The Making of a Torturer

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

By Wray Herbert

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 know 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 anti-war 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 could be transformed into monsters. He knew 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 Leavenworth. His argument lost out to the prosecutor’s, which was basically 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 has learned from 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.

In the end, Zimbardo is an optimist who believes in everyday heroism. Pure embodiments of evil—the Hitlers and Stalins--are disturbingly dramatic 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.

Visit for more insights into human nature.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 3:14 PM


At 1:14 PM , Blogger Maggie said...

This is somewhat unnerving. I would like to think I would not resort to torturing others, no matter what the circumstances.

At 12:00 AM , Blogger Emyn Galad said...

Yes, I agree with maggie. But I will have to agree with Zimbardo as well that lack of accountability can turn ordinary people into monsters. It's the absence of checks and balances that can make people feel that they can act with impunity. Much like dictators, yes?

At 6:05 PM , Blogger Theotoks said...

The way to get people to be torturers is to start off in small ways and lead them down a slippery slope. Other studies (by the CIA) show that the lizard brain is activated by abusing others in small ways, paving the way for further atrocities.

At 1:20 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The power of suggestion, persuasion should not be overlooked. As an example, read this expose about a UFO cult that starts out simple, and it gets way worse. Like a simple experiment...

Imagine a Letter from a cult leader

Especially, check out the "Confusion Technique" sidebar, this group uses a technique cited in an old intelligence manual, used in the interrogation of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

This is just another example of how our world is fertile soil to systems that lead people into destructive thinking patterns.

Recognition of these tactics helps to make others aware of delusion, from small to larger socially isolated circles, where obedience to authority is regularly seen and practiced.

Where these systems are mostly recognized as feudal it seems, are where the ideas of war are promoted, starting with small acts that noone would normally think to do to another, (belief vs thinking) almost like a suppression of the well-being aspects of a person, thus letting only the negative or unfeeling part of a person preside.

Food for thought, your article is thought provoking.

At 12:05 AM , Blogger Ripley said...

I always more quickly detest the notion of conformity or complacency than I do the instigators of barbaric or even evil acts. In cases where no threat of harm to self can be found if resistance is wielded, what real psychological explanation can redeem the stander-by or eventual participant? I'll need something more than human nature to satisfy my willingness to absolve those who surrender their conscience for a group-think mentality.


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