Why social science can't explain Abu Ghraib.

Science, technology, and life.
May 12 2004 6:51 PM

Situationist Ethics

The Stanford Prison Experiment doesn't explain Abu Ghraib.

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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.

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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,

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