Iraq Explained In Terms of the Stanford Prison Experiment

But that was 1971, and a woman stopped it

News people looking for new ways to analyze the scenes of abuse at Abu Ghraib Prison have been turning to a strange event called “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” Its designer, Stanford University’s Philip Zimbardo, a media-friendly psychologist and recent consultant to a reality TV show “The Human Zoo,” has been on TV and in the press, explaining.

In 1971, at Stanford, 24 male students who answered an ad and passed normalcy screening were arbitrarily divided into two groups: prisoners and guards. They were sent to play their roles in a prison Zimbardo and colleagues had built in the basement of the Stanford psychology department. He stopped the planned two-week simulation on the sixth day when a new Ph.D. psychologist paid a visit and was horrified by what she saw.

On his newly updated Web site about the “experiment,” Zimbardo says the guards were given no specific training and were allowed to make up the rules as they went along. In those days Stanford had a pretty much all white upper-middle-class student body, and what happened to the nice young men chosen to be guards was a surprise.

Some were tough but fair, some were lenient “good guys,” but some, according to Zimbardo, “were hostile, arbitrary, and inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation.” The three types that emerged were beyond the predictive power of the screening tests. As to the prisoners, he says, without apparent surprise, they were “disintegrated, both as a group and as individuals.”

Zimbardo confesses that he himself had lost touch and was behaving more like a warden than an experimental psychologist. That’s when Christina Maslach paid her visit and saw the reality that, stranger yet, none of the visitors including parents of prisoners, a priest and a lawyer playing themselves, had been able to see.

“We had created an overwhelmingly powerful situation — a situation in which prisoners were withdrawing and behaving in pathological ways, and in which some of the guards were behaving sadistically. Even the ‘good’ guards felt helpless to intervene,” he says.

It has been my impression since hearing about the “experiment” from Zimbardo himself in 1980, when he talked to our group of journalism fellows, that he was a little shy about the whole thing. And as late as 2001, he and Stanford objected to being linked in publicity to the German film “Das Experiment,” based on the 1971 event.

Academic dignity was involved, but, of course, there might have been a side issue of movie rights to a story that is becoming legend.
It would not surprise me to see “The Stanford Experiment” cited or Zimbardo called to testify in courts martial or other legal proceedings resulting from prisoner abuse in Iraq. The parallels are obvious. But they do not totally explain away the issue.

Even if you accept the “third guard” theory, that some people are unpredictable under pressure, it can be argued that the U.S. command knew, or should have known, the general consequences of pressing ordinary soldiers into service as instant guards without specific training and without specific supervision. This is a matter of common sense and military tradition. It doesn’t take a psychologist to tell you the consequences of a weak command and a lack of discipline.

Zimbardo is careful to point out that the experimental group from the beginning was informed of “limits” on their behavior and that the guards were not totally unsupervised. They were even monitored by TV security cameras, and this apparently put a stop to some covert sexual abuse that was beginning under cover of night.

It would seem that the issue of training and supervision – call it the decline of discipline and command – would be obvious to people familiar with Vietnam, among them John Kerry. But he has been content to stay on the sidelines.

Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, a witty observer of campaigns and the Bush family, says Kerry is following a political principle that when everything is falling apart around your opponent, don’t stand in the way.

I guess that’s why, so far as I know, Kerry has never said that as a commander in chief with first-hand experience in Vietnam he would make sure to maintain discipline and command in the armed forces. But of course he might be thinking the situation in Iraq is worse than that. Namely, although it has not been proved, that the “bad apple” guards were in fact disciplined and following orders.

Of course all politicians, including Kerry and Bush, have expressed disgust, shock, dismay, and so forth. But that’s easy to do now, with those sadistic pictures popping up everywhere. The hard thing would have been to see the reality before it became a worldwide consensus.

It’s interesting to note that Zimbardo married Christina Maslach, who has become known as the woman who stopped the Stanford Prison Experiment.