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Thursday, May 13, 2004

The Psychology of Suspending Morality

Putting Abu Ghraib into perspective

This AP story from USA Today offers us non-political perspective on the prison abuse that our soldiers took part in. I don't want to add to the current hyperbolic focus on this, but instead offer information that actually might add to our understanding and thereby calm people back down to some more reasonable level of concern.
The two most famous experiments that bear directly on Abu Ghraib were separately designed and executed by two members of the class of 1950 at James Monroe High School in the Bronx — Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram.

In the early 1960s, Milgram was teaching at Yale and studying the impact of authority on human behavior. He wanted to see whether ordinary people would follow orders to keep administering what they thought were ever more painful and powerful electric shocks to test subjects.

He hired local residents to participate in what he told them was an experiment in "teaching through punishment." They were the "teachers," and they would, on instructions, apply electrical shocks to the "learners." The director would take responsibility for any harm to the "learners."

What Milgram found surprised him: based purely on the instructions of a researcher in a white lab coat, two-thirds of the subjects kept raising the voltage levels, despite the howls (and eventually the ominous silence) of the learners in the next room. The teachers didn't know the electricity wasn't on, and that the learners were actors pretending to be hurt.

Milgram later identified some key conditions for suspending human morality, many relevant to Abu Ghraib: an acceptable justification for the behavior; an important role for participants; use of euphemisms such as "learners" (instead of victims); and a gradual escalation of violence.

A decade later, Milgram's old honors program classmate undertook an experiment of his own in a basement of the psychology building at Stanford.

In 1971, Zimbardo recruited 24 college students from around the San Francisco Bay Area to pose as guards or inmates in a mock prison for two weeks.

But, in contrast to Milgram, he gave them few further orders and supervised them only loosely.

Quickly, the guards became more and more abusive, the inmates more and more cowed. At night, when Zimbardo was gone, guards put bags over inmates' heads, stripped them of clothing and told them to simulate sex acts. Finally, after several inmates suffered emotional breakdowns, a shaken Zimbardo stopped the experiment after six days.

He concluded later that he himself had gotten swept up in the situation and didn't see what was happening until it was too late. "You could never even try that today," he says. "You'd be sued."

While Milgram's study stands for the proposition that most good people will sometimes follow bad orders, Zimbardo's suggests that sometimes good people don't even need bad orders — none or vague ones will do.

Milgram had strictly supervised his subjects, and they did the wrong thing — he called it "surrendering your agency," your self-control. Zimbardo had mostly left his subjects on their own, and they did the wrong thing. He called it "the power of the situation."

Over the years, the experiments have become famous. They are taught in psychology classes and have formed the basis for novels and movies.