Wednesday, January 19, 2005

"Dress Rehearsal for Abu Ghraib?" says:
Given the incredible defense of the ringleader at Abu Ghraib, it makes sense to ask how someone might seriously entertain the idea that orders to exploit and torture prisoners in that way might seem plausible or even appealing. Look no further than the Stanford Prison Experiment, a revolutionary, amazing study, a simulation of prison life using college students in both prisoner and guard roles. The story of the experiments is told in several ways by Philip Zimbardo, who writes in his introduction:
How we went about testing these questions and what we found may astound you. Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended prematurely after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.

There's a horrifying slide show of the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. The "prisoners" were systematically abused, and the "guards" were allowed to become abusers.

The word "abuse" springs to mind more readily today than in 1971, but it seems incredible that this research could have been permitted, and that there were so few protections for the research subjects. He justifies elements of the experiment by noting similarities between his "prison," and actual prisons.

Dr. Zimbardo doesn't probe too deeply in his slide show. How was it that he gradually took on the role of a prison boss? Was the lead experimenter also a research subject? Why did the experiment only end when parents sought attorneys for their "prisoner" sons, and when a lone researcher spoke out (i.e., when the powerless gained some power) - six days into the abuse?

Aaron Swartz, at Stanford, has posted about a recent speech by Dr. Zimbardo. I wish I'd heard it! He discussed the the psychology of evil, and Abu Ghraib. He described the concept of the “good guard” — "the man who doesn’t hurt anyone but simply does his job and doesn’t interfere with the hurting. The good guards, Zimbardo notes, are key to the whole thing because if they showed signs of resistance the bad guards would likely begin to resist too."

Zimbardo also laid out the ten lessons he’s drawn from his research, on "how to get people to commit evil:"

1. Create an ideology where the ends justify the means
2. Get a contract from the subjects where they agree to comply
3. Give participants meaningful roles with clear social value
4. Have the rules be vague and changing
5. Re-label actors and actions (“order control”, not guards; “monsters”, not people)
6. Diffuse responsibility so subjects don’t feel liable
7. Start small but slowly increase the requirements, step by step
8. Make the leader seem compassionate at first
9. Permit verbal dissent (“I don’t want to do this; I feel bad”) as long as subjects continue complying
10. Make it difficult to exit

"Further experiments find that people’s inhibitions will be lowered if they or the subjects are “deindividualized” (e.g., they wear uniforms and masks; the subjects wear bags over their heads). In numerous experiments, this doubled the harm participants would voluntarily commit. (Anthropological studies confirm this, finding that cultures with costumes and masks are more violent.) (Any comments from the surgeons?)

"Similarly, changing how people think of their actions is key. In one experiment, where the experimenter called the victims “nice guys” the amount of punishment subjects inflicted went down. But when he called them “monsters” it went up.

"Zimbardo put together all that he had learned into one experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment, to see how far things could go. Volunteer subjects were recruited and half assigned to be prisoners and half assigned to be guards so that there would be no differences between the two groups. The prisoners were arrested at their home and taken to recently-redecorated basement of the Stanford Psychology department, where they were imprisoned.

"There were no windows, so prisoners could not gauge time. Prisoners were strip-searched and forced to wear dress-like clothes. They were given leg shackles, a constant reminder of their status. Guards were given uniforms and mirror sunglasses (so no one could read their emotions) as well as minimal requirements or training.

"On only the second day of the experiment, the prisoners tried to resist. Guards responded by calling in reinforcements, attacking the prisoners with fire extinguishers, placing the leaders in solitary confinement, and harassing the rest. They also created a privileged cell for the prisoners who most resisted the rebellion, with special benefits. The next day, they reversed things, putting some of the leaders in the privileged cell (to imply the leader had sold out).

"Soon enough, prisoners began going crazy. Guards became so evil and violent that the study had to be prematurely ended.

"The relevance to Abu Ghraib should be obvious. And, sure enough, Zimbardo got a chance to testify before the court trying one of the Abu Ghraib guards, arguing that his sentence should be lowered because, as his research had shown, few could have resisted the powerful situational influences, which were surely even more powerful at a real prison with (presumably at least some) real criminals.

Does anyone our soldiers learn about this stuff, in their training? What about prison guards? And...staff at psych hospitals?
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