The beast within us all
Diminutive American servicewoman Lynndie England, recently shown in photographs holding a leash attached to a naked Iraqi's neck in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, has resurrected interest in a couple of classic psychological experiments. Both demonstrate how easily normal people can turn nasty.
First came Stanley Milgram, at Yale University, who, in a series of experiments, had volunteers administer what they thought were harmful electric shocks to strangers, ostensibly as punishment for getting the answer to a question wrong. Two-thirds inflicted 'danger' level shocks of 450 volts on victims screaming in apparent agony in an adjoining room when encouraged to do so by a man in a white laboratory coat. In fact, everyone bar the volunteers was in on the act. The volunteers later described how they had been taken in by the scenario and many were somewhat puzzled and disturbed by exactly why they had gone along with it.
A few crucial elements fostered a willingness to be cruel. First was the authoritative figure in a white coat in a reputable setting, working according to a clear set of rules. This reduces an individual's sense of personal responsibility. Second, participants were probably more likely to have gone along with things because they were given the impression that their victims were the focus of the study. Third, the most ruthless behaviour occurred when participants did not see the victim's face - although they continued to hear the pitiful screams.
This bizarre willingness to drop one's usual standards of decency is not limited to experiments. It is what happened in Nazi Germany, according to some, and perhaps in Iraq. Over time and with repeated exposure, almost anything can be normalised.
Another psychological classic with even closer parallels to Abu Ghraib is the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. Philip Zimbardo boarded up two ends of the corridor in the basement of the university's psychology department building to create a fake prison. He recruited white male students to take on the roles of prisoners and guards. To his surprise, things very quickly deteriorated. The prisoners rebelled after the first day and the guards retaliated brutally. The two-week experiment was halted after six days: the participants had simply become too dangerously identified with their roles.
Because one group has control over the other, the prisoner-guard relationship is inevitably conflictual. This causes defensive aggressiveness on the part of both guards and prisoners. One can imagine that with the additional problems related to the US presence in Iraq, the situation in Abu Ghraib is sure to have been infinitely worse. Add to this the authoritative military context in which the abuses took place, the uniforms and the culture of toughness. They all probably played a part in the setting that allowed servicemen and women to psychologically absolve themselves from their acts.
Professor Zimbardo retired recently. After a lifetime to think about the topic that made him famous, he concludes that prison sadism is avoidable on three conditions. There must be crystal-clear rules as to what is permissible. Staff must be thoroughly trained, and management must be strict, including punishment for violators.
Excesses during conflict are never justifiable in everyday moral terms. But, from a psychological point of view, such behaviour is not so very far from what our own might be given the same set of circumstances. Blame, equally, is not as easily attributed as it might first appear.
Jean Nicol is a psychologist specialising in issues of cultural identity and change in an era of globalisation