April 10, 2007

The Lucifer Effect

KQED's Forum had an interview Monday with Professor Phillip Zimbardo, the psychologist that ran the Stanford Prison experiment back in 1971. It's a fascinating interview and if you have time, it would be well worth your while to listen to the whole piece.

lucifereffect.gifProfessor Zimbardo recently published a book called The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil based on that early study and from an intensive look at what that experiment could tell us about what happened at Abu Ghraib. Professor Zimbardo believes that one thing his experiment did was to show how anyone is capable of doing evil things when the situation in which they operate makes that seem normal. He has said that it is not the bad apple that is the problem, but the barrel they find themselves in that creates the environment which makes their actions seem normal. He also says that one of the things that leads people to inflict harsher punishment is boredom. The worse abuse in both his experiment and in Abu Ghraib was done at night when the guards were bored.

Professor Zimbardo believes that his experiment shows that when you have a situation like Abu Ghraib, you must hold the supervisors accountable, and not just the individuals who carried out the actions. When he says that the individual cupidity is based on one's situation, not on the inherent character of the individual, he runs up against the notion that it is the individual who is at fault.

Philosophically, this is the great divide between the left and the right. Today the right wing as it becomes increasingly authoritarian has concluded that it is "evil out there" that is the problem. They believe it is the individual that has failed, not the system. And they cannot imagine that they could fail in the same ways based on the same conditions. For every social problem, it is the individual who must pay for the bad decisions because when people are looking for their leaders to protect them (and punish the bad guys) the authorities must be respected. Jerome a Paris defined the problem extremely well today: the right wing relies exclusively on Supply-side stories and solutions, while starving any solutions that address the demand-side. This piece by William Saletin is a great example of the problem, because he sees that if the system is to blame, then the individuals get off, and he does not seem to care that the authorities should also be held to account for creating the system.

Why do conservatives insist on only seeing how individuals are at fault while ignoring the problem with the system? I think it is because they are unable to see how they too might fail. As long as the problem is the character of the individual and "out-there", then they never have to examine their own weaknesses and admit their own human frailties.

Posted by Mary at April 10, 2007 02:13 AM | Recommended Reading | Technorati links |

While denial of complicity and an aversion to self-analysis are factors, I think simple greed can explain the Right's "The individual is entirely to blame, and the system is blameless (particularly if the system is a market)" approach. The locus of the Right's conservative philosophy is in individuals who perceive they have too much (wealth, status) to lose if the system is tinkered with; change tax rates to keep income inequalities from becoming too extreme, they lose out, etc.

So they defend the system (because it has worked to their benefit) and blame the individual other (because there is for them no risk of loss).

I'm not sure I've expressed it well, but it seems obvious.


Posted by: MFA at April 10, 2007 10:42 AM

In part, this is the old detective's triple of means, motive, and opportunity. So conservatives put all the blame on the motive; communists put all the blame on the means; libertarians put all the blame on the oppoortunity.

Posted by: Dave Bell at April 11, 2007 01:44 PM

Authoritarians (conservatives at their worst) utterly lack self-reflection and introspection. They project the evil that's inside them (inside all of us actually) onto others outside their tribe, unable to admit that they themselves are in any way evil. The more this is done, the more self-righteous and unconscious they appear.

The ultimate expression of this is a President who cannot admit he's done anything wrong, and who engages the nation in an infantile fight to eradicate evil from the earth. A true shadow boxer, fighting his own projections. Completely unconscious.

Posted by: alyosha at April 11, 2007 02:33 PM