Over the last few weeks, I have authored a three-part series on the Situational Sources of Evil (see Parts I, II, and III). In that series, I describe how people too often miss the power of situation in explaining evil, and too often attribute “evil” to a person or group. The post below begins a two-part series on how situation can lead any of us to partake in what we would consider “evil” behavior, a fact that runs in stark contrast to how we conceive ourselves as moral and good persons.
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The poet John Milton gave highest praise to the human mind when he wrote in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” I have been celebrating that mental agility for most of my life, as a research psychologist for the past fifty years, but even before that as a child of only five years. Before I describe how I helped to transform the paradise that is Palo Alto, California, and Stanford University, into a hell on earth for a group of college students that I imprisoned in a dramatic experiment, allow me first to note briefly how I also mentally transformed a living hell into my optimistic heaven.
Having developed the contagious disease of whooping cough compounded by double pneumonia, I was sent to Willard Parker Hospital, on the east side of Manhattan, to join hundreds of other poor kids suffering from every conceivable contagious disease. It was winter 1939, before the advent of wonder drugs, penicillin or sulfa, that would have helped us to survive. It was also an era before exercise was valued, so we lay in our cots day and night, never allowed to stand or stretch, or do anything that might disturb the nurses. There was no TV, of course, but also no radio or music or telephones or games or anything to do except to read comic books. Parents were restricted to visiting only a few hours on Sundays, when they were able to brave the long walk from the subway in winter storms. When they could not come, they couldn’t call to let their desperately lonely children know they would surely come next week. And naturally, we all worried that they might forget where we were. When they did come, we were separated by a huge glass wall, across which we tried to touch or kiss against before the nurses noticed and forbade this minimal moment of intimacy. Because kids were coughing and wheezing constantly, the nurses all wore masks, and had learned to harden themselves against getting emotionally involved with any of us; a kind of “detached concern” for their welfare charges.
And then night fell. Having not done anything all day but reread comic books, no one was tired, but lights were out promptly at 8 PM, and we had to pretend to sleep. It was hard to sleep, with so much noise from the constant crying and coughing, and with the black figures that slithered across the walls as the light from the nurses’ station projected scary shadows. We knew it was the Devil coming to look us over for his wicked selections. The kids around my bed all agreed never to say that dumb prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep; If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” It did not matter whether we said it or not, when morning finally arrived, “Billy had gone home,” or “Johnny’s folks came to take him home.” Kids died in a game of genetic roulette, without medication or health savvy treatment. But we all formed a silent conspiracy of denial among nurses and kids, to deny the reality of death taking us one by one. It was the only way we could sustain hope of ever being released alive. We knew that “going home” was really going to your grave, but we suppressed that ominous thought and replaced it with visions of our departed friends back home riding their bicycles, playing stickball, or just having fun. And we desperately imagined that when our turn came to go home, we would really go home and not go there.
I endured this nightmare for 5 months, through Christmas, New Years, my birthday in March, and eventually, magically, I was paroled right after Easter. When my parents tried to comfort me for the suffering I endured, I accepted none of those tears and sympathy. I had erected a different frame for the picture of poor little Philip – I had a great time in that charity ward at Willard Parker Hospital! I made lots of close friends, I learned to read and write before I went to school, I learned to ingratiate myself with the nurses using compliments to get extra pats of butter or sugar, and I developed leadership skills by being able to come up with interesting group games we could play from our dozens of beds, like we were a navy sailing down the Nile in search of the magic white crocodile. In my mind, I continued to make a heaven of this hell for many years afterwards, until the spell was broken when I confronted one of my students in a hospital dying of AIDS. But that is another story, for another day.
The Stanford Prison Experiment
Fast forward to summer 1971; I became Superintendent of the Sanford Prison, an experimental prison run by psychologists, not by the state. I wanted to understand better what happens when you put good people in a bad place, like prison. Who or what wins? Instead of observing what happens in real prisons that generate so much violence, I needed to separate what is usually confounded, the kind of prisoners and guards who populate prisons from the kind of forces operating in such places. To do so, it was necessary to conduct a controlled experiment, to select a group of volunteers who were normal, healthy young men with no history of crime or violence, and then randomly assign them to play the roles of prisoner or guard in a two-week long experiment in which we could observe and record everything that happened. Those assigned to be prisoners lived in their cells and on the prison yard all the time, 24/ 7; the guards worked 8 hour shifts.
Our prison simulation tried to create a psychology of imprisonment in the minds of all participants and staff, with all-powerful guards dominating powerless prisoners. The realistic elements including actual mass arrests and booking by the city police, visits by a prison chaplain, public defender, and parents in visiting hours, parole board hearings, along with unplanned prisoner rebellions and guards’ abuse and torture of prisoners. The experiment had to be terminated after only 6 days because nearly half the prisoners had emotional breakdowns in response to the extreme stress and psychological torments sadistically invented by their guards. The situational forces had overwhelmed many of these good, intelligent college students.
Abu Ghraib Abuses
Fast forward next to April 2004. Horror images flash across our television screens of humiliating abuses of Iraqi prisoners by young American soldiers; men and women Military Police in Abu Ghraib Prison. The military commanders condemn these criminal actions of a “few bad apples,” asserting that such abuses are not systematic in our military prisons. The images were shocking to me, but familiar because they were so similar to what I had seen in our mock Stanford Prison– Prisoners naked, bags over their heads, forced into sexually humiliating poses. Could the perpetrators of these evils be like the good apples in my prison? Could they have been corrupted by the “bad barrel” of the Abu Ghraib Prison within the bad barrel of war? To what extent was their behavior shaped by the same kinds of social psychological forces that operated in the Stanford Prison Experiment, such as dehumanization? My conclusion, after having become an expert witness for one of those military policemen, and reviewing all the evidence of the many investigations into these abuses, was that the parallels were palpable, the same psychology was at work despite different settings. One of the investigative reports by the Schlesinger Committee highlighted the fact that the “landmark Stanford study” should have been a cautionary tale for the military in preventing the Abu Ghraib abuses.
My new book, The Lucifer Effect presents a detailed analysis of the psychological transformation of good apples immersed in bad barrels, both in mock and real prisons. Such an understanding does not excuse immoral behavior, rather it makes us aware of how the to change those features of situations, like military prison environments, that can exerts such corrosive influences on even our best young soldiers who temporarily play various roles on those stages. Historical inquiry and behavioral science have demonstrated the “banality of evil”—that is, given certain conditions, ordinary people can succumb to social pressure to commit acts that would otherwise be unthinkable. Just as Lucifer was transformed from God’s favorite angel into the devil, I argue that many good, ordinary people can also be seduced by situational forces to engage in evil deeds.
I also question how well any of us really knows what we are capable of doing in new situations where we might be given authority and control over others. We want to believe that we are good folks fully aware of the inner moral constraints on our behavior, and of course different from the bad folks on the other side of the line separating good and evil. But the dangerous thought to consider is that line being permeable, like cells of our body that allow movement of chemicals across their boundaries. Any thing that any human being has ever done, that is imaginable, becomes doable, by any of us in the same situation. It is a humbling corrective to our moral arrogance of assuming superiority without fully appreciating the situational forces that may have driven others just like us to become perpetrators of evil at that time in that place.
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In Part II of this series (to be posted next week) I will discuss how we can resist and overcome powerful situations to do good.