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Posted 23 June 2006; Updated 17 Mar 2007

The play acting was supposed to be benign, as play acting usually is. As if by the stroke of a magic wand, Philip Zimbardo proved otherwise in 1971 in his now-famous Stanford Prison Experiment. His two-week study of the psychology of incarceration had to be called off on the sixth day because the conditions of Abu Ghraib had developed of their own accord. For some of his later commentary see: Stanford News Service.

The horror is not so much the actual event as its spontaneity -- Twenty-four young men, America's elite, participated. They were selected from a much larger group for their emotional stability and general well being. Review the slide show available on Prison Experiment before reading on.
  • Is it not a small step psychologically from these first six days to a Rwanda-style genocide, where actual killing takes on a course of its own? Is it merely an "egg shell" that separates a civilized person from his/her animalistic inner "demon" born of the jungle and savanna? Could this explain why humanity devotes so much time and energy to planning and making war and so little for making peace?
  • What, if anything, does this say about American society in particular?
    • Where was the Internal Locus of Control? For that matter, where was the External Locus of Control? Having both and having them in balance tends to avoid the bad barrels Zimbardo mentions.
    • Given that there are millions of Americans out there who play or have played these roles in real life: Are our prisons manufacturing criminals? Too often they seem to do just that.
  • How do other societies handle this problem?
  • Did this study meet scientific standards? If not, why not?
  • Is there a solution? What is yours?

Think about it. These "actors" were otherwise well-adjusted kids, college kids, from North America. Twenty- four males in all. The role each played was a random selection. None was psychologically unbalanced.

Zimbardo himself fell into the role of a defensive prison warden, losing his renowned objectivity! This human feature is no respector of brains, rank or privilege. How could all this happen? How? Zimbardo's work anticipated Abu Ghraib.

"It's not the bad apples, it's the bad barrels that corrupt good people. Understanding the abuses at this Iraqi prison starts with an analysis of both the situational and systematic forces operating on those soldiers working the night shift in that 'little shop of horrors.'" - Philip Zimbardo

For more on this issue from this remarkable man, visit: Zimbardo's Home Page.

John Brockman interviewed Zimbardo and provides additional important interptetations.

The works of Adorno and colleagues on the Authoritarian Personality and its tendency toward violence predate both Milgram and Zimbardo. A more recent study by Ashutosh Varshney provides similar information on the community level. Polarized communities, like the prison experiment, lead to greater violence than do integrated ones.

Two later writers bring additional perspective into the human condition. Altemeyer used psychometry to analyze the personalities of North American politicians and a few elsewhere. His findings are entirely consistent with the above experts. The politicians he studies are largely authoritarian. John Dean, a conservative in the Goldwater mold, described how exactly Altemeyer explained not only the Bush II administration, but that of Nixon as well.

The Japanese Experience since WWII provides an example at the national level in reverse. In the Japanese case, an entire culture turned away from violence and became one of the most peaceful on earth. So, however fragile the "eggshell" is, it can be put back together. The German experience since WWII is similar.

Adorno, Milgram, Zimbardo, Varshney, Altemeyer, and Dean are/were heavy hitters. They combined rare courage with scientific and/or personal observations to reach deep insights into the human condition. They deserve our highest respect. Even more, they deserve our closest and thoughtful attention. We must build on the works of these wise men, for they see the human condition with uncommon clarity. Each has given us a sign post for the road ahead.

Only from sound knowledge can peace be won.
  • Adorno found that German citizens generally exhibit authoritarian personalities that simultaneously need to be told what to do even as they need others to command and look down upon.
  • Milgram found that most ordinary American males will obey an authority figure beyond all reason, much as Hitler's Germans did.
  • Zimbardo, even more dramatically, showed that young American college men, left to govern themselves as guards in a prison experiment, degenerated into "Abu-Ghraib" abusive behavior style in just six days.
  • In support of Zimbado, Robert Lifton, Psychiatrist, found ordinary people are fully capable of genocide--under the right conditions. These conditions are explained in Part II> of his Book: The Nazi Doctors.
  • Altemeyer described how the radical conservative politicians have no conscience, how they co-opt the system to their own advantage.
  • Dean takes Altemeyer's work into the political here and now as well as the past. Dean dramatically illustrates how close we came to a dictatorship and could still if we don't wake up to the danger from Authoritarianism as a nation.
  • In a more positive note, Varshney demonstrated a strong correlation between peace and ethnic integration in all levels and sectors of Indian society.
  • Similarly on a national level, Japan learned how to create a peaceful society after WWII.

While sign posts are merely that, if some are dead ends, then some will necessarily get us somewhere. It behooves all beings on earth to embrace one other and right the good ship peace together. We may need new language to capture our imagination.


RTP is indebted to two of our supporters for bringing the Zimbardo link to our attention. Thanks folks.

Posted by RoadToPeace on Friday, June 23, 2006 at 09:06:15

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