You’re As Evil as Your Social Network: What the Prison Experiment Got Wrong

Vice Motherboard – by McLean Gordon

In 1961, psychologist Stanley Milgram began an experiment that left humanity with one of the most dismal and damning self-portraits we’ve ever seen. It seemed to demonstrate that the overwhelming majority of regular Americans are willing to administer a lethal electric shock to a human victim when prompted to do so by an authority figure.

A decade later, Milgram’s fellow psychologist and former high school classmate Philip Zimbardo performed another experiment at Stanford University that captured on tape the transformation of regular college students into authoritarian monsters. In a matter of days, those playing the role of guards had the prisoners going mad in solitary confinement and defecating in buckets in their cells. Zimbardo shut the experiment down half way through, but only after his fellow psychologist and future wife appealed to his sense of humanity.  

The experiments were part of a greater intellectual reaction to the 1962 trial of Adolph Eichmann – the Nazi bureaucrat generally regarded as the man who signed off on the holocaust. An explanation was sought, but as far as outward appearances, Eichmann was no blood-hungry ogre. He was an average looking, middle-aged pencil pusher with thinning hair. In her classic account of the Eichmann trial, “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Hannah Arendt summed up the Nazi obersturmbannfuhrer’s life and death thus: “Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all.” He was “just following orders.”

To Arendt, this was “the banality of evil,” the apparently mechanical process of obedience–whereby an otherwise uninteresting person can become an agent of extraordinary cruelty. In a system like Nazi Germany, where social acceptance was the reward for evil, the socially normal individual sees evil as good. Doing evil becomes nothing more than healthy self-interest, and the horrifying irony is that the person committing unimaginable cruelty comes across in other social contexts as a perfectly “normal,” uninteresting individual, no more conspicuous than the rumpled businessman sitting next to you on the train.

The body of psychological research around the banality of evil painted a pretty awful picture of humanity. “The System” was turning regular folks into monsters. In his book “Obedience to Authority,” Milgram quoted George Orwell:

“As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are only “doing their duty,” as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well- placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it.”

In Milgram’s own words: “The essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions.”

But the theory about obedience and comformity wasn’t quite complete. Fast forward to 2002, when the BBC produced a 5-episode series blending reality TV with social psychology research. By no means scientifically conclusive, “The Experiment,” as the show was called, did serve to illustrate some of the shortcomings in the famous Stanford prisoner experiment and the widely accepted banality of evil theory.

At the helm of “The Experiment” were two psychologists who have worked for over a dedade challenging classical models of obedience: Alex Haslam, currently Professor of Psychology at the University of Queensland, and Steven Reicher, head of the School of Psychology at the University of St. Andrews. Both focus on the role of social and group identity in  determining how people behave.

Their research suggests that there is no passive “Lucifer Effect” leading people simply to do what they are told. In a recent paper, Professeors Haslam and Reicher summarize some of the conclusions being drawn from the past fifteen years of research. What they have found is that blind obedience is not the norm. The study concludes:

“At root, the fundamental point is that tyranny does not flourish because perpetrators are helpless and ignorant of their actions. It flourishes because they actively identify with those who promote vicious acts as virtuous. It is this conviction that steels participants to do their dirty work and that makes them work energetically and creatively to ensure its success. Moreover, this work is something for which they actively wish to be held accountable—so long as it secures the approbation of those in power.”

These findings point to the inner, conscious agency of those carrying out the vicious agendas of evil regimes. People are never just black-box agents taking inputs from authority figures and producing outputs in the form of obedient execution of commands. People are responsible for their own ideas, and it is through their own personal identification with a given social order that they become agents of good or evil. Belief matters, and any resistance to authoritarian control depends ultimately on the strength of the opinions in the minds of individuals.

To get some perspective on what these conclusions about obedience and authority might mean, especially in the information age, I called Dr. Haslam at his office in Queensland.

In terms of authority figures getting others to identify with them and their point of view, are there any sort of observed techniques for how they do that?
Earlier this year, Steve Reicher and I wrote a book on leadership, which was really talking about how leaders cultivate a sense of identification with their followers. I mean one pretty obvious thing is that leaders talk about “we” rather than “I,” and actually what leadership is about is cultivating this sense of shared identity about “we-ness” and then getting people to want to act in terms of that “we-ness,” to promote our collective interests.

That’s at the heart of effective leadership, whether for good or for evil. So in a sense, identification and social identity is absolutely critical to leadership. I mean, what predicts the outcome of the U.S. presidential election is whether or not people identify with the particular leaders and whether they buy into their vision of the whole that they present. Let me ask you a question: What do you think is the single word that has increased in inaugural addresses over the last century?

Uhh, I’m gonna go with “we.”
Absolutely, and the other one is “America.” You’re appealing to the collective, and the words have increased because people have become more aware of their power to a certain extent. But also, those addresses are reaching out to more and more people. A hundred years ago not too many people were paying attention to these speeches. Nowadays people are, and so it’s a critical opportunity to galvanize that sense of who we are and what it means to be American, or what it means to be Australian. And the point is, if I’m a leader who wants to do good, then I’ll mobilize people around a positive, good understanding of what it means to be American, and how we position others in relation to us. Do we see everyone who isn’t American as a problem and as a threat to our Americanness? Or do we see a situation where we can actually work together with other people to create a better world? That’s the stuff of politics as well, so I don’t think these issues are just about these kinds of studies. They’re also about these more positive processes of how leaders mobilize people to act, either for evil or for good.

Presidential inaugural address, 2009

So how does a leader create that “we-ness”?
In terms of what they do, in terms of cultivating a sense of “us,” we argue it comes down to four things: first, you’ve got to represent us, which means you’ve got to be seen to be one of us; second, you’ve got to stand up for us, so you’ve got to be seen to defend our interests. Third, you’ve got to cultivate a sense of us – you’ve got to cultivate a sense of us if one doesn’t exist already, and fourth, you’ve got to have practices and activities that embed a sense of us. So, representing, promoting, cultivating and embedding that sense of shared identity, that’s what leadership is all about we argue.

How does your thinking on social identity depart from previous ideas about why people are obedient, and their willingness to do harm?
The classical idea is that people just conform blindly to the instructions of authorities, and I think now the research shows they don’t really. Actually if you look at these studies themselves, people are never conforming blindly. Where they go along with an experimenter’s instructions or with the roles an experimenter gives them, it seems to me that firstly, not everybody does, and that secondly, whether or not they go along is a function of whether or not they identify with the experimenter and with the scientific project. Also, when they go along, they’re not just obeying, they’re responding enthusiastically, and creatively. They’re not just doing what they’re told; they’re doing more than is asked of them. I think that’s also really critical when you try to explain the behavior of people like Eichmann and other kinds of Nazis. They were never just following orders: they were responding in an engaged fashion to what they perceived to be the requirements of the situation and the requirements of a leadership with which they identified.

How do you think spending so much time on the Web, with social media and in general, inform peoples’ social identity?
I think if you’re talking about kind of tyranny and oppression, that involves a physical set of actions that aren’t just virtual. Clearly the Nazis didn’t need the internet to perpetrate the holocaust. I mean, it would have helped in certain ways, but there are other things they needed to be doing physically that made their regime brutal, and again I think that’s true today. At the end of the day, what really concerns us are situations where people are getting treated inappropriately or abused.

Clearly that can happen in a virtual kind of environment when there is some kind of physical manifestation of that also. But even in those kind of virtual domains people don’t get involved in hate campaigns unless they to some extent identify with the hateful cause, and clearly whether or not you get involved with some sort of viral war or whatever it might be, depends on whether or not you are engaged and identify with the parties concerned. Go and look at the BBC News, look at the responses to it, how vigorously people respond to particular points, and you can pretty much see where their affiliations lie. It’s certainly not the case that they just go along with things because someone important is telling them to do so.

Thinking about the web, have you looked at how anonymity affects peoples’ willingness to do evil?
Your construction of the audience is quite critical there. For instance in Abu Ghraib, a lot of that stuff was filmed and photographed, but the point is who do you think is watching? Who’s taking the photographs? In a way, it’s about the relationship between you and the audience. I think that’s right. Just to anticipate one point, there’s a really nice analysis that was done by two researchers in the Netherlands, Tom Postmes and Russell Spears, looking at the relation or the correlation, across all available studies, between anonymity and destructive behavior. What they found was that that correlation is close to zero. There is no evidence of a relationship between anonymity and abuse. Everything hinges on moderators, and the key moderator is, what is the norm of the group?

If the norm of the group is to be destructive, well actually then anonymity can enhance that. But if the norm of the group is to be constructive, then anonymity can enhance that. So it isn’t the case that anonymity is one of those things that feeds into brutality. You know, doctors and nurses in a sense kind of dress up in a kind of uniform to make their personal identities less salient, and charities have a lot of anonymous donors who are very concerned to protect their identities for various reasons. That doesn’t stop them from doing good.

“Most have been so scared they piss on themselves. Its sad. But pictures were taken, you have to see them!” — From a letter by Army Specialist Sabrina Harman, the woman behind the camera at Abu Ghraib.

Well, if you think your friends back home are going to be seeing this photo, you’re probably going to be more self conscious of what you get photographed doing.
That issue of self consciousness is a really interesting one, and again I think the issue is the audience, and who do you think is watching? This again goes to the heart of what’s going on in the Milgram and Zimbardo studies. The key audience is the experimenter, Zimbardo, and you ask yourself, do you identify with him? And if you do, you ask yourself, what is it that he wants me to do? And you try to enact that. And in the same way, if you think about those photographs of people at Abu Ghraib, clearly they knew they were being filmed, but they had a sense that the people they were waving at and smiling at was an in-group who would approve of what they were doing. They were therefore in some sense doing it for them.

I mean, the scary thing there is that they thought they were doing it for us, and in a particular kind of sense they were, because clearly they had a model of what it meant to be us that justified, condoned particular treatment of the detainees in that particular prison, so, I think again all those things are telling effectively the same story, and really all the cameras do is make salient different audiences, and if you think it’s going to be watched just by your friends, then that’s not a problem, so the issue then is one of identity salience, and that’s what things like cameras do. There’s quite a lot of research too on exactly that point. You can have a camera there and it doesn’t have any particular effect. What has an effect is, who do you think is taking the photographs, and who’s behind the camera.

One thought on “You’re As Evil as Your Social Network: What the Prison Experiment Got Wrong

  1. “A decade later, Milgram’s fellow psychologist and former high school classmate Philip Zimbardo performed another experiment at Stanford University that captured on tape the transformation of regular college students into authoritarian monsters. In a matter of days, those playing the role of guards had the prisoners going mad in solitary confinement and defecating in buckets in their cells. Zimbardo shut the experiment down half way through, but only after his fellow psychologist and future wife appealed to his sense of humanity.”

    I seem to recall this as being bogus, exposed a while back on this site.

    Could be wrong, though. Memory ain’t what it used to be. 🙁

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