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Stanford Prison Experiment
Understanding How Good People, in Their Blind Obedience, Turn Evil.
Philip Zimbardo
Book Review with commentary: by Harry Rosenberg

(Zimbardo's results predicted Abu Ghraib!)

The Problem Is Not About Bad Apples In A Barrel,
It Is About Bad Barrels.

Philp Zimbardo in reference to Abu Ghraib

At once this book is as amazing, educational, and as hopeful as it is depressing. The Stanford Prison Experiment presaged Abu Ghraib and other disgraceful practices by this Administration--Astonishing? Not after reading the book! However, the blame, if that is the right word, lies within each and all of us; we do after all elect our leaders, support the System.

Zimbardo's well-known Stanford Prison Experiment, SPE, has special significance into our times; it presaged conditions that arose at Abu Ghraib even as it paralleled the holocaust as a system.

There is much awful, yet dramatic, material pertinent to the human condition and violence in this treatise. It is a crowning achievement of an already distinguished researcher.

Zimbardo was an insider to the fallout from Abu Ghraib. His apt and utterly descriptive metaphors capture what is wrong with civilization in our day--the US culture in particular. They have the ring of truth to any feeling or thinking person.

In other words, the system can and readily does corrupt individuals in the ranks, all ranks. Since the system is designed by the top guy or guys, they are ultimately responsible. But since their power depends on the system, they will not give it up easily. Rather, they build in safeguards such as secret classifications, legal weasel-wording to get around the Geneva Convention, allowing blurred reporting lines, avoiding specific policy statements on paper, inadequate mission-specific training at all levels, using euphemisms to cloak intent or event, and public statements such as "I am a war president" that protect their system no matter how corrupt. It is no wonder that some Americans are killed upon capture. Those that are released unharmed serve to contrast the cultures in conflict to our disfavor.

These systemic forces are all usually too strong for the unaware to resist. Zimbardo proved that emphatically. Untrained guards, being basically authoritarians could not resist establishing an abusive system. Their system arose from the freedom and anonymity inherent in their roles. In like manner, the prisoners quickly succumbed to their roles, behaving just like prisoners in detention the world over.

The dramatic and immediate parallel was Abu Ghraib, where the bottom people, the perpetrators, were called to account; the middle guys, calling the shots, and top dogs, setting the stage, got off scot-free. With great courage and temerity, Zimbardo names names, all the way to the top--providing ample evidence from the government's own documents. Dehumanizing of the "enemy," including innocent women and children, was a most common result imposed by the system this administration organized and operated.

In the Stanford mock prison, as well as in Abu Ghraib, it was the system that spoiled otherwise good apples; not the other way around!

With a self-styled "War President" in charge we should not be surprised to find ourselves in a spot where America is identified to the world as torturers in the extreme.

9/11 altered the American system in other most serious of ways. Out of groundless fear, Americans gave up significant degrees of personal freedom. An amoral president was able to operate as a virtual dictator, not that far from establishing a dictatorship in fact. The government's own public records attest to this fact.

See the following links for more.

NPR Interview | Bad Apples or Barrels? | Abu Ghraib
Democracy Now | Barnes & Noble

From the Rwandan Genocide it is self-evident how egg-shell thin the barrier is between civilized behavior and utter depravity.

Zimbardo details the conditions under which: neighbors hack one another to death, nuns kill children, pubescent boys rape their mothers and sisters, saints become sinners throwing religious prohibitions into the trash can, and these can happen virtually overnight as they did in Rwanda. Zimbardo's long tour through the conditions creating depravity culminates on positive notes with hopes and guidance from this point forward that just may be keys to peace. Knowledge of ourselves enables control of ourselves.

Zimbardo begins illuminating up front:


Unlike so many writers, yet like the great ones, he lived the story--he was an active part of the Stanford Prison Experiment. And he confesses that if he had attempted this book back in 1971 after the experiment, he would have missed the generalities that raise the stakes for the very future of humankind.

You get an inkling of what is to come when you read on pg x about the military trial of Chip Frederick in connection with the abuse at Abu Ghraib. Zimbardo was an expert witness for one of the guards, Chip Frederick. He was given complete access to all the pertinent information which he studied in close detail. When trial time came:

  • Zimbardo was told he could not bring any detailed notes to the trial, he could only bring his memory of them. [This smacks of a show trial of the Hitler or Stalin type, where the defendent is simply condemned without any semblance of a fair trial.]
  • The many mitigating circumstances that would have made a difference in any civilian trial, were ignored by the prosecutor and the judge. [Does the Army care more about image than justice, or is this an artifact of a system that is out of tune with the times? Either way, something has to change.]
  • The military court held that Frederick's behavior was "entirely dispositional." [That is, regardless of his oral orders, many praises for his actions from interrogators, and high-level reports indicting higher-ups, Frederich was judged as freely choosing to abuse the prisoners on his shift. He was given a maximum sentence.]

This is the system. This how it operates. The forces it applies are so complex, only a rare few can resist the temptation to just go along with things. Those rare few surface again in Zimbardo's last chapter. They give us hope.

Zimbardo has a special interest related to his background. He grew up in poverty in the South Bronx. Street smarts were the games of survival. He saw abuse pile on abuse. He saw bullying behavior by the local powerful. He saw what it did to kids. And he remembered; how can anyone forget the darker sides? With similar backgrounds, we can empathize; perhaps we too are motivated as he was.

Exiting the street jungle, Zimbardo went to school, became somebody. That process in his words:

"Thus, The Lucifer Effect has been incubating in me for many years, from my ghetto sandbox days through my formal training in psychological science, and has led me to ask big questions and answer them with empirical evidence. "

And so it was probably inevitable that the Stanford Prison Experiment came about. It foretold with amazing accuracy and detail, what would happen at Abu Ghraib.

According to Zimbardo, the situation is everything, and we believe it, having seen or been through similar episodes in our own lives. Again in his words:

"A set of dynamic psychological processes is outlined that can induce good people to do evil, among them deindividuation, obedience to authority, passivity in the face of threats, self-justification, and rationalization. Dehumanizing is one central process in the transformation of ordinary, normal people into indifferent or even wanton perpetrators of evil. Dehumanization is like a cortical cataract that clouds one's thinking and fosters the perception that other people are less than human."

Most unfortunately, hierarchical organizations, like the miltary, are particularly vulnerable because deindividuation and obedience to authority are part of their basic training. Where the foe has been demonized, the usual case, or if you lost a buddy to enemy action, it is an easy psychological step to rationalize and self-justify abusing the enemy. This is especially true for individuals who have weak Internal Locus of Control or where its opposite, the External Locus of Control is too strong. These conditions and vulnerabilities are part and parcel of the "system." Zimbardo quite properly indicts the system and its commanders for the Abu Ghraib abuses.

To summarize the "Bare Bones" conditions that can lead ordinary folks into depravity:


      "Dehumanization occurs whenever some human beings consider other beings to be excluded from the moral order of being a human person."


      Deindividuation arises when a person feels, or actually is anonymous in situations where personal responsibility is absent or at least diffuse. In other words, it happens where external social restraints are very weak or absent altogether.



      For any number of reasons, a person may remain passive in the face of threats. Prominent among the reasons for remaining passive is fear of retribution or loss of support by, or cast out of, the "in-group."


      The process where a person explains away on some "rational basis" discrepancies between their private morality and actions contrary to it. This one is also a defense mechanism or hang-up.

Zimbardo does not dwell long on evolution other than to pose it as one reason why we are the way we are. He first builds the framework, beginning with memory. Memory enables us to profit from mistakes and successes. We profit from memory when we build better futures for ourselves and our children. But along with that, comes emotional garbage in the form of grudges, desires for revenge, learned helplessness, and ruminating over hurts that can feed depression. Although he doesn't mention it, hang-ups can develop unconsciously -- our minds remember even if we don't.

In like manner, Zimbardo illustrates the power of language and the use of symbols we use in communicating and relating to others. Progress could hardly be made without language. The downside is that language permits propaganda, rumors, lies, and more subtle forms of deceit.

Our great creative genius brings literature, art, music, science, and technology. And perversely, our genius can be used to ill effect. Torture became a fine art practiced by the Witch Hunters; Nazi genocide was as awful as it was awesome in its efficiency and detail.

Another attribute Zimbardo illustrates is our dichotomies: love--hate; pride--arrogance; self-esteem--self-loathing. Each of us can feel and exhibit each of the foregoing fractures.

Our many complexities render our personal realites opaque indeed. Why we are the way we are remains mysterious to most of us. In building further the psychological scaffolds of our psyches, Zimbardo goes on to list some of the reasons we become social creatures:

  • Need to belong is most fundamental. We need associations with others, to cooperate and accept group norms. The herding instinct comes in here.
  • Need for consistency and rationality. We benefit from wise directions that have meaning. Surprises can be upsetting or confusing. But there can be too much when dissonance forces us to go along with wrong-headed decisions. This feature makes us rationalize, sometimes to no good end.
  • Need to understand, to know what is going on, and how we fit into things and nature itself. Superstition, religion, and science all arise from this need. Curiosity in children sometimes seems endless.
  • Need for stimulation, to derive pleasure in associating with others, to achieve, master arts, build our sense of self. Dominance plays a role here; dominant people often truly enjoy mastering others.

One must read this book for a more complete rendition, and the serious researcher is well advised to do just that. But for our pupose here, we choose to highlight the causes and effects that lead to and describe our many human perversities. The foregoing helps to understand how our very nature can shoot us in the foot, dehumanizing us in the process.

Zimbardo makes much of the system that leads to violence and degradation without cause, and justly so. The system of course is how authoritarians organize things for their own benefit. The system is nothing less than the ambience one sees and feels in a given situation.

One can see this vividly in Iraq: We quote:

      "One of the frustrating things for those of us who have spent so much time in war zones is to come back and see how those who are guiltiest--those who pushed the country into war, who told the lies that perpetuated the war--are never held accountable. And those who suffer the most, those who endure the trauma and have to live with the memories for the rest of their lives, are blamed unjustly."
      Chris Hedges: The Nation

This is the way the system works. Service personnel may not be directly ordered to massacre civilians: they are nevertheless bombarded with propaganda dehumanizing the "enemy." This happens in all wars by all sides. Accountability stops at low levels. It was designed that way, knowing that the front-line people may and often do go way beyond the book. No training to avoid that event is provided. But since there was no direct order, no paper, the upper and mid-level people escape all responsibility. It was designed that way.

The present administration went farther than any previous administration; Mr. Bush formally declared that the Geneva Convention does not apply in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Abu Ghraib was a natural fallout. Torture is in, formally in. Never mind what America used to stand for.

If that declaration is not a crime in the legal sense, it nevertheless freed all those in the chain of command to behave without any of the many Geneva constraints. In that vein, Zimbardo names individuals below presidential level where a prima facie case warrants criminal investigations of four high-level individuals:

This is not just Zimbardo ranting. Human Rights Watch drew up this same list from the evidence.

The Commander in Chief, recall, proclaimed The Geneva Conventions did not apply. Zimbardo steps up; he doesn't leave Bush and Cheney out of the loop. The former, we recall, is a born-again Christian, is said to begin each day with prayers. If his faith is not a hoax, how does he square them with his actions? Zimbardo gives us a possible clue: by dehumanizng his enemies.

"...this pattern of abuse did not result from the acts of individual soldiers who broke the rules. It resulted from decisions made by the Bush Administration to bend, ignore, or cast aside rules. Administration policies created the climate for Abu Ghraib, and for abuse against detainees worldwide in a number of ways."

Neither does Zimbardo attempt to excuse the actual torturers and their immediate commanders. Yes, they could and should have defied the pressure to torture, they should not have been susceptible to authority figures or to their own inclinations about how to deal with de-humanized detainees when the world was not looking. By implication, Zimbardo indicts American society. We agree fully.

The sorry stuff above bodes ill for humanity. To be sure, the problem is deep-seated, nature as well as by nurture--our very beings and experiences in other words. The barrier between the civilized and primative was set by evolution. Our nature has not changed in tune with the times; it will take a long time. Hopefully we have enough before mushroom clouds make the problem mute.

In his last chapter, Zimbardo illuminates the roadway ahead. Bear with me here as points this great man makes may be lost unless fully justified. So the next part deals first with what makes us susceptible in the first place. That we are susceptible is not in question, witness Milgram's findings, the Stanford Prison Experiment, and Abu Ghraib. Moreover, in less severe situations, like daily living, we can be taken in. To quote Zimbardo:

      "A full 12 percent of Americans are defrauded by con-artist criminals each year, sometimes losing their life saving. ...We need to understand why and how people like us were so completely seduced. Then we will be in a position to resist and to spread awareness of methods of resisting such hoaxes."

We live in a bipolar world. Some people naturally like us and relate well to us. At the same time there are some people whose only desire is to scam us. The latter might be quite charming and convincing, but they are basically psychopathic. Most of us develop awareness of this bipolarity, we relate on one hand while avoiding the suspicious situations. In most cases, that works well enough. In other cases, our street smarts may not be up the the job. We fall for the glib line or pretty face only to find that we were robbed or worse. We are not suspicious at the right time. This feature is doubly dangerous when the seducer is seeking real power over us--like politicians. We are more suggestible, as a society, than we know. No one predicted the susceptibility of ordinary people in the Milgram experiments or the Stanford Prison Experiment.

It is what we do not know about ourselves that gets us into trouble. Awareness of our vulnerabilities is only part of the story, vital though it is. Another part is having the emotional strength, self confidence, and patience to wait out the situation until it clarifies. Developing these qualities usually comes from the affirmation of others; in other cases, therapeutic intervention is required.

Zimbardo helps this process by giving us a "A Ten-step Program to Resist Unwanted Influences." We paraphrase and list them here:

We must be:

      Able to admit our mistakes and learn from them.

      Aware that even smart people can do very dumb things; therefore we always need to question the wisdom of actions others propose before we take them; we must always guard against habitual responses that may have worked in the past but no longer do; we must apply Critical Thinking --avoid the Automatic Pilot of a habit or hang-up.

      Responsible, for our own actions and those of our group.

      The best we can be.

      Respectful of legitimate authority; resistant to unjust authority.

      Attentive to our independence and individuality as we respect our social group.

      Conscious of reality; wise to relabeling words that sound good as covers for unjust behaviors; slogans; buzz words; propaganda. We must be street-wise to manipulation in other words.

      Watchful for ramifications of our actions; aware that human history often foretells the future, as our own experience does also.

      Aware that giving up freedom for security means yielding to dictatorship; under dictators there is no such thing as security even within the in-group!

      Watchful for systemic (bad barrel) situations that can corrupt the morals of otherwise decent people who happen to be susceptible to "Blind Obedience." At the same time we must stay alert to the truly bad apples, otherwise known as Sociopaths.

Along with these, can we not

  • Celebrate our differences?
  • Make and enjoy new relationships?
  • Look for like-minded people to exchange anecdotes with?
  • Encourage our children to think for themselves and to develop street smarts to counter the con-artists.
  • Remember that practice, practice, practice and more practice can put all this on autopilot in the recesses of our minds--so that we can get on with enjoying our time on this heavenly earth with its marvelous biosphere and so many interesting breathren.

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic, (,) takes issue with Zimbardo in the Aug 2007 issue of Scientific American:

      "Two conclusions come to mind. First, it is the exceedingly patriotic model soldier--not the rebellious dissenter--who is most likely to obey authorities who encourage such evil acts and get caught up in believing that the ends justify the means."

Exactly. This is one of Zimbabardo's very points. Why warm it over? It is the Authoritarian Personalities that are overeager to obey. These people usually make excellent soldiers in a hierarchy of command and control. In Zimbardo's terms, it takes only a few bad apples to create a rotten barrel that encourages bad behavior. Zimbardo never blamed the rebellious dissenter, if anything he praised those with enough spine to rebel. So why does Shermer bring that up? Having said that, Shermer's conclusion appears to rest on a single anecdote: that of Staff Sargeant Frederick. He further implies that Zimbardo held Frederick blameless. That is not true. Zimbardo carefully wrote that all those involved shared blame, Frederick included, all the way to the top. Shermer again:

      "Second... I argued for a dual dispositional theory of morality--by disposition we have the capacity for good and evil, with the behavioral expression of them dependent on the situation and whether we choose to act."

This, too, is too superficial [and actually incomplete] to help much. For example, Shermer puts the responsibility on the individual as being on a par with the situation as an aspect causing bad behavior. In fact, only a very small fraction of people have the internal fortitude to stand up to authority as it is practiced and ingrained by military services. Milgram showed the same thing. Both Zimbardo and Milgram went way beyond Shermer's simplifications that offer no real help. He gives us nothing to compare with the 10 hopeful points Zimbardo makes that can stiffen our resolve in preventing bad-barrel situations. Neither does Shermer recognize the Sociopaths Next Door, the four percent of all of us, who have no conscience to start with, who manage to co-opt otherwise good systems as a whole whether they be military, religious, educational, governments, family units, or what have you and make them evil. Shermer himself is acting out the authoritarian role by seeing things in either/or fashion, and by implicating the individual for responding much as he himself might have at age 22 or so--given the extreme environment during the night shift at Abu Ghraib.

And that in itself, is a problem. Being moral brings with it the onus of thinking through situations, doing research, balancing possible interpretations on all sides, and understanding the real import of events and trends before making skeptical responses that, in this case, appear a bit self-serving. One can excuse daily news people for having to respond to news-events and deadlines without much thought. Commentators serve us better when they think with insight and offer unique slants. It is not the mistakes we make, but how we handle them that counts. In that sense, Frederick is something of a role model. He is proud of his prior life and has every right to be, even serving time. There was indeed a bad barrel operating in Abu Ghraib. That is a situation that should never again happen--America lost hugely in the battle for hearts and minds. Mr Shermer needs to think more about that.

A professional sociologist and a pundit (skeptic) have presented their views. Here we excerpt an insider's view, Major General Antonio Taguba investigated Abu Ghraib and filed a formal report: "ARTICLE 15-6 INVESTIGATION OF THE 800th MILITARY POLICE BRIGADE." It circulated to the highest levels of the US Government, but somehow no one remembers seeing it. In an interview with Seymour Hersh in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Yorker quoted Taguba:

"From the moment a soldier enlists, we inculcate loyalty, duty, honor, integrity, and selfless service. ...And yet when we get to the senior-officer level we forget those values. I know that my peers in the army will be mad at me for speaking out, but the fact is that we violated the laws of land warfare in Abu Ghraib. We violated the tenants of the Geneva Convention. We violated our own principles and we violated the core of our military values. The stress of combat is not an excuse, and I believe, even today, that those civilian and military leaders responsible should be held accountable."

Taguba confirmed Zimbardo's observations exactly. Like Zimbardo, he implicates the senior people in the problem. The saddest and most frightening thing about Abu Ghraib is what it indicates about our system of government and military:

"They always shoot the messenger.
To be accused of being overzealous and disloyal--that cuts deep into me.

I was being ostracized
for doing what I was asked to do."

Major General Antonio Taguba

This should close the case, but of course it won't for a leopard may roll in the mud to cover his spots, but he is still a leopard.

No matter who we are,
absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Our vaunted system of checks and balances
is prey to ths effect.

Is this the way to win hearts and minds?
Is this the way to bring peace to humanity?
America has a huge problem.
Do we even know it?

See: Prison Experiment for Zimbardo's slide show


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