When Systems Corrupt Good People
By Chuck Armsbury, Senior Editor
Lately, I've been studying why good and normal people sometimes do bad things. Like those ordinary Columbine high schoolers on 4/20 in 1999 who went bowling in the morning before killing fellow students and themselves in the afternoon. For example, the nice kid you know from your small town who joined the Marines, and who now kicks in Iraqi doors and shoots women and children, or the prison guards who go to church on Sunday and kick prisoners' butts during the week.
Revelations of Abu Ghraib torture represent very well this ages-old dilemma. "The Christian in me says it's wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, 'I love to make a grown man piss himself,'" said Specialist Charles Graner as reported on BBC News in spring 2005. Employed previously as a prison guard in the US, Graner is the Abu Ghraib military policeman shown smiling and having fun next to a pile of naked Iraqis in widely circulated photos.
What was it about the inner sanctum of Abu Ghraib, Saddam Hussein's former dungeon, which brewed a nasty concoction of power, sexual perversion and multiple counts of torture and abuse? How did our US troops come to act like Saddam's henchmen?
Was Graner some kind of sick sadist, a psychopath, an undiagnosed schizoid? Do we look within the torturer's head for answers? Or do we find those answers by a study of the power of situations to turn nice Christians like Graner into torturers, others into silent bystanders?
Phil Zimbardo's book The Lucifer Effect provides answers we're looking for. Dr. Zimbardo is the Stanford University psychology professor who designed and supervised the August 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment (www.prisonexp.org). Dividing student volunteers by a coin's flip into guards or prisoners, Zimbardo's five-day experiment produced surprising results. Mainly, from the start these ordinary students quickly "became the roles" they had assumed in this psychodrama. Guards dominated, prisoners submitted.
Those who became guards by flip of a coin began to act like real prison guards: giving senseless orders, punishing rule violations, acting arbitrarily and manipulative. Likewise, students playing prisoner soon adopted strategies for dealing with their unequal power-situation. Each student for the experiment earned daily money; each was screened for hidden personality quirks, and several wore long hair and described themselves as leftist radicals.
After five days that began with a 'fake' arrest to start the experiment, to the moment Zimbardo called it off, each of these 18 male students 'lived the roles' they played. Particular "guards" became abusers, rule followers or good guys; a couple "prisoners" experienced real emotional trauma, rebels were put in the (closet) hole, and one had to be released before five days.
The Lucifer Effect is Zimbardo's 2007 full account of the SPE. There's a full chapter on Abu Ghraib, sections on the 1978 Jim Jones' Guyana mass suicides, Halloween mischief and anonymity, studies of attitudes about ridding society of social misfits, types of dehumanization and the evil of inaction.
To dispel utter hopelessness, Zimbardo finishes with a chapter on "Resisting Situational Influences And Celebrating Heroism." This is a very valuable book for social researchers and anyone wanting answers about the dynamic interplay of personality, systems and real situations, or more grandly, psychology and sociology.
After all, The Lucifer Effect is about you and me. It's about who we really are, or more so, who we think we are? Are you a Good Samaritan, or do you walk on by that drunk lying in the gutter? Under what circumstances would you ever intervene to stop a crime?
Zimbardo and other 'situationists' offer convincing evidence that changing circumstances can bring out the angel or devil in any one person, family or nation. "We" are always "Them" to the Other. And under the power of a wrong situation, you or I may cast aside morality, habits of mind, principles and beliefs and "do wrong."
Unfortunately, it seems only a few of us frail humans become heroes who resist unlawful or immoral orders, denounce oppressive leadership or correct a teacher, doctor, supervisor or preacher when s/he is wrong.
The language of psychology and 'psychobabble' is found everywhere in US culture. The majority of mental health experts teach that we "have" certain obsessions, and that we're bipolar, schizophrenic, or depressed, and that these sociopolitical labels are actually a medical disease, like diabetes or measles. Drug Courts universally adopt this medical model to describe and treat drug law offenders.
Zimbardo's lifetime achievement is demonstrating that social reality produces these "mental" symptoms, and that systems and social situations powerfully influence future behavior that can trump individual will, personality traits or religiosity.
Where lies hope within this entrapping web of evil systems and situations? How about in a nurturing web of a social system and culture that reinforces cooperation, mutual respect, and equitable sharing of resources?
For more on The Lucifer Effect, visit www.lucifereffect.com.
I'd like to receive comments and contributions on this devilish subject.
Respectfully, Chuck Armsbury
Note: The Stanford Prison Experiment has been optioned as an upcoming major motion picture - see www.lucifereffect.com/movie.htm for details.