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.

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.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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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.

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