Human evil

In 1971 at Stanford, Philip Zimbardo launched what became known as the Stanford prison experiment, one of the most disturbing psychological experiments ever run. Zimbardo was trying to set up a situation that combined a number of factors that can contribute to bad behavior (e.g., group dynamics, boredom, and anonymity) and then place intelligent, decent young people in that situation and see what happened: would their decency win out, or the circumstances? In the experiment, a group of physically and mentally healthy young men was arbitrarily divided into prisoners and guards and then settled for a planned two weeks into a mock prison in the basement of a Stanford building. The police in Palo Alto “arrested” the subjects who had the role of prisoner, and they were stripped, deloused, and given prison clothes to wear. On the second day of the experiment, the prisoners attempted a rebellion (barricading themselves in their cells and taunting the guards) and the guards began to assert their power through harsh treatment that escalated into humiliation and abuse. They were limited in the physical punishments they could use, but they devised various types of psychological abuse. (Anyone reading about the experiment today will likely be reminded of Abu Ghraib.) After only six days, conditions had deteriorated to the point that Zimbardo ended the study early. The circumstances won out over the decency of the men’s characters.

Zimbardo recently wrote this essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education about the relevance of his work for real-life situations. If circumstances have such power, it’s the responsibility of those who create the circumstances to take precautions against the sort of abuse that happened in his prison experiment (and at Abu Ghraib). In particular he discusses the conflict he himself felt between two roles: the researcher responsible for the ethical treatment of his subjects, and the prison superintendent wanting to keep the prison stable. He feels now that he let the experiment run too long. The triggering factor that forced him to realize that it was time to end the experiment (in effect, to let the role of ethical researcher predominate) was a visitor to the prison who was upset at what she saw going on there. This type of conflict between two roles is one of the variables that powerfully influences inhumane behavior; he says in that case it could have been countered by having someone above him (who had no such conflict) making the decisions about continuing the experiment.

There’s also an interview with Zimbardo in the New York Times in which he talks specifically about Abu Ghraib. He argues against the idea that what happened there could be chalked up to the presence of a few “bad apples”, saying that even good people can turn bad in bad circumstances. He says the thing to do is try to control the circumstances so that the capacity for inhumane behavior isn’t tapped. (In The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn said: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”) But still I’m troubled by the thought that external factors can overwhelm what’s inside a person and turn a basically decent person into one who does evil things. This is distressing because it calls into question the idea of responsibility and my belief that a person’s character can always triumph over bad circumstances. On the other hand, there is evidence that it happens sometimes as he says it does, and at least if we know understand the powerful external factors that influence behavior, maybe we can figure out how to control them and thus reduce the likelihood for abuse of power.

Lest this is all too much of a downer, here’s an article on Edge by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker about how the amount of violence in the world is decreasing. He counters the romantic concept of the noble savage, inherently peaceful until corrupted by contact with civilization, with information about how numerous types of violence are becoming less common. The trend began in Western societies and is global but not equally evident in all parts of the world. It’s a really interesting piece, especially his list of possible explanations. It strikes me as basically an examination of how as a species we have been learning how to control whatever violent tendencies human nature is prone to. We’ve still got a long way to go, but it’s encouraging to look at the progress that we’ve made.