Matha Nussbaum in The Times Literary Supplement:
In August 1971, the Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo and his team of investigators selected twenty-four young men to participate in their study of the psychology of imprisonment. The men, only a few of whom were students, had answered an ad placed in both the student newspaper and the local town daily that offered subjects fifteen dollars per day for two weeks to participate in a study of “prison life”. The successful applicants were randomly assigned to the roles of prisoner and guard, fifty-fifty. Prisoners were to stay in the prison for the entire two weeks; guards served in eight-hour shifts, three groups per day. Thus began the now famous Stanford Prison Experiment.
In Zimbardo’s new book, The Lucifer Effect, the shocking events of the SPE (later documented in the film Quiet Rage) provide the lead-in to a detailed examination of psychological research showing the power of situations to overcome people’s better judgement. Zimbardo usefully describes a large body of research: Solomon Asch’s research on perceptual judgement, which documents the power of peer pressure to lead people to make statements about lines and shapes that they can easily see are untrue; Stanley Milgram’s experiments on authority, often replicated in many countries, which showed that about three-quarters of subjects would administer a shock labelled as seriously harmful to a person who was supposed to be a subject in an experiment on learning, if ordered to do so by the researcher; and a host of less famous but equally convincing experiments, all showing disturbing and even cruel behaviour by ordinary people. One particularly chilling example involves schoolchildren whose teacher informs them that children with blue eyes are superior to children with dark eyes. Hierarchical and vindictive behaviour ensues. The teacher then informs the children that a mistake has been made: it is actually the brown-eyed children who are superior, the blue-eyed inferior. The behaviour simply reverses itself: the brown-eyed children seem to have learned nothing from the pain of discrimination.
Zimbardo concludes that situational features, far more than underlying dispositional features of people’s characters, explain why people behave cruelly and abusively to others. He then connects these insights to a detailed account of the abuses by United States soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison, where, he argues, the humiliations and torments suffered by the prisoners were produced not by evil character traits but by an evil system that, like the prison system established in the SPE, virtually ensures that people will behave badly. Situations are held in place by systems, he argues, and it is ultimately the system that we must challenge, not the frequently average actors. He then sets himself to analyse the features that make systems and situations bad, and to suggest ways in which they might be remedied.