Thursday, October 18, 2007

Lucifer effect: Why ordinary people do very bad things?

Earlier, I wrote about the famous Zimbardo experiments (mock prison brings out real sadists), and now Texts for Torturers, Martha Nussbaum’s long essay in the Times Literary Supplement, reviewing Zimbardo’s Lucifer Effect provides additional context.

As Nussbaum tells it, contrary to common assumptions, most of Zimbardo’s 1971 recruits were NOT in fact students so we can leave the “white male student” stereotype out for the cat. (Yes, he advertised in the student rag, but that did not, by itself, make the eventual study recruits students.)

However, the widely reported descent into vicious authoritarianism did really happen:
In very short order, the situation began to go bad. The prisoners (deprived of sleep) began to exhibit symptoms of depression and dislocation. Guards, meanwhile, engaged in acts of humiliation, which escalated as several aggressive guards took the lead and the more sympathetic guards failed to protest. As time went on, one prisoner, either cracking up or pretending to, succeeded in dropping out of the experiment; two others engaged in individual forms of resistance against the guards, but, much to Zimbardo’s disappointment, nobody organized any group protest. On the fifth day of the expected two weeks, Zimbardo called a halt to the experiment. His future wife, the psychologist Christina Maslach, shocked by the abuse she witnessed, persuaded him that it was unethical to allow the experiment to continue.

Zimbardo has argued that his experiment shows that situations, not inner dispositions, cause people to behave as they do, but Nussbaum is somewhat skeptical:
The story Zimbardo tells, however, is not well served by his own experiment, which has not been replicated and which is profoundly flawed. Asch and Milgram (like most psychologists doing this sort of work) do not inform subjects about the real object of their study. Subjects think that they are engaged in a study of perception or of learning. In this way, they are prevented from playing into a preconceived role or gratifying the experimenter’s wishes. Zimbardo’s subjects, by contrast, not only knew what he was studying, but were even encouraged to act their roles to the hilt to make the study work. The “orientation” given the guards is particularly problematic, in the light of their subsequent behaviour.

I suppose it is worth noting here that Zimbardo’s volunteers were self-selected for what they knew he expected of them. In any event, Nussbaum believes that Zimbardo’s conclusions are at least “somewhat” true, but that his study did little to establish them, compared to subsequent work. She adds, “Zimbardo sometimes speaks as if situations are all that is important, and the insides of people explain nothing at all. That is clearly a wild over-extrapolation from his data, which support a much more qualified view.”

She provides an interesting look at other research on the reasons people may behave badly when they have unlimited power.

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