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Zimbardo blames military brass for Abu Ghraib torture

Philip G. Zimbardo, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University
5:03 p.m., Dec. 7, 2005--The torture of detainees by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was the tragic result of perceived anonymity, the absence of a sense of personal responsibility and tacit approval by military commanders, factors that have been shown in experiments to make good people do evil, Philip G. Zimbardo, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University, said at UD Dec. 6.

Speaking to an audience of nearly 600 in Pearson Hall Auditorium, Zimbardo, who is widely credited for popularizing psychology through the PBS-TV series Discovering Psychology, cited several studies, including the landmark Stanford Prison Experiment that he led in 1971 and a 1961-62 study of obedience to authority by the late Stanley Milgram, who was then a professor of social psychology at Yale University.

Zimbardo said the Milgram study, which found that 65 percent of ordinary residents of New Haven, Conn., were willing to give apparently harmful electric shocks of up to 450 volts to a protesting victim so long as a person in authority commanded them to, is a lesson in how an ideology of doing public good can be used to create evil.

“You always start with an ideology. All evil begins with a big ideology,” Zimbardo said. “What is the evil ideology about the Iraq war? National security. National security is the ideology that is used to justify torture in Brazil. You always begin with this big, good thing because once you have the big ideology then it’s going to justify all the action.”

The lecture, titled “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil,” began with a slide and video presentation of graphic images of the victims of torture and murder in Abu Ghraib.

Zimbardo obtained the images while testifying as an expert witness for U.S. Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Ivan “Chip” Frederick, who is serving eight years in prison after pleading guilty to five charges of abusing prisoners in the prison, including dereliction of duty, assault and committing an indecent act.

“War is all about old men wanting young men to kill other young men, but we only want them to kill them when they are there; when they come back, we don’t want them to become killers. That’s why we put men in uniforms,” Zimbardo said.

Zimbardo said a study of abandoned cars in certain neighborhoods shows that a sense of anonymity can encourage vandalism by ordinary-looking individuals. “Anonymity of a person and anonymity of place works similarly to get good people to do bad things,” he said.

The Stanford experiment, a planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life using college students, had to be ended prematurely after only six days when the guards became sadistic and the prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.

Zimbardo said that in addition to poor training and supervision, the same psychological forces that were at work in the Stanford experiment were present at the Abu Ghraib prison and that the findings of the experiment should have been a forewarning to the military about possible dangers of abuses of power.

Zimbardo said Frederick was “the most normal, the most average, the most patriotic American,” who could have been “a poster boy for the U.S. Army” and a good person before he went to work in appalling conditions at Abu Ghraib, where soldiers were rewarded for breaking prisoners down in preparation for interrogation by Navy Seals, the CIA and civilian contractors.

Zimbardo said the military court disregarded his testimony and held Frederick responsible for his actions, saying that the soldier should have known to do what was right.

“They ignored all the situational, all the systemic influence,” Zimbardo said. “They dishonorably discharged him, imprisoned him for eight years, put him in solitary confinement in Kuwait, lowered his rank to private, took away 22 years of his Reserves retirement funds, totally disgraced, took away his medals and now his wife is divorcing him because they are broke. After eight years, when he gets out he will have nothing.”

Quoting Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a victim of Soviet repression and the gulag prison system, Zimbardo said, "The line between good and evil lies in the center of every human heart." He added that any person is capable of doing evil depending on situational forces.

Zimbardo said that unless systemic forces, including poverty, racism and military conditions like those that existed in Abu Ghraib are recognized and changed, imprisonment alone will never eliminate the problem of evil behavior and there will always be a bad apple at the bottom of the barrel.

Zimbardo said the final chapter in a new book that he is writing, which shares its title with the lecture, will address how good people can be made to continue doing good and shun the path of evil.

An internationally recognized scholar, educator, researcher and media personality, Zimbardo recently received the 2005 Havel Foundation Vision 97 Award. The annual prize is awarded “to an individual whose work has made a major contribution to broadening human horizons, drawing attention to lesser known phenomena and contexts, integrating science into the general culture and promoting alternative human views of the world, the universe and fundamental questions of existence.”

His best-selling book, Psychology and Life, the oldest, continuously published textbook in psychology, is now in its 17th edition. He served as president of the American Psychological Association in 2002 and president of the Western Psychological Association from 1983-2001. He is the chairperson of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents (CSSP).

Zimbardo earned his honors bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology/anthropology at Brooklyn College in 1954. He received his master’s and doctoral degrees at Yale University in 1955 and 1959, respectively. Zimbardo, who has been at Stanford since 1968, previously taught at Yale, New York University, Barnard College and Columbia University. He has taught introductory psychology to tens of thousands of students since 1957.

Article by Martin Mbugua
Photo by Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

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