The devil within

22 enero, 2011Por: Guiomar

Tiempo de lectura: 6 minutos

When the news media describe torture and brutality carried out in prisons such as Abu Ghraib, we wonder what type of people would be capable of committing such atrocities.  Are they depraved, cruel and masochistic? Not necessarily.

There is a disturbing possibility that the perpetrators are ordinary people such as you and I. This is not to deny that there are psychopaths who take pleasure in hurting others. However, given situations where we are in positions of power and control over others, or conversely, situations where we are dutifully obedient to authority, many of us seem to be capable of cruelty which contradicts our moral beliefs.


The Stanford experiment

The psychological effect of having power over others was investigated in a famous experiment carried out in 1971 by Professor Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues at Stanford University. They set up a simulated prison in the university and carefully chose 24 emotionally and mentally stable male students to play the parts of 12 prisoners and 12 guards. The students were kitted out with appropriate uniforms, and the only rule was that there should be no physical punishment.

In this prison environment, play acting quickly degenerated into reality. The guards began to humiliate and punish the prisoners, who in turn became passive and stressed. There was forced exercise. Prisoners were compelled to sleep on cold, hard floors. They were stripped and subjected to sexual humiliation. Toilet facilities became a privilege. All this happened within a six-day period. The experiment was prematurely halted when a female outsider was brought in to interview the guards and prisoners. She was horrified at what she saw.


Interpretation of the results, and indeed the morality of this experiment, is still hotly debated. Zimbardo asserts that it demonstrates the powerful role that certain situations can play in human behaviour. Because the guards were placed in a position of power, they began to behave in ways which were not normal in their everyday lives. He suggests that the abuse seen at Abu Ghraib might be a real world example of this effect. However many of the Stanford experiment guards and prisoners later indicated that they were only acting out what they thought was expected of them.

Further doubt on ZimbardoDBC##1s conclusions surfaced in 2002 when the BBC carried out and televised a similar experiment, which lasted eight days. This was designed and run by psychologists Alex Haslam and Steve Reicher from the UK Universities of Exeter and St Andrews. Their findings were very different to ZimbardoDBC##1s.

They found in their experiment that the guards and prisoners did not behave mindlessly according to the roles they were playing. Prisoners worked together to try to change the system, resisting the prison regime. (They even went so far as to stage a prison breakout). The guardsDBC##1 behaviour proved to be influenced by accountability. For example, they toned down their behaviour if they felt people outside would look down on them for being harsh.

The Stanford and BBC experiments are interesting but not entirely scientific. In both cases, the subjects knew that they were play-acting and that they would soon be let out of prison. (Both experiments only lasted days).  They also knew they were being filmed. The evidence is unclear. The devilish prison guard within ZimbardoDBC##1s students may only be a fiction in a play.

So, having power over others might not of itself make you cruel and brutish. But what would you do if a higher authority ordered you to abuse someone?


The Milgram experiment

This aspect was studied in another famous experiment, carried out by Yale University psychologist, Stanley Milgram. In 1961, Milgram took an interest in the Adolf Eichmann Nazi War Crimes Tribunal. Part of EichmannDBC##1s defence for his involvement in the Holocaust was that he was just obeying orders from a higher authority. Although the judges did not accept this, Milgram posed the question: could it be that Eichmann, and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices? Milgram devised a series of ingenious experiments to examine peoplesDBC##1 obedience to authority. These have since been repeated several times in different parts of the world, with similar results.

In this experiment, two people come to participate in a scientific study and are taken to a room where one of them is strapped into a chair and an electrode is fixed on his arm. Next, the other person, who is called the «teacher» is taken to an adjoining room where he is instructed to read a list of two word pairs and ask the learner to read them back. If the learner gets the answer correct, then they move on to the next word. If the answer is incorrect, the teacher gives the learner an electric shock starting at 15 volts and going up, in 15 volt increments, to 300 volts (marked Danger) to a maximum 450 volts (marked XXX),.  Although the teacher cannot not see the learner, he can hear him. As the shock level increases, the cries of the learner become intense, he bangs on the wall, and at the higher shock levels falls completely silent (as if fainted, or dead).


Many «teachers» say they want to stop the experiment, or check on how the learner is. But the experimenter, an authoritative scientist, instructs them to continue. The experiment is halted only after the teacher has wished to stop four times, and been given four, increasingly strong instructions to continue, or when the shock level has reached  450 volts. Although the teachers think they are administering shocks to the learners, in fact the learners are actors who were never harmed. This information is revealed to the subjects at the end of the experiment. Still, the experience seems real and gripping for most participants.


It is notable that MilgramDBC##1s teachers were ordinary people drawn from the working, managerial, and professional classes, yet an astonishing 65% of them punished the learners to the maximum 450 volts.

Milgram wrote in his 1974 book Obedience to Authority:

«Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority».

Obedience to authority is perfectly natural, and an essential component of our social structure, but it  disturbing how far we are willing to go when obeying orders. Obedience seems to be affected by many factors including the legal status of the authority figure, and the status of the location.


The Game of Death

The effect of location was illustrated in March, 2010, when French television shocked viewers in screening a controversial documentary showing the Milgram experiment carried out in the guise of a TV Game show. In The Game of Death, 81% of contestants administered shocks up to a maximum 460 volts. Only 16 of the 80 subjects refused to obey verbal encouragement from the game host to continue. Pressure from the audience, and the fact that they were on television seems to have contributed to a high proportion of people willing to administer the maximum shock.

Thus, when put in a position of subservience to authority, most of us will follow orders, even to the extent of killing another human being. But all is not gloom and doom. More than one third of MilgramDBC##1s subjects did refuse to continue. And in another of his experiments, the social support of friends or the presence of others who disobeyed the authority figure reduced the level of obedience. If there is a Devil, it lurks within the hierarchy of our social structures. But donDBC##1t rely on individuals to fight the power of evil. You have a better chance  with mutually supportive groups.


by Christine Betterton Jones -BSc. (Zoology), PhD (Parasitology)



Further reading and viewing:

The Stanford Prison experiment – Roles define your behaviour

The BBC Prison Study (2002)


Milgram Experiment:

The Game of Death: FranceDBC##1s Shocking TV Experiment. Bruce Crumley, Time Magazine,8599,1972981,00.html



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