The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo is an in depth study of mankind’s capacity for evil, beginning with the complete treatise on the Stanford Prison Experiment, taking us through numerous similar studies on obedience and the corrupting influence of authority, and ending with the atrocities committed by US soldiers in Abu Ghraib. But as I was reading, I kept thinking of Ron Paul and the ongoing controversy between the libertarians and anarchists as to whether supporting his campaign is the right thing to do. I think this book has settled the issue for me, as I’ll explain as we go on. Although I started with the paperback, I really can’t sing the praises of the audiobook enough. A significant portion is actual transcripts from the experiment, and the narrator, Kevin Foley is a skilled voice actor that turns the book into a radio play with different voices for each character.
At first I was skeptical because Zimbardo was an expert witness for the defense of these soldiers, but his thesis is redeemed somewhat by acknowledging that those obeying authority are fully morally culpable for their actions. His intention is to show that systemic forces, what he calls “situational power” can transform otherwise conscientious people into authoritarian sociopaths. In the last part of the book he conducts a mock trial, prosecuting the entire command structure of the US military which made the inhumane treatment possible, even predictable. The line between collective guilt and individual guilt gets a little muddy, which makes interpreting it through a lens of individualist anarchy a little sticky, but incredibly valuable. Applied consistently Zimbardo’s conclusions about the corrupting influence of authority should apply as readily to the US Military as to any other coercive hierarchy, especially the State.
In 1971 the Stanford Prison Experiment was designed to study the psychology of the guard/inmate relationship. It is perhaps the most famous psychological study on authority next to the Milgram Experiment. By randomly dividing a group of similar undergraduate students, screened for psychological health, into “guards” and “prisoners” and conducting a two week long mock prison in the basement of Psychology department Zimbardo aimed to identify to what degree their identities and moral compasses could be supplanted by situational forces.
Guards were given uniforms, mirrored glasses, and wooden batons to establish status. Prisoners were dressed in smocks and addressed only by number. Guards were instructed only to keep a fixed routine, and to make the prisoners feel powerless. After a prisoner revolt on the second day, and a brief hunger strike, guards began to display cruel, even sadistic behavior. A system of punishment soon followed including, spraying disobedient prisoners with fire extinguishers, depriving them of bedding or restroom privileges, forcing them to go nude and locking them in “solitary confinement” in a dark closet. Then prisoners adopted submissive attitudes, accepting abuse, and readily following orders to inflict punishments on each other. They even engaged in horizontal discipline to keep each other in line. As Zimbardo explained, both prisoners and guards had fully internalized their new identities, transformed into perpetrators and placaters of evil.
The levels of cruelty witnessed in the experiment were so severe that it was halted after only six days. Zimbardo says now that it should have been halted sooner but his own judgement was compromised by internalizing his prison warden identity. The experiment worked too well, and Zimbardo began to prioritize the continuation of the prison over the ethics of the experiment. He writes of his own feelings of guilt, which kept him from publishing the full findings of the experiment for over 30 years.
Since then ethical guidelines have been enacted which prevent the repeating of the experiment. But similar experiments have been conducted, all with similar results, which Zimbardo goes into at length in the book. The most interesting finding, which I’d never heard acknowledged before, was that no experiment found any significant difference between the level of obedience in either gender. So, the “natural obedience” that theocrats often attribute to women is not expressed when tested. Instead, it seems that men and women are equally willing to murder an innocent victim if an authority figure tells them to.
In 2004 photographs of the torture taking place in Abu Ghraib hit the American media. Naked prisoners stacked in human pyramids, naked prisoners forced to simulate oral sex, and a hooded man balanced on a cardboard box with electric wires attached to his fingers that has become the iconic image of the torture. One guard sodomized a male prisoner with a flashlight, and another raped a female detainee. In many photographs a soldier is smiling approvingly for the camera. The photos were kept as trophies. The country stood in a shock and horror as the details came to light and many cried “how did this happen?!” But Zimbardo already knew, because he had seen it before. It was witnessing the cruelty at Abu Ghraib which convinced him it was time to publish the full results of the Stanford Prison Experiment.
The instant refrain of the military was that these soldiers were ‘just a few bad apples’ but Zimbardo insists that their behavior was the result systemic forces from “an entire bad barrel.” Abu Ghraib had been used by Saddam Hussein for public executions, and when it was taken over very little changed. The name was kept the same specifically because it elicited such terror for the Iraqi people. The most striking evidence he presents of systemic evil in the military ranks were the findings of The Schlesinger Report, which was an independent panel to review Department of Defense detention operations. The report includes documented discussions of high ranking military personnel about the Stanford Prison Experiment and similar studies implying they didn’t have to give orders to torture because the research indicated the situation itself would produce torture.
The officers in charge of the prison had no previous experience running a prison, just like in Stanford. The soldiers charged with ‘maltreating detainees’ had no previous record of anti social or inhuman behavior (unless you count enlisting), just like in Stanford. And even though they repeatedly asked their superiors for instructions and standard operating procedures they were given none, and told only to maintain routine operations and to be creative… just like in Stanford.
What’s really disturbing about this is that most of us read these studies searching for ways to oppose evil and prevent it, but for those in power these studies apparently represent instructions they can use to maintain plausible deniability.
So, why do I say this has ramifications for the Ron Paul campaign? I’ve come a long way for a pretty incredulous punch line. But here it is. Let me start by saying that I love Ron Paul like family. No seriously. If he needed bone marrow and I was the only match I’d give it to him. My conundrum has been that even though I have philosophically accepted that democracy is an immoral system, Ron Paul always draws me back in to thinking about voting. If it were a simple race between Obama and Romney not voting would be easy, but Ron Paul challenges my integrity.
What Zimbardo has shown is that all of us, given the right circumstances, are capable of monstrous acts. So, why would I want to put a loved one in those circumstances? People sometimes call America “The Great Experiment.” In reality it’s another prison experiment. The only difference is we elect our warden. If Zimbardo’s thesis is correct it doesn’t matter whether the warden and prison guards are elected, appointed or selected at random. We often mistakenly think that evil people are attracted to power, but that’s not what the research suggests. The studies show that power draws the evil out of people. Even Zimbardo, a psychology professor whose life’s work has been opposing evil, was taken in by it when the systemic forces called for it. Viewed through this lens it’s entirely possible the ambitious promises of presidential candidates are made in earnest, but their priorities are changed by the office they hold. And I see no indication that this wouldn’t happen to Paul. He has remained remarkably resilient to evil as a Congressman. But Congressmen don’t have as much power as a Senator or a Governor, and even Paul plays the earmark game with spending bills. That’s not a condemnation of Paul. It’s a condemnation of the office. It’s a condemnation of power.
In my heart of hearts I would like to see Ron Paul resign from politics and begin a campaign of telling us all the dirt he has seen but was too much of a statesman to expose. I would like to see how his message changes unrestrained by electoral politics. In, short I would like to see the gloves come off.
What is clear to me from these experiments is that human nature is not good or evil, but essentially adaptive. If you take an otherwise good person and invent for them an evil situation they will adjust to their new circumstances, which was perhaps best expressed in an often overlooked passage of the Declaration of Independence:
“All experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
I don’t want a good man to run the prison. I want to abolish the prison system.