The Monthly Interview

In 1971, Philip Zimbardo, then a professor of psychology at Stanford University, devised one of the most famous psychological experiments of the twentieth century. In what is known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, he assigned twenty-four young men roles as prisoners and guards, and observed the group dynamics that ensued. To his horror, the study had to be shut down after just six days because the guards were psychologically abusing the prisoners. When the Abu Ghraib story broke in 2004, Zimbardo immediately spotted parallels with his research. He later testified as an expert witness on behalf of Ivan “Chip” Frederick II, a former staff sergeant sentenced to eight years for his role in the abuse of detainees. Zimbardo’s argument to the court was that then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other top Pentagon officials had created an environment in which Frederick and his colleagues were bound to behave with sadistic cruelty. Zimbardo went on to write The Lucifer Effect, exploring the underlying psychology at work in both his experiment and the events at Abu Ghraib. His connection to Abu Ghraib became even more personal when Donald Rumsfeld was appointed a visiting fellow this year at the Hoover Institution, a think tank housed at Stanford University, where Zimbardo is a professor emeritus. The Washington Monthly‘s Peter Laufer and Markos Kounalakis recently caught up with Zimbardo, who is now leading an effort by Stanford faculty and students to prevent Rumsfeld’s appointment.

WM: In your book, you look back thirty-five years to the Stanford Prison Experiment and use it to understand, among other things, what happened at Abu Ghraib.

PZ: The reason I wrote the book was because of Abu Ghraib. A couple of years ago all of us saw those horrendous images of American soldiers abusing detainees. At the time, the Bush administration and the military were saying, “This is the work of a few bad soldiers, it’s not systemic.”

PZ: What we can say unequivocally about the Stanford Prison Experiment is that when we began, we had only good apples in our barrel, and within a week the barrel had corrupted those good apples. We went to great lengths to pick college students, so these were brighter-than-average young men from all over the country. We gave them a battery of psychological tests and clinical interviews. We picked the two dozen who were the most normal and the most healthy, and then we randomly assigned them, by a flip of the coin, so half would be guards and half would be prisoners. When we began, we had only normal, healthy young men in our study. Within six daysin what was going to be a two-week experimentthe guards were systematically and brutally abusing the prisoners. Psychologically abusing them, I mean, because I’d prevented physical abuse. But the psychological abuse was so extreme and so creatively evil that five young men playing the role of prisoners had emotional breakdowns.

PZ: First we have to understand, what is the situation in which those people are operating? And we have to ask the question, who created that situation? That’s where the system comes in. Systems are the cultural, legal, political, historical structures that create situations like Abu Ghraib. But then I became aware of something new in the study of Abu Ghraib. If you want to change behavior, it’s not enough to do what we’ve been doing for centuriesfocus on the person and punish him, put him in jail, give him therapy. That evil doesn’t change. What we have to begin to do is say, What causes the situation that makes a good person do really bad things?

PZ: Right after the Abu Ghraib images were released on 60 Minutes, the Senate Armed Services Committee met. Donald Rumsfeld appears and says, “These abuses occurred on my shift. As secretary of defense, therefore I am fully responsible.” You can’t say, “I’m fully responsible,” and not be fully responsible. If the guys under you went to prison, Rumsfeld should be in a prison cell along with Lynndie England and Chip Frederick, the man I defended, and Charles Graner, the three that got the longest sentences.

PZ: Well, I am one of the people who have instigated a petition signed by 4,000 faculty, students, parents, and alumni, saying that we oppose the designation of Rumsfeld as “distinguished.” He’s dishonored himself and the office. The Hoover Institution is separate from Stanford, so they can do whatever they want. But this isn’t about liberals suppressing the free speech of conservatives. How can you honor a man who said publicly that he is fully responsible for the abuse at Abu Ghraib? War crimes tribunals are essential to make the system bear responsibility for whatever crimes were committed in its name. If Rumsfeld said, “I’m fully responsible,” and everyone agreed that these are crimes against humanity, then he should have been tried as well.

PZ: None of this would’ve gained worldwide media attention were it not for what I call “trophy photos.” I try to analyze from various perspectives why they did that, because you’re culpable the moment you put yourself in the picture. One clear parallel in America is photos of lynchings. And I have a Web site, LuciferEffect.com, where I have photos and a video clip of pictures that people took during lynchings or while burning blacks alive in the South.

PZ: Well, it’s several things. At Abu Ghraib, it was bragging rights. The military police were the lowest form of human life other than the inmates. They took these pictures and were circulating them. Some of these imagesthe people piled naked in a pyramidwere on screensavers. They couldn’t imagine getting caught, and they imagined if they did get caught everybody within the military would think it was okay. But it was also to say to other people, Look what we can do; we may not be much in the eyes of the regular military, but we have the power to do anything we want in our domain. And in the same way, in the lynching photos, the people are saying, Look at the power we have to do anything we want to our enemy.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a foreign affairs columnist for McClatchy News, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and President and Publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.

Peter Laufer