Thursday, March 12, 2009

Institutional context and how good people turn evil


Philip Zimbardo, an emeritus professor of social psychology from Stanford University, did in the early seventies a famous experiment where a group of young men randomly were assigned to be prisoner or guard. The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), as it is known know, was cancelled after a week when a collegue of Zimbardo who saw the consequences of the experiments intervened. Zimbardo became part of the experiments where some "guards" were abusing "prisoners". The original intension of the experiment was to understand how context affect behavior, a line of work in psychology which was inspired by the question how ordinary citizens could turn to evil in World War 2. The SPE provides a clear example where context turn good people into evil.
Zimbardo wrote The Lucifer Effect based on his experiences with the SPE and other research he did like the prisoner abuse and torture in Abo Ghraib. As in the case of Abo Ghraib the first response of officials is that it is an isolated incident from bad people. Zimbardo shows convincingly that lack of oversight of higher autorities provide the conditions that people reveal their dark side of personalities. Due to lack of correcting autorities guards did what they thought was right "I only followed orders" "I needed to prepare the prisoners to confess", etc.
The facinating book of Zimbardo relates to one of the key findings from the study of institutional diversity, the importance of monitoring and enforcement. Due lack of oversight by their superiors and lack of correcting actions, hence ineffective monitoring, abuse escalated from small violations to enduring torture. That's why the Bush administration and not the guards are responsible for the prisoner abuse and torture in Abo Ghraib.
The role of autority in action arena in many contexts, from prisons to many other organizations, is therefore key. Besides being aware of the special position of autority and its affect of other actors in the action situation, it is important to think about how autority can be corrected. Hence the need for different levels of checks and balances.