The banality of evil

In 1973, Philip Zimbardo carried out a classic, but highly controversial, experiment to investigate the psychological effects of imprisonment. An ad asking for volunteers to take part in a study of prison life was placed in a newspaper. Those who responded were given given clinical interviews, and 25 physically healthy and emotionally stable young men were selected.

The participants were randomly designated as either ‘prisoners’ or ‘prison guards’. Those assigned in the role of ‘prisoners’ were ‘arrested’ by Palo Alto police officers, who charged them with a crime, read them their rights, searched them and took them in a squad car to the police station to be fingerprinted. The ‘prisoners’ were then blindfolded and taken to a basement at Stanford University which had been converted into a mock prison, where they were stripped, searched, and deloused. They were issued with bedding and uniforms consisting of loose-fitting smocks with identification numbers printed on the front and back, and chains were bolted around their ankles. The ‘guards’ were given military khaki-style uniforms, whistles, handcuffs and clubs. They were also issued with silver reflective sunglasses, which made any eye contact with the ‘prisoners’ impossible, and given keys to the cells in the mock prison.

All the participants took to their roles very quickly. The ‘guards’ quickly established a routine of 8-hour shifts, and only allowed the ‘prisoners’ out of their cells for meals. They began acting in an authoritarian and abusive manner towards the ‘prisoners’, and many seemed to relish the power they were given. When they started getting bored, they played games which involved humiliating the ‘prisoners’. Within 36 hours, one of the ‘prisoners’ began suffering from severe depression, and was released after starting to cry uncontrollably and having fits of rage. During the next few days, three other ‘prisoners’ began acting in a similar way, and they too were withdrawn from the experiment.

The participants in Zimbardo’s study were not told that they would be ‘arrested’, mainly because the local police force only agreed to co-operate just before the experiment was due to begin. Nevertheless, they had all previously agreed to and signed a formal ‘informed consent’ statement which stated that they would lose some of their civil rights and experience an invasion of privacy and harrasment. However, Zimbardo had not anticipated the extent to which his ‘guards’ would brutalize the ‘prisoners’, and, although the experiment was planned to last two weeks, it was abandoned after just six days.

Zimbardo felt very strongly that his experiment should never be repeated. But in 2002, Alex Haslam of Exeter University and Steve Reicher, the University of St Andrews, did just that, for a reality TV show produced in collaboration with the BBC. Six of the 25 male vollunteers were assigned in the role of ‘guards’, and the other 9 were ‘prisoners’. But behavioural studies are very difficult to replicate, and the way the participants acted during the experiment was probably influenced by the presence of the television cameras. The outcome of the experiment was quite different from that of Zimbardo’s. “There was a lack of a common social identity [among the guards], no leadership and they didn’t even develop a simple shift pattern,” says Reicher. Eventually, they tried to befriend the ‘prisoners’, and to make their incarceration as comfortable as possible for them.

In an editorial in the Boston Globe, Zimbardo discusses the parallels between his experiment and the abuse by U. S. officials of Iraqis detained at Abu Ghraib:

The terrible things my guards 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. As the boredom of their job increased, they began using the prisoners as their playthings, devising ever more humiliating and degrading games for them to play. Over time, these amusements took a sexual turn, such as having the prisoners simulate sodomy on each other. Once aware of such deviant behavior, I closed down the Stanford prison.

When the Abu Ghraib scandal was exposed, the Bush administration insisted that the perpetrators were just “bad apples”. However, it soon emerged that, far from being an isolated case, the systematic abuse that occurred in Abu Ghraib was common-place, and had been sanctioned from above. (This led many to call for the resignation of U. S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.) Indeed, Zimbardo had shown “the power of social, institutional forces to make good men engage in evil deeds”. His work, and that of Stanley Milgram a decade earlier, had clearly demonstrated what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil”.

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