Today, our guest, UH journalist Michael Berryhill, looks at the Lucifer effect.
The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
In April 2004 Philip Zimbardo saw those first chilling pictures
from the American prison in Iraq called Abu Ghraib. Zimbardo froze in disbelief at
the sight of American soldiers, some of them women, gleefully posing beside naked
Arab prisoners. One of the images, of a hooded, robed man standing on a box with
electrical wires coming out of him, would burn itself into the world's memory.
As soon as the photos were revealed to the public, the chairman of the Joint Chief of
Staff, General Richard B. Myers, disavowed them as the isolated work of a few
"bad apples." How could Myers know that Abu Ghraib was the matter of a few bad
apples when he hadn't yet conducted a thorough investigation? Zimbardo had a
different hypothesis, for he had designed one of the most famous experiments in
social psychology: the Stanford Prison Experiment.
In the summer of 1971, Zimbardo randomly assigned a group of carefully screened
male college students to play the roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison
in a basement at Stanford University. The Viet Nam war was going on and was being
vigorously protested. Asked their preferences, most of the students wanted to be
prisoners. Some of them figured the experience would come in handy if they were
arrested at a demonstration. They expected a low-key experiment where they might
relax, read a little, meet some new people and maybe learn something about themselves.
What they got was hell. The guards took to their duties with an unanticipated
appetite. While they were not permitted to physically abuse the inmates, the
guards were encouraged to assert their authority, and assert it they did. They
banged on the cell doors, belittled the inmates, kept them awake all night, forced
them to clean toilets with their bare hands, sexually humiliated them and made their
lives so miserable that within 36 hours one of the "prisoners" cracked up and had
to be released.
Even Philip Zimbardo, who designed the experiment, became a captive of his prison.
Although his inmates were deteriorating and his guards were growing more abusive,
he was determined to keep the experiment going.
An outsider saved Zimbardo from his creation. He brought his fiancée, a psychologist
who had just earned her doctorate to interview some of the inmates. After sizing up
their mental state, and seeing Zimbardo's fierce determination to continue, Christina
Maslach took a heroic stance. She demanded that he call it off the experiment and,
to his credit, Zimbardo complied.
The main lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment was how quickly good people -- even
those with doctorates in psychology -- can collaborate in doing evil to others. The
abuse at Abu Ghraib shook Zimbardo so badly that he recently published a book called
The Lucifer Effect, Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. The next time we
hear talk about a few bad apples, we might remember what Zimbardo learned, that bad
apples are not always the problem. Sometimes it's the barrel that holds them.
I'm Michael Berryhill, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
P. Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.
(New York: Random House, 2007)
For more on the Stanford Prison Experiment, see: http://www.prisonexp.org/
Michael Berryhill is assistant professor of journalism at the University of Houston's
School of Communication. Before joining the faculty in August 2006, he worked for
27 years as a writer and editor for Texas publications, including the
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Houston Chronicle, D and Houston City Magazine,
and Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine. His freelance journalism has appeared
in the New York Times Magazine, Harper's and The New Republic.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
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