Situationist Ethics: The Stanford Prison Experiment doesn’t explain Abu Ghraib

[ This Saletan piece follows up an earlier one addressing the Stanford Prison Experiment. Saletan points out dynamics other than the guard-prisoner social structure that account for the Abu Ghraib abuses. Thanks to Alexandra Dadlez for the forward. –BL ]

by William Saletan

May 12, 2004 | Slate

Are the American soldiers who abused Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib prison “a few who have betrayed our values,” as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld claims? Or are they victims of a prison system guaranteed to produce atrocities?

In recent days, the latter view has taken hold, buttressed by the Stanford Prison Experiment, a 1971 study in which upstanding young men assigned to be “guards” in a mock jail abused their “prisoners.” The study’s designer, former Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo, has become the media’s favorite expert on prison abuse, imprinting his blame-the-situation attitude on newspaper, magazine, and television coverage of the Iraqi prison scandal. The emerging spin is that the Stanford experiment explains scientifically what happened at Abu Ghraib.

But science, particularly social science, isn’t all scientific. Every experimenter begins by drawing a box. Inside the box are the factors he decides to control or measure. The rest?including him?are left out, either because he can’t control or measure them, or because he doesn’t think they’re important. The box-drawing process is seldom scientific and often cultural or political. Consequently, excluded factors often turn out to be more important than included ones. That’s why the Stanford experiment doesn’t explain?or excuse?Abu Ghraib.

In a Boston Globe op-ed this week, Zimbardo argues,

The terrible things my guards [at Stanford] did to their prisoners were comparable to the horrors inflicted on the Iraqi detainees. My guards repeatedly stripped their prisoners naked, hooded them, chained them, denied them food or bedding privileges, put them into solitary confinement, and made them clean toilet bowls with their bare hands. — Over time, these amusements took a sexual turn, such as having the prisoners simulate sodomy on each other. — Human behavior is much more under the control of situational forces than most of us recognize or want to acknowledge.

The abuse Zimbardo describes at Stanford does resemble the abuse at Abu Ghraib. But the differences are more significant. Here’s what happened at Abu Ghraib, according to the now-famous Taguba report:

Punching, slapping, and kicking detainees; jumping on their naked feet — positioning a naked detainee on a MRE Box, with a sandbag on his head, and attaching wires to his fingers, toes, and penis to simulate electric torture — having sex with a female detainee — Using military working dogs (without muzzles) to intimidate and frighten detainees, and in at least one case biting and severely injuring a detainee — Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees — Beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair — Sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick.

Why did guards at Abu Ghraib, unlike guards at Stanford, go beyond humiliation to violence, severe injury, and rape? To answer that question, you have to look not at the factors Zimbardo studied, but at the factors he left out. For example:

1. Personality. The Stanford experimenters picked as guards and inmates “the 24 subjects who were judged to be most stable (physically and mentally), most mature, and least involved in anti-social behavior.” This group was so nonviolent that according to Zimbardo, “Virtually all had indicated a preference for being a prisoner because they could not imagine going to college and ending up as a prison guard. On the other hand, they could imagine being imprisoned for a driving violation or some act of civil disobedience.” The soldiers implicated at Abu Ghraib, however, were led by two veteran prison guards, one of whom had received three court orders to stay away from his ex-wife, who said he had thrown her against a wall and had threatened her with guns.

2. Race. At Stanford, with the exception of one Asian-American, the prisoners, like the guards, were white. At Abu Ghraib, the guards were Americans, but the prisoners were Iraqis. The guards didn’t understand Iraq, hated being there, and were under constant assault from Iraqi mortars outside the prison walls. To them, the inmates seemed a foreign enemy.

The Abu Ghraib guards clearly wanted less interaction with their prisoners than the Stanford guards wanted with theirs. At Stanford, roll calls initially lasted 10 minutes but grew to hours as guards enjoyed toying with inmates. At Abu Ghraib, roll calls that were supposed to be conducted twice a day were instead conducted twice a week. At Stanford, according to Zimbardo, “Most of the guards seemed to be distressed by the decision to stop the experiment. … None of the guards ever failed to come to work on time for their shift, and indeed, on several occasions guards remained on duty voluntarily and uncomplaining for extra hours?without additional pay.” None of this was true at Abu Ghraib.

3. Supervisors’ input. On the second day of the Stanford experiment, prisoners began pleading for release. Over the next five days of the six-day study, researchers released five of the 10 “prisoners.” If you desperately wanted out, you got out. According to Zimbardo, the experimenters allowed prisoners to be visited by “their own parents and friends on visiting nights; a Catholic priest; a public defender; many professional psychologists; and graduate students, secretaries, and staff of the psychology department,” many of whom “took part in parole board hearings or spoke to participants and looked at them directly.” When guards pushed the limits?for example, handcuffing and blindfolding a prisoner in the counseling office (yes, the inmates got regular counseling?another amenity neglected at Abu Ghraib)?the experimenters ordered them to stop.

At Abu Ghraib, none of this was true. The key issue in dispute is which supervisor?over-aggressive military intelligence officers; Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the allegedly callous commander of U.S. forces in Iraq; Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the military police boss who allegedly ignored reports of abuse, or others?contributed most to the scandal.

Zimbardo thinks his “situationist” theory holds supervisors accountable for the the situations they create. But by defining situations in broad terms such as “dehumanization” and “diffusion of responsibility,” he obscures the precise ways in which supervisors influence abuse. In the Globe, for example, Zimbardo lists, among “the terrible things my guards did,” the fact that the Stanford guards “chained” their prisoners. But according to the original 1973 journal article on the study, “A chain and lock were placed around one ankle” of each prisoner as part of the study’s design, to serve as a “constant reminder … of the oppressiveness of the environment.”

Likewise, in an article hailing Stanford as a template for Abu Ghraib, the New York Times says of Zimbardo’s experiment,

Within days the “guards” had become swaggering and sadistic, to the point of placing bags over the prisoners’ heads, forcing them to strip naked and encouraging them to perform sexual acts. — [Zimbardo] said that while the rest of the world was shocked by the images from Iraq, “I was not surprised that it happened.” “I have exact, parallel pictures of prisoners with bags over their heads,” from the 1971 study, he said.

But it was the experimenters, not the guards, who came up with the bag idea. As Zimbardo’s wife, Christina Maslach, explained recently,

The toilet was outside the confines of the prison yard, and this had posed a problem for the researchers. — They did not want the prisoners to see people and places in the outside world, which would have broken the total environment they were trying to create. So the routine for the bathroom runs was to put paper bags over the prisoners’ heads so they couldn’t see anything ?

The same thing happened at Abu Ghraib. Prisoners have been photographed wearing hoods; but according to guards, it was intelligence officers who initially brought “hooded” prisoners to them. Last week, the commander of military prisons in Iraq announced that intelligence officers would no longer “hood” detainees, in effect confirming that they had been doing so.

This turns out to be the most interesting parallel between Stanford and Abu Ghraib: In both inquiries, the role of influential supervisors was wrongly screened out. According to the Times, “General Karpinski has complained that the initial investigation ordered by General Sanchez was limited to the conduct of her military police brigade and did not examine in any detail the role played by military intelligence and private contractors.”

By focusing on the power of situations and roles, Zimbardo also obscures the ability of participants to alter them. He halted the Stanford experiment after six days largely because Maslach observed the proceedings and told him, “What you are doing to those boys is a terrible thing!” Reflecting on this moment, Zimbardo concludes,

I had become a Prison Superintendent, the second role I played in addition to that of Principal Investigator. I began to talk, walk and act like a rigid institutional authority figure more concerned about the security of “my prison” than the needs of the young men entrusted to my care as a psychological researcher. In a sense, I consider that the most profound measure of the power of this situation was the extent to which it transformed me.

In other words, the situation made me do it. Even the creator and supervisor is a cog. Perhaps we’ll hear the same defense from the folks who ran Abu Ghraib. The point of the Stanford experiment, after all, was to discredit personal responsibility. “Individual behavior is largely under the control of social forces and environmental contingencies rather than ‘personality traits,’ ‘character,’ ‘will power,’ or other empirically unvalidated constructs,” Zimbardo told Congress in 1971. “Thus we create an illusion of freedom by attributing more internal control to ourselves, to the individual, than actually exists.”

Why do we create this “illusion”? Zimbardo’s colleague in the experiment, Craig Haney, says we do so because “if we can attribute deviance, failure, and breakdowns to the individual flaws of others, then we are absolved.” Maybe so. But if we blame the situation, the perpetrators are absolved, too.

William Saletan is Slate‘s chief political correspondent and author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War.

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