Ideas in depth
Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) gave rise to a simple and powerful explanation of why people do evil things. Put them in a group and they will automatically take on their roles. In the SPE, it is claimed, guard aggression “was emitted simply as a ‘natural’ consequence of being in the uniform of a ‘guard’ and asserting the power inherent in that role”.
The logic of this position is that because people can’t help themselves, they have limited responsibility for their actions. Indeed, Zimbardo has followed through on this logic and acted as an expert in defence of one of the American guards found guilty of abusing inmates at Abu Ghraib prison. The guards, he asserts, "were essentially clueless as to what was appropriate and what was not acceptable when preparing detainees for detention".
An alternative perspective is to argue that people do have choices in groups. They have choice over joining. They have choice over what they do as members. Those who give orders to abuse others clearly bear much of the responsibility, but that doesn’t absolve those who follow the orders.
In fact, both historical and psychological evidence suggests that people who commit atrocities know what they are doing and believe in what they are doing. They identify with the cause, they see their ‘victims’ as threats to the cause, and they see their actions as a ‘noble’ defence of the cause. The problem here is not that group psychology makes people thoughtless. It is that some group ideology can make people zealots.
- Arendt, H. (1963). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. New York: Penguin.
- Cesarani, D. (2004). Eichmann: His life and crimes. London: Heinemann.
- Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer Effect: How good people turn evil. London: Random House.