The Banality of Evil

APS Fellow and Charter Member Philip Zimbardo calls it his own “evil of inaction,” and he has been making amends for it for more than three decades. The Stanford University psychologist is referring to his part in orchestrating a now infamous psychological study, a classic of the social-science literature known as the Stanford Prison Experiment.

The experiment began in the summer of 1971 as an undergraduate class project on the psychology of incarceration. Zimbardo created a mock prison in the basement of the psychology department building, and volunteers were randomly assigned to roles as either prisoners or prison guards. Things started going wrong almost immediately. Even though the guards had been randomly chosen, they took to their newly acquired power with gusto, verbally and physically mistreating their fellow students, who had only drawn the prisoner’s lot through lousy luck. Indeed, the student guards were so inhumane and sadistic that the experiment had to be shut down early, and it is now used as a case study of research ethics gone awry.

Zimbardo reiterates his mea culpa early in his new book, The Lucifer Effect (Random House), but his purpose here is much larger than that. Subtitled Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, the book takes the uncomfortable lessons learned from the Stanford experiment and applies them to the contemporary world, specifically to the appalling behavior of the prison guards at the massive U.S. military prison, known as Abu Ghraib, in Iraq.

Like much of the world, Zimbardo was shocked by the horrifying images published and broadcast out of Abu Ghraib in April 2004: a naked Iraqi prisoner being led around on a leash, like a dog; others, also naked, stacked in a pyramid, their captors mugging for the camera; still others forced to masturbate or fake fellatio, each image more shocking than the last. Almost overnight, the words Abu Ghraib became synonymous with systematic torture and degradation by American soldiers.

The events also launched Zimbardo, a Vietnam-era antiwar activist, on an unlikely course: He became an expert witness for Staff Sgt. Ivan “Chip” Frederick, one of the accused Abu Ghraib torturers. He felt compelled to defend the soldier’s behavior, as atrocious as it was, because he knew that, given the right set of circumstances, perfectly decent young men can be transformed into monsters. He knew this because he had created that precise set of circumstances and witnessed the transformation.

The main argument in The Lucifer Effect is that there are no bad apples, only bad barrels. That is Zimbardo’s metaphor for the power of the situation to trump individual disposition. In the book, he puts the military’s top brass on mock trial, prosecuting them for authorizing a situation with the psychological prerequisites — including extreme stress and lack of accountability — needed to change the soldiers into torturers. He leaves it to the reader to decide who is more culpable, Sgt. Frederick or his commanders.

Zimbardo failed to make his case in the actual trial. Frederick received a harsh sentence and is now serving eight years in the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. His argument lost out to the prosecutor’s assertion that individuals are responsible for their own behavior and that the entire military shouldn’t be blamed because of a few aberrant sociopaths.

This emphasis on the power (or weakness) of the individual is at the core of American culture, Zimbardo argues. He aims to shake up this belief in individual character, which he sees as fundamentally flawed and dangerous. In place of the medical model of evil, his book offers a public health model for understanding the potential to do evil. And as with the public health approach to any disease, this model focuses on prevention — on building up personal resilience to the social forces that dehumanize us.

Zimbardo takes the psychological principles he’s learned from his many experiments in social psychology over the years — including the Stanford Prison Experiment — and uses them to design a 10-step program to combat nefarious social influences like those at Abu Ghraib. Reams of social science tell us that people turn bad incrementally, through subtle desensitizing and dehumanization. Zimbardo believes we can similarly build up our resilience in increments, gradually moving toward goodness and enhancing our potential for heroism rather than evil.

Much of The Lucifer Effect is devoted to detailing this 10-step program, which resembles addiction recovery programs in its fundamentals. Both are spiritual in tone, yet rooted in solid psychological concepts. For example, Zimbardo’s program emphasizes the importance of admitting mistakes and asking forgiveness. Confession undermines cognitive dissonance, which can motivate unhealthy or unsavory behavior, and honest reality checks defuse the discomfort caused by dissonance. The program also borrows from Harvard psychologist and APS Fellow and Charter Member Ellen Langer’s notion of “mindfulness,” noting that those who move through life on automatic pilot are most vulnerable to dehumanizing social forces. Especially in unfamiliar situations, Zimbardo cautions, we must be mindful not to rely automatically on old habits that no longer apply.

In the end, Zimbardo is an optimist who believes in everyday heroism. Pure embodiments of evil — the Hitlers and Stalins — are florid but rare, he writes. It’s the “banality of evil”— the enlisting of everyday decent folks against all their instincts — that poses the real peril.

Observer Vol.20, No.4 April, 2007

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