I just came home from a brilliant lecture by Philip Zimbardo, a professor in social psychology at Stanford University, US (see picture). Rarely do I attend lectures that are as informative and above all inspirational as his, if you ever get the chance to listen to him, don't hesitate.
The lecture today which was held in Lund, where he is going to receive an honorary doctorate, had three parts in it. The first, and the most shocking was about evil and the psychology of evil. Zimbardo's hypothesis is that evil act are often a result of situational factors (rather than say the personality of the individual). He provided a detailed account of the Stanford prison experiment (SPE) that he conducted back in the 70s. In this experiment ordinary healthy youngsters were assigned to be either guards or prisoners in a fake but realistic prison setting. The original plan was that the prisoners would be incarcerated for two weeks, however, after six days the guards abusive behavior had completely broken down the prisoners and the experiment had to be halted (see video).
In todays lecture more focus was put on another episode which lends support to Zimbardo's hypothesis, namely the horrendeous abuse that took place in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The night shift which was never supervised by superior officers abused prisoners in a truly creative and sadistic fashion. Furhtermore, as is evident when you look at pictures from this episode (you can simply google "Abu Ghraib" if you want to see them) the guards appeared to take joy in these acts. Some pictures shows smiling guards giving thumbs up over a pile of naked and tormented prisoners...
What are the situational factors that contribute to this type of evil? Well accoring to Philip Zimbardo one factor is deindividuation - making peope anonymous. In the stanford prison experiment guards were dressed in uniform and were asked to wear reflective sunglasses, and prisoners were referred to by number - never name. Also important was the absence of checks, which was especially evident in Iraq. No superior officers ever came to check on the night shift - had someone done so it is likely that the abuse would have been reported. To further drive this message home, Zimbardo points out that anthropological studies show that cultures were it is custom to change the appearence of soldiers (normally assimilating them into some sort of standard), are much more aggressive and lethal than cultures were you are the same person when you are home with your familiy and when you are a warrior - such cultures show less aggression in conflict.
Despite these insights into the darkness of humanity - Zimbardo wants to give us an optimistic message - namely that it does not take alot to become a hero. Forget about Batman, Superman and also forget about Ghandi, Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa (who may not have been a very nice woman after all). Sure, these persons and superheros are great, but according to Zimbardo most heroes are ordinary folks who find themselves in an extreme situation and then decide to act the way they ougth to. In Abu Graib the heroic act occured when Joe Darby saw the pictures and decided that he had to stop the abuse.