Researcher: It's not bad apples, it's the barrel
Zimbardo's famous experiment 30 years ago sheds light on abuse photos
(CNN) -- The pictures of Iraqi prisoners being abused and humiliated at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison have been chalked up to aberrant behavior by a "few bad apples." But is this an aberration -- or does this spring from a dark side inside most human beings?
CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien interviewed Stanford University professor Phil Zimbardo, whose experiment examining this issue unearthed very unpleasant findings.
O'BRIEN: Perhaps the most disturbing element of these pictures is seeing American soldiers from ordinary backgrounds who seem to be capable of monstrous things. It raises the question: "Is the capacity for cruelty inherent in all of us?"
Phil Zimbardo, professor of psychology at Stanford University, asked a similar question in a famous experiment 33 years ago, and he joins us this morning from New Haven, Connecticut.
Nice to see you, professor. Thanks for being with us. Give me as briefly as possible a description of your experiment.
ZIMBARDO: What we did is created a mock prison where we had college students play the roles of prisons and guards for two -- it was supposed to go for two weeks -- and what happened is I had to end it after six days because it was out of control.
Boys we selected because they were good, normal, healthy young men -- if they were playing the role of guards, began to abuse those roles, be cruel and even sadistic, doing all the things you see here at the Iraqi prison.
Stripped the prisoners naked, put bags over their heads, chained them, and then began to humiliate them and finally began to do the sexual humiliation which approximates what we see in Iraq.
O'BRIEN: These are all things that you say happened in the study that was supposed to last for two weeks and you ended it, cutting it off at six days. How quickly did things get out of control, to use your phrase?
ZIMBARDO: Well, it was probably the third or fourth day. Our situation was very, very intense so it accelerated what in Iraq probably took a month or so to get into.
And I think what we've seen in Iraq we have to really understand that this is a process that when you see a picture, you think it happened that moment -- but in fact this happened over a month.
So these young men and women got socialized into this new role of prison guard who is there to abuse these prisoners, to break them, to get confessions
O'BRIEN: In your study, was there a handful of sort-of bad apples in the group of these college students who were prison guards, who basically brought everybody else along with them?
ZIMBARDO: No, see that's what's been happening -- from Bush on down, we're saying it's a few bad apples, it's isolated. But what's bad is the barrel.
The barrel is the barrel I created by my prison -- and we put good boys in, just as in this Iraqi prison. And the barrel corrupts. It's the barrel of the evil of prisons -- with secrecy, with no accountability -- which gives people permission to do things they ordinarily would not.
So in the Iraqi situation, I know that there is boredom and it's an incredibly stressful job. They're very much afraid, there's no accountability.
In my prison you didn't have the CIA encouraging them to do it. And I think what's critical is trying to understand these trophy pictures -- which doesn't make sense. Why would you take a picture of yourself in front of your crime if you thought about the consequences?
And that's where what I call the Mardi Gras effect comes in. These people were trapped in a time -- a present-oriented time zone in which you never think of the future, you never think of the past. So at no point did they ever say, "Gee we will be in trouble if these pictures ever come out." These are trophy pictures.
O'BRIEN: How do you explain, though, the two or more who said no? I refuse to be involved?
ZIMBARDO: Oh, see, those are the heroes. I mean, in our study we had good guards who didn't get involved, but in our study they never challenged the bad guards.
So what you have is powerful situational forces that get the majority to do things they say they would never do. This is not just my study -- there's 30 years of (similar) studies by social psychologists.
But the interesting thing is -- there's always a few people who blow the whistle: at Enron, at My Lai, which is again a direct parallel.
But those are the rare people; those are the exceptions. We like to think we would be the heroes but in fact most of us, the majority, would go along, would blindly obey authority, would do these dehumanizing things to other people.
O'BRIEN: It's a fascinating study from 33 years ago that does seem particularly relevant today.