… a theme on which psychology lecturers and pundits preached for decades, about how humans can easily be led to violate their moral standards if authorities tell them to? Maybe it’s so, but apparently the evidence, looked at in a fresh light, is much more equivocal. For one thing, the guard who took the led in creating the much-lectured situation was well aware he was playing a role, not “acting naturally”:
What came over me was not an accident. It was planned. I set out with a definite plan in mind, to try to force the action, force something to happen, so that the researchers would have something to work with. After all, what could they possibly learn from guys sitting around like it was a country club? So I consciously created this persona. I was in all kinds of drama productions in high school and college. It was something I was very familiar with: to take on another personality before you step out on the stage. I was kind of running my own experiment in there, by saying, “How far can I push these things and how much abuse will these people take before they say, ‘knock it off?'” But the other guards didn’t stop me. They seemed to join in. They were taking my lead. Not a single guard said, “I don’t think we should do this.”
The fact that I ramped up the intimidation and the mental abuse without any real sense as to whether I was hurting anybody— I definitely regret that. But in the long run, no one suffered any lasting damage. When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, my first reaction was, this is so familiar to me. I knew exactly what was going on. I could picture myself in the middle of that and watching it spin out of control. When you have little or no supervision as to what you’re doing, and no one steps in and says, “Hey, you can’t do this”—things just keep escalating. You think, how can we top what we did yesterday? How do we do something even more outrageous? I felt a deep sense of familiarity with that whole situation.
The main lesson here is that when one chooses to experiment on human beings, it’s not always clear which ones are the experimenters.
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Hat tip: Five Feet of Fury