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Social Psychology in the Public Interest

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

The Stanford Prison Study and Abu Ghraib

Figure 6.11 Abu Ghraib Abuse standing on box 

In Milgram’s research we can see a provocative demonstration of how people who have power can control the behavior of others. Can our understanding of the social psychological factors that produce obedience help us explain the events that occurred in 2004 at Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison in which U.S. soldiers physically and psychologically tortured their Iraqi prisoners? The social psychologist Philip Zimbardo thinks so. He notes the parallels between the events that occurred at Abu Ghraib and the events that occurred in the “prison study” that he conducted in 1971 (Stanford Prison Study. Retrieved from

In that study, Zimbardo and his colleagues set up a mock prison. They selected 23 student volunteers and divided them into two groups. One group was chosen to be the “prisoners.” They were picked up at their homes by actual police officers, “arrested,” and brought to the prison to be guarded by the other group of students—the “guards.” The two groups were placed in a setting that was designed to look like a real prison, and the role-play began.

The study was expected to run for two weeks. However, on the second day, the prisoners tried to rebel against the guards. The guards quickly moved to stop the rebellion by using both psychological punishment and physical abuse. In the ensuing days, the guards denied the prisoners food, water, and sleep; shot them with fire-extinguisher spray; threw their blankets into the dirt; forced them to clean toilet bowls with their bare hands; and stripped them naked. On the fifth night the experimenters witnessed the guards putting bags over the prisoners’ heads, chaining their legs, and marching them around. At this point, a former student who was not involved with the study spoke up, declaring the treatment of the prisoners to be immoral. As a result, the researchers stopped the experiment early.

The conclusions of Zimbardo’s research were seemingly clear: people may be so profoundly influenced by their social situation that they become coldhearted jail masters who torture their victims. Arguably, this conclusion may be applied to the research team itself, which seemingly neglected ethical principles in the pursuit of their research goals. Zimbardo’s research may help us understand the events that occurred at Abu Ghraib, a military prison used by the U.S. military following the successful toppling of the dictator Saddam Hussein. Zimbardo acted as an expert witness in the trial of Sergeant Chip Frederick, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in the abuse at Abu Ghraib. Frederick was the army reservist who was put in charge of the night shift at Tier 1A, where the detainees were abused. During this trial, Frederick said, “What I did was wrong, and I don’t understand why I did it.” Zimbardo believes that Frederick acted exactly like the students in the prison study. He worked in a prison that was overcrowded, filthy, and dangerous, and where he was expected to maintain control over the Iraqi prisoners—in short, the situation he found himself in was very similar to that of Zimbardo’s prison study.

In a recent interview, Zimbardo argued (you can tell that he is a social psychologist) that “human behavior is more influenced by things outside of us than inside.” He believes that, despite our moral and religious beliefs and despite the inherent goodness of people, there are times when external circumstances can overwhelm us and we will do things we never thought we were capable of doing. He argued that if you’re not aware that this can happen, you can be seduced by evil. We need inoculations against our own potential for evil. We have to acknowledge it. Then we can change it (Driefus, 2007).

You may wonder whether the extreme behavior of the guards and prisoners in Zimbardo’s prison study was unique to the particular social context that he created. Recent research by Stephen Reicher and Alex Haslam (2006) suggests that this is indeed the case. In their research, they recreated Zimbardo’s prison study while making some small, but important, changes. For one, the prisoners were not “arrested” before the study began, and the setup of the jail was less realistic. Furthermore, the researchers in this experiment told the “guards” and the “prisoners” that the groups were arbitrary and could change over time (that is, that some prisoners might be able to be promoted to guards). The results of this study were entirely different than those found by Zimbardo. This study was also stopped early, but more because the guards felt uncomfortable in their superior position than because the prisoners were being abused. This “prison” simply did not feel like a real prison to the participants, and, as a result, they did not take on the roles they were assigned. Again, the conclusions are clear—the specifics of the social situation, more than the people themselves, are often the most important determinants of behavior.