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The Experiment

This week's NYT Science Times section featured an interesting interview with Dr. Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychology professor who specializes in the study of evil and the conditions which spawn it.  He is most notorious for the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which he created a fake prison in the Psych department basement, using student volunteers as prisoners and guards.  The study was supposed to run for two weeks, but his girlfriend was so horrified by the cruelty that the fake guards were inflicting on the fake prisoners, that she pressured him to pull the plug after only six days.  Some highlights from the story and interview:

His Stanford Prison Experiment… showed how anonymity, conformity and boredom can be used to induce sadistic behavior in otherwise wholesome students. More recently, Dr. Zimbardo, 74, has been studying how policy decisions and individual choices led to abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq….


[Zimbardo describing the Experiment:] By the end of the first day, nothing much was happening. But on the second day, there was a prisoner rebellion. The guards came to me: “What do we do?”

“It’s your prison,” I said, warning them against physical violence. The guards then quickly moved to psychological punishment, though there was physical abuse, too.

In the ensuing days, the guards became ever more sadistic, denying the prisoners food, water and sleep, shooting them with fire-extinguisher spray, throwing their blankets into dirt, stripping them naked and dragging rebels across the yard.

How bad did it get? The guards ordered the prisoners to simulate sodomy. Why? Because the guards were bored. Boredom is a powerful motive for evil. I have no idea how much worse things might have gotten.


Q. What’s the difference between your study and the ones performed at Yale in 1961? There, social psychologist Stanley Milgram ordered his subjects to give what they thought were painful and possibly lethal shocks to complete strangers. Most complied.

A. In a lot of ways, the studies are bookends in our understanding of evil. Milgram quantified the small steps that people take when they do evil. He showed that an authority can command people to do things they believe they’d never do….


Q. What was your reaction when you first saw those photographs from Abu Ghraib?

A. I was shocked. But not surprised. I immediately flashed on similar pictures from the S.P.E. What particularly bothered me was that the Pentagon blamed the whole thing on a “few bad apples.” I knew from our experiment, if you put good apples into a bad situation, you’ll get bad apples.

That was why I was willing to be an expert witness for Sgt. Chip Frederick, who was ultimately sentenced to eight years for his role at Abu Ghraib. Frederick was the Army reservist who was put in charge of the night shift at Tier 1A, where detainees were abused. Frederick said, up front, “What I did was wrong, and I don’t understand why I did it.”

It's funny how the Republicans have so much trouble with "bad apples."  Like the ones who fed the President bad intel on Iraq, or the ones who leaked Valerie Plame's identity, or the ones who took Jack Abramoff's dirty money, or the ones who conspired to turn the Justice Department into an arm of the RNC.  Of course, unlike (maybe) some of the Abu Ghraib guards, who were thrown into a rotten bucket, most of the Republican apples were pretty rotten to begin with.

Even so, Zimbardo's (and Milgram's) general premise struck a chord with me as an explanation for how the Republican Party so completely lost its grip on right and wrong.  I don't think boredom is much of a factor (although I guess peace is pretty boring), but conformity and obedience to authority certainly are.  Even more importantly, Zimbardo brushed up against the root cause when he spoke of the importance of anonymity.  But it's not anonymity that enables evil, it's impunity.

Up until very recently, the Republicans were secure in the knowledge that they would never be held accountable.  They controlled the media, they controlled pivotal elections, they controlled Congressional oversight, they controlled the DoJ, and they controlled the courts.  Short of murder and bestiality on national TV, they were confident that no-one would examine their actions. The knowledge that they could get away with murder is what transformed them from a bunch of jerks with bad ideas into the lawless band of in-your-face authoritarian sociopaths that John Dean describes so well.

I'm certainly not going to argue that the Republicans were all well-meaning humanitarians before Bush took power, but there used to be some decent ones.  And of the not-so-decent ones, all their plots and schemes to dominate the government and the world were just that: schemes.  But then 9/11 gave Bush license to do whatever he pleased in the name of fighting terror, and that opened the door to making schemes into reality.  The pressure of conformity and authority induced once-decent Republicans and not-so-decent Democrats to go along, and everything went predictably to hell. (I admit that I'm going out on a limb with the decent-Republicans claim, but I do know several Republicans who are very nice, so it should theoretically be possible.)

Fortunately, with some prodding from us, the American people have finally decided to pull the plug, and the Republicans' Magical Armor Of Impunity is crumbling.  They just haven't noticed yet.

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