucifer, God’s favorite angel, was cast out of heaven into hell for his sin of disobedience against God, and became the Devil, Satan. My book analyzes lesser human transformations of ordinary, good people as they are seduced by a set of situational forces to take the first steps down evil’s slippery slope.
Question: How would you apply what you learned with the Stanford Prison Experiment to what happened at Abu Ghraib?
Answer: Three decades later, the scenario of the SPE was reenacted with chilling similarity in another prison by other American prison guards. The images flashing across TV screens around the world of the abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military police men and women were shocking, but not at all surprising to me.
I had seen their counterpart in my basement prison at Stanford, naked prisoners, bagged heads, sexually humiliated. It was inexcusable behavior, but not inexplicable once I discovered that the beyond the visual parallels were the same set of psychological principles operating in that Bad Barrel of Tier 1A, Abu Ghraib, night shift.
My sense of the sickening similarities between the mock prison of the SPE and that all too real prison dungeon in the middle of a controversial war was also highlighted in one of the investigations into the causes of this human tragedy.
The investigation by the former Defense Secretary James Schlessinger and his committee concluded that the “landmark Stanford experiment” should have been a cautionary tale for the military. That report indicts the untenable situation created in that prison dungeon for creating the volatile environment that became a catalyst for abusive behavior. Good Apples turned sour in a few weeks on duty in that Hell hole of a Bad Prison Barrel embedded in the Bad Barrel of War.
Question: Is there a difference between “good commanders” and “good professors” letting something bad happen?
Answer: The worse abuses in both prisons occurred on the night shift, when there was least surveillance by me, the good professor, and by them, the good commanders. In both cases, guards were allowed to have too much unrestrained power without top-down oversight.
In Abu Ghraib I believe the top brass intentionally designed that setting to give permission for these lowly Army Reservists, “weekend soldiers” without mission specific training, to “prepare detainees for interrogation,” to “take the gloves off,” to “soften them up” for interrogation.
Tier 1A was the interrogation, “soft torture” center where 1000 detainees were housed, men and boys whom the commanders believed held the key to the insurgency’s success. But most knew nothing, and those that might have some worthwhile information had only cold, stale information after being confined for months. Pressure from Donald Rumsfeld went down the military chain of command and ended up with military intelligence in charge of Tier 1A soliciting the seven MPs on the night shift to step over the line of protecting their prisoners to breaking them down.
Question: If it’s possible, how would you allocate “blame” to the three factors of disposition, situation, and systemic conditions?
Answer: The Lucifer Effect makes evident that blame for such abuse should not be limited to the few grunts at the end of the food chain—the so called “rogue soldiers.” If their immoral actions were fueled by the horrible situation they were forced to work in then we must also put in the docket those who helped to create that situation—the Power Boys running that sorry show. It must include “Command Complicity” of the architects of the conditions that led to such abuses—those in the Bush administration, and the Military commanders who should have know what their subordinates were doing for three long months.
In the book I invite readers to act as jurors judging each of a number of military and civilian personnel for their crimes against humanity in that place. My new web site