Could Abu Ghraib happen again?

November 25, 2004

When news broke about the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, many people questioned: Who could do such a thing? According to Princeton psychologists who reviewed decades worth of studies, the answer is: Anyone.

Writing in the Nov. 26 issue of Science, professor Susan Fiske and graduate students Lasana Harris and Amy Cuddy contend that many forms of behavior, including acts of great evil, are influenced as much by authority figures, peer pressure and other social interactions as by the psychology of the individual.

"Could any average 18-year-old have tortured these prisoners?" said Fiske. "I would have to answer, 'Yes, just about anyone could have -- unfortunately.'"

Fiske and colleagues drew their conclusions from 25,000 studies involving 8 million participants, which explain how factors, ranging from the stress of war to the expectations of superiors, can combine to cause ordinary people to commit seemingly inexplicable acts.

"Ordinary people can engage in incredibly destructive behavior if so ordered by legitimate authority," the researchers wrote, referring particularly to landmark studies conducted by Stanley Milgram in the early 1970s. Milgram showed that normal volunteers would deliver what they understood to be lethal electric shocks to other people when they were told that it was a necessary part of carrying out an experiment. "Subordinates not only do what they are ordered to do, but what they think their superiors would order them to do, given their understanding of the authority's overall goals," the researchers wrote.

When discussing the Milgram experiment in classes, Fiske said, students swear they would never behave the way the study subjects did. "But when they are put in similar experiments, they do," said Fiske.

Fisk noted that there are cases of isolated individuals who torture other people. However, it is more likely that the abusers at Abu Ghraib were conforming to the culture and expectations of their environment than violating them, she said. The incidents occurred within a very hierarchical organization; the abusers had no particular background to suggest they would behave outrageously; and the abusers asserted they were following orders and documented what they did.

"Society holds individuals responsible for their actions, as the military court martial recognizes, but social psychology suggests we should also hold responsible peers and superiors who control the social context," the researchers wrote.

The reasons for abuse go beyond simple adherence to authority. "The situation of the 800th Military Police Brigade guarding Abu Ghraib prisoners fits all the social conditions known to cause aggression," the researchers wrote. "The soldiers were certainly provoked and stressed, at war, in constant danger, taunted and harassed by some of the very citizens they were sent to save, and their comrades were dying daily and unpredictably. Their morale suffered, they were untrained for the job, their command climate was lax, their return home was a year overdue, their identity as disciplined soldiers was gone and their own amenities were scant. Heat and discomfort also doubtless contributed."

At the same time, the Iraqi prisoners were part of a different societal group that was seen by Americans as threatening cherished values. The more that people see others as "interchangeable members" of a different group, rather than as unique individuals, the more their behavior is influenced by parts of the brain associated with alarm and disgust, the researchers wrote. Fiske and colleagues recently conducted their own surveys showing that similar feelings arise in less extreme situations: U.S. citizens surveyed, on average, "viewed Muslims and Arabs as not sharing their interests and stereotyped them as not especially sincere, honest, friendly or warm."

The point of looking at the complex social and psychological forces behind the Abu Ghraib abuse is not to excuse people from responsibility for their actions, but to develop a scientific understanding of what causes evil actions so they can be better prevented, the researchers said. "People's hunches are to look at the individual for the reasons, but as a society we can't afford to do that," said Fiske. "People who are in charge of other people on a large scale, whether CEOs or military officers, need to know the conditions that produce evil behavior. The conditions are not that complicated. And if they can be understood, then they can be prevented in large part."

One of the most effective ways to prevent abuse is for members of different groups to have positive contact with each other, which is one reason why it is important for Iraqi soldiers to train and fight with Americans, Fiske said.

Another step, Fiske said, would be for the military to ensure that soldiers have alternate means of communication, such as military chaplains or other semi-independent figures, so they can voice deep concerns without violating the chain of command. The goal is not to eliminate obedience and conformity, which can spur acts of heroism as well as evil. The researchers wrote that firefighters who rushed into the World Trade Center were obeying orders and conforming to the culture of their organization in addition to displaying individual bravery and self sacrifice. The conduct of war itself requires obedience and conformity, Fiske noted.

Indeed, authority and social pressure can be tools for combating abuse. Fiske said that her experience in consulting with industry on racial and gender discrimination suggests that leadership is critical for good behavior throughout an organization. "I do think the CEOs are responsible for the atmosphere in the company," she said. "If the CEOs say, 'It's really important that we do things a certain way,' they can have a real impact." However, focusing blame on a "few bad apples" will hinder the social and cultural changes necessary to prevent further abuses, Fiske said.

Princeton University

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