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Understanding Abu Ghraib

"Understanding Abu Ghraib" on this Moment of Science.

In May, 2004 the world was shocked by the abuse of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison, near Baghdad. Lurid photographs and reports caused us to wonder how otherwise law-abiding, well-trained soldiers could commit such abuses.

The question is not new. An experiment conducted by psychologist Phil Zimbardo at Stanford University in the early 1970s explored the behavior of psychologically healthy people in a simulated prison environment.

Volunteer participants were randomly divided into prisoners and guards. The prisoners were held in a makeshift prison and guards were told to maintain order as they saw fit. It took only one day for the guards to begin abusing their authority. After a brief rebellion, the prisoners were punished by being forced to do push ups and other physically demanding exercise. The guards also sprayed the prisoners with a fire extinguisher and threatened sexual abuse. The situation got so out of hand that after only six days the two-week long experiment was aborted.

Based on the experiment and others like it, Zimbardo and other psychologists concluded that in the right context anyone can do things that they would otherwise consider barbaric. During the Holocaust, for example, Nazi doctors who were known to be good husbands and fathers thought nothing of torturing and killing concentration camp prisoners. But as Zimbardo showed, the capacity for brutal behavior is not limited to Nazis or other criminals.

So while the incidents at Abu Ghraib are certainly disturbing, they are not unprecedented. If the Stanford experiment and others like it are any indication, what happened at Abu Ghraib was not abnormal. Unfortunately, it was an example of human nature at its very worst.

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