Ordinary People – Unspeakable Acts


There has been a lot of talk about Phil Zimbardo recently – he seems to be getting everywhere making sure that we all know about his new(ish) book – from appearances on popular US television to lectures on evil and the Lucifer Effect there’s been plenty of discussion.

We study (well at least at the moment) Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment in the AS where we try to understand why seemingly ‘normal people’ commit awful acts. Zimbardo puts this down to social roles and who these influence us with his role theory – but does this actually help us understand why ordinary people commit unspeakable acts?

The phrase the ‘banality of evil’ was coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt after witnessing the trial of high-ranking Nazi Adolf Eichmann who seemed to be the most mundane of individuals whose evil acts were driven by the requirements of the authority and orders from above (mindhacks). Since Zimbardo’s SPE there have who provided support for this thesis there has been and it’s been a topic for heated debate (enter Reicher and Haslam among many).

As aniconic image of human rights abuse, it is hard to equal: a hooded man with electrodes attached to his fingers stands precariously on a small box. One slip and he risks a numbing electric shock. In April 2004 this picture and others showing American soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad cast a pall over the US military’s conduct in Iraq that has never lifted. The electrode stunt was dreamed up by a group of US army reservists working as military policemen at the prison. Staff Sergeant Ivan “Chip” Frederick was one of them. It was not the only abuse he perpetrated at Abu Ghraib. Among other things, he admitted making three prisoners masturbate while his colleagues looked on, and thumping another so hard in the chest that he had to be resuscitated. [from New Scientist]

Since this event psychologists have been trying to understand why? Why the officers would do such and act, and can this be justified by saying ‘it wasn’t me: the situation made me do it?’ Again, Zimbardo would suggest that you can put the ‘blame’ on the situation and he testified to this in the court case against the officers involved in the above act.

Alternatively, could our behaviour be a result of identification with particular groups?

Haslam and Reicher suggest that brutality occurs when people identify strongly with groups that have a brutal ideology. They believe that whether we listen to authorities or support victims depends upon the extent to which we perceive ourselves to share social identification with them. This argument is based on social identity theory. [from AQA PsychBLOG]

Here I am going to discuss current thinking (although it is divided) as the the real cause of such behaviour. Since the SPE much research has been conducted to investigate the psychology of the situation including the replcation (of sorts) that Reicher and Haslam conducted in 2001 (and which is in the 2008 specification) that suggests that social identity theory is a much better explanation of such behaviour.

What sort of person volunteers for a prison experiment?
A further issue that has been raised recently that again contends the conclusions which Zimbardo came to relates to the participant sample which he used. Could it be the case that you have to be a ‘special’ type of person to volunteer to be a participant in a prison experiment?

Research conducted by Thomas Carnahan and Sam McFarland has investigated this. They posted two adverts, similar to the ones used in Zimbardo’s original SPEs, in several campus newspapers. One advert invited male participants for “a psychological study of prison life” the other invited participants for “a psychological study”.

Volunteers for the prison study scored significantly higher on measures of the abuse-related dispositions of aggressiveness, authoritarianism, machiavellianism, narcissism, and social dominance and lower on empathy and altruism, two qualities inversely related to aggressive abuse. Although implications for the SPE remain a matter of conjecture, an interpretation in terms of person-situation interactionism rather than a strict situationist account is indicated by these findings. Implications for interpreting the abusiveness of American military guards at Abu Ghraib Prison also are discussed. [link to abstract taken from CrimePsychBlog]

This research would suggest that the research that we are using is intrinsically floored as the sample’s are distorted. Could there actually be a problem with the participants selected, or in the case of the SPE and Reicher and Haslam’s research ‘volunteered’ actually have a baring on the resulting behaviour?The implications of this argument on Zimbardo’s SPE is conjecture as there’s no way that we can retrospectively test all the participants in the study but it’s a issue for discussion as to the reductionist conclusions on which his study stands.

Does the Zimbardo SPE really reflect real prison life?
Of course the SPE and even Reicher and Haslam’s ‘The Experiment’ are very articicual situations so can we actually give any weight to the conclusions from them? Could it just be that “[The studies] are often brilliantly controlled and scientifically rigorous but bear as much resemblance to social interaction as an Oxo cube does to a cow. Such studies can be described as impeccable trivia.” (Banyard)

Does this [SPE] experiment mirror what occurs in real prisons? Probably. Writing in Inside Rikers: Stories from the World’s Largest Penal Colony Jennifer Wynn interviews prison guards from New York City’s largest penal colony, Rikers Island. One captain explained that guards easily become used to the level of violence inflicted on inmates – it’s part of the job and they soon become immune. Some can’t understand how they become different people at work. [from Psyblog]

Even if it is the case that ‘similar’ behaviour can be seen in real prisons can we really then make the jump to other situations such as evil acts during wars?

Can we answer the question: why?
The research seems to be torn on the situation of unspeakable acts. As it should be I feel. Recently I saw a presentation by Reicher and Haslam and they started by stating that there is a debate that has to be had – why do some people commit awful acts and others not. It’s a debate that psychology may be able to answer, but at the moment many psychologists wont even sit at the table thinking their way of explaining the behaviours is right.

Turning civilians into soldiers and teaching them to kill has always been difficult work, but these new challenges and demands have made it harder still, so the Army has made sweeping changes in the basic combat training that every recruit must go through.” [quote]

Does this not suggest that as it is not the social role of a solder which influences actions but identity with that group. If it were as simple as the social role then it wouldn’t be ‘difficult work’. Every aspect of Army training is designed to make a bond between the recruits – they identify themselves as being a group. Well that’s one way of looking at it.

One thing I think that we need to be careful of though is being too deterministic – many people perform unspeakable acts every day, some will do it for situational reasons, others for dispositional reasons. Contrary to Zimbardo’s situationist perspective, findings now seem to be compatible with a more interactionist view of human behaviour – the fact that people’s personalities affect the situations they find themselves in.

And remember many ordinary people perform miraculous and altruistic acts everyday too!

Carnahan, T. & McFarland S. (2007). Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment: Could Participant Self-Selection Have Led to the Cruelty? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2007, 33, 603-614.

Haney, C., Banks, W.C. & Zimbardo, P.G. (1973) A study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. Naval Research Review, 30, 4-17.

Haslam, S. A. & Reicher, S. (2007). Beyond the Banality of Evil: Three Dynamics of an Interactionist Social Psychology of Tyranny. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 33(5), 615-622

Reicher, S. & Haslam, S. A. (2006) Rethinking the psychology of tyranny. The BBC prison study. The British Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 1-40

Further Reading on the topic

Tags: , , , ,

One Response to “Ordinary People – Unspeakable Acts”

  1. London Counselling September 6, 2011 at 5:37 pm #

    Acts that cannot be explained by any means, would only mean a little bit of a problem. Looking for somebody to be blamed is not the right action for it to be resolved. On the other hand, assessment on the person involved is always possible but should be prior to any judgment

Leave a Reply