philip_zimbardo's picture
Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University; Author, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil
Psychologist, Emeritus Professor, Stanford University; Author, Shyness

I believe that the prison guards at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq, who worked the night shift in Tier 1A, where prisoners were physically and psychologically abused, had surrendered their free will and personal responsibility during these episodes of mayhem. 

But I could not prove it in a court of law. These eight army reservists were trapped in a unique situation in which the behavioral context came to dominate individual dispositions, values, and morality to such an extent that they were transformed into mindless actors alienated from their normal sense of personal accountability for their actions—at that time and place.

The "group mind" that developed among these soldiers was created by a set of known social psychological conditions, some of which are nicely featured in Golding's Lord of the Flies. The same processes that I witnessed in my Stanford Prison Experiment were clearly operating in that remote place: Deindividuation, dehumanization, boredom, groupthink, role-playing, rule control, and more. Beyond the relatively benign conditions in my study, in that Iraqi prison, the guards experienced extreme fatigue and exhaustion from working 12-hour shifts, 7 days a week, for over a month at a time with no breaks.

There was fear of being killed from mortar and grenade attacks and from prisoners rioting. There was revenge for buddies killed, and prejudice against these foreigners for their strange religion and cultural traditions. There was encouragement by staff "to soften up" the detainees for interrogation because Tier 1A was the Interrogation-Soft Torture center of that prison. Already in place when these young men and women arrived there for their tour of duty were abusive practices that had been "authorized" from the top of the chain of command: Use of nakedness as a humiliation tactic, sensory and sleep deprivation, stress positions, dog attacks, and more.

In addition to the situational variables and processes operating in that behavioral setting were a serious of systemic processes that created the barrel into which these good soldiers were forced to live and work. Most of the reports of independent investigation committees cite a failure of leadership, lack of leadership, or irresponsible leadership as factors that contributed to these abuses. Then there was lack of mission-specific training of the guards, no oversight, no accountability to senior officers, poor resources, overcrowded facilities, confusing commands from civilian interrogators at odds with the CIA, military intelligence and other agencies and agents all working in Tier 1A without clear communication channels and much confusion.

I was recently an expert witness for the defense of Sgt. Ivan "Chip" Frederick in his Baghdad trial. Before the trial, I spent a day with him, giving him an in-depth interview, checking all background information, and arranging for him to be psychologically assessed by the military. He is one of the alleged "bad apples" who these investigations have labeled as "morally corrupt." What did he bring into that situation and what did that situation bring into him?

He seemed very much to be a normal young American. His psych assessments revealed no sign of any pathology, no sadistic tendencies, and all his psych assessment scores are in the normal range, as is his intelligence. He had been a prison guard at a small minimal security prison where he performed for many years without incident. So there is nothing in his background, temperament, or disposition that could have been a facilitating factor for the abuses he committed at the Abu Ghraib Prison.

After a four-day long trial, part of which included my testimony elaborating on the points noted here, the Judge took barely one hour to find him guilty of all eight counts and to sentence Sgt. Frederick to 8 years in prison, starting in solitary confinement in Kuwait, dishonorable discharge, broken in rank from Sgt. to Pvt., loss of his 20 years retirement income and his salary. This military judge held Frederick personally responsible for the abuses, because he had acted out of free will to intentionally harm these detainees since he was not forced into these acts, was not mentally incompetent, or acting in self-defense. All of the situational and systemic determinants of his behavior and that of his buddies were disregarded and given a zero weighting coefficient in assessing causal factors.

The real reason for the heavy sentence was the photographic documentation of the undeniable abuses along with the smiling abusers in their "trophy photos." It was the first time in history that such images were publicly available of what goes on in many prisons around the world, and especially in military prisons. They humiliated the military, and the entire chain of command all the way up the ladder to the White House. Following this exposure, investigations of all American military prisons in that area of the world uncovered similar abuses and worse, many murders of prisoners. Recent evidence has revealed that similar abuses started taking place again in Abu Ghraib prison barely one month after these disclosures became public—when the "Evil Eight Culprits" were in other prisons—as prisoners.

Based on more than 30 years of research on "The Lucifer Effect"—the transformation of good people into perpetrators of evil—I believe that there are powerful situational and systemic forces operating on individuals in certain situations that can undercut a lifetime of morality and rationality. The Dionysian aspect of human nature can triumph over the Apollonian, not only during Mardi Gras, but in dynamic group settings like gang rapes, fraternity hazing, mob riots, and in that Abu Ghraib prison. I believe in that truth in general and especially in the case of Sgt. Frederick, but I was not able to prove it in a military court of law.