Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Long View: the Prisoner Experiment and what it teaches us.

Crossposted to Daily Kos

Yesterday I wrote about Milgram's work and how diffusion of responsibility supports torture.

Today I'm continuing that theme, discussing how Zimbardo's Prisoner Experiment at Stanford shows us similar trends.

First, a summary of the prisoner experiment, for those of you unfamiliar with it.

If you're not interested in the YouTube version, Wikipedia has a great summary as well.

Here's the simple version:

When we set up bad structures, we end up with people who do bad things.

That's it. It's that simple. What Zimbardo mentions (more in this recent interview) is that, in his experiment, the "guards" boiled down to two kinds: "good "guards and "bad" guards. The "bad" guards are the ones who engaged in brutal behaviors against the "prisoners." The good "guards" are the ones who didn't.

But none of those "good" guards tried to stop it.

In the Stanford experiment, we weren't dealing with people who had a moral right to be guards. We weren't dealing with prisoners who had done anything wrong. Everyone was randomly assigned to a role. And yet, still, we had prisoners breaking down. We had guards deliberately demeaning and abusing prisoners.

Does this ring a bell?

Without proper leadership, people in authority tend towards chaos. Without proper controls and accountability, people in authority do damage.

Without a proper idea as to who the enemy is, soldiers don't know what to do.

So they behave badly.

And, like I mentioned yesterday, we don't want to acknowledge this:

I'm going to mention another concept that I've talked about before: cognitive dissonance -- the condition that exists when our behavior contradicts our beliefs. When dealing with cognitive dissonance we sometimes change our behavior, but we sometimes also change our beliefs.

We do not want to think of ourselves as a country which supports or promotes torture. It contradicts our beliefs. So when we see that we have, in fact, engaged in torture, we have some choices:

  1. we can change our beliefs to convince ourselves that we think torture is ok;

  2. we can say "this has to stop" and change our behavior;

  3. we can say "this has to stop" and then convince ourselves that we've changed our behavior without actually doing it;

  4. we can say "we oppose torture" and then reclassify everything we do as something that's not torture.

We're so focused on this idea of supporting our troops that we refuse to acknowledge the reality: by failing to hold them accountable and by refusing to hold them to a higher standard, we are doing them damage. We're so focused on choosing option #3 above-- pretending we're solving things without actually doing so-- that we're risking serious long-term damage.

A few weeks ago, in another post, I wrote about the problems facing our soldiers:

In the meantime, as IAVA reports, the professional component of this is far from adequate:

90% of military psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers reported no formal training or supervision in the recommended PTSD therapies, and there is a general shortage of trained mental health professionals in the military. The Pentagon screens returning troops for mental health problems via an ineffective system of paperwork. Studies have shown that many troops are not filling out their mental health forms, that there are serious disincentives for troops to fill the form out accurately, and that those whose forms indicate they need care do not consistently get referrals.

Both guards and prisoners in the Stanford experiment suffered mental damage as a result of it. And this was fake.

Imagine yourself placed in a situation where the rules are unclear and you don't know what you're supposed to do, but that your basic role is "guard." You don't know who the enemy is. Or you don't know what your prisoners have done. Or you don't know why you're there or what your mission is.

And you're there, in this prison, guarding people whom you don't understand, who don't understand you, and you're there guarding this scene where you're the "good" guard. You're not the one strapping someone to a table. You're not the one holding the suffocation hood. You're not the one doing the waterboarding.

But you're there. And you're supposed to be keeping everything in order. You're one of the 92% who won't intervene when someone in the room with you is killing someone. Because you're just following orders.

Imagine this insanity happening around you and you being part of it and yet also just a casual observer who had the power to intervene and prevent atrocities and failed to do so.

Now imagine that you think of yourself as a good person, but are connected with this.

Remember the concept of "cognitive dissonance" that I reference earlier?

What do you think this does to a person?

I'm horrified by what I see, but I get that pretending its not there is worse.

I want to support my country, but I can't do so in a way that ignores the truth.

I want to support the troops, but I can't do so without knowing who they are and what their limitations are.

I want what we're doing overseas to stop. It doesn't just do damage to other countries and other people. It does damage to us. It destroys the hearts of everyone involved: prisoner, guard, soldier, civilian.

It destroys the minds and it destroys the souls.