[Marxism] Why Ordinary People Torture-In Full
rholt at planeteria.net
Wed Dec 8 00:43:11 MST 2004
Science, Vol 306, Issue 5701, 1482-1483 , 26 November 2004
Why Ordinary People Torture Enemy Prisoners
Susan T. Fiske, Lasana T. Harris, Amy J. C. Cuddy*
As official investigations and courts-martial continue, we are all
taking stock of the events at Abu Ghraib last year. Initial reactions
were shock and disgust. How could Americans be doing this to anyone,
even Iraqi prisoners of war? Some observers immediately blamed "the few
bad apples" presumably responsible for the abuse. However, many social
psychologists knew that it was not that simple. Society holds
individuals responsible for their actions, as the military court-martial
recognizes, but social psychology suggests we should also hold
responsible peers and superiors who control the social context.
Social psychological evidence emphasizes the power of social context; in
other words, the power of the interpersonal situation. Social psychology
has accumulated a century of knowledge about how people influence each
other for good or ill (1). Meta-analysis, the quantitative summary of
findings across a variety of studies, reveals the size and consistency
of such empirical results. Recent meta-analyses document reliable
experimental evidence of social context effects across 25,000 studies of
8 million participants (2). Abu Ghraib resulted in part from ordinary
social processes, not just extraordinary individual evil. This Policy
Forum cites meta-analyses to describe how the right (or wrong) social
context can make almost anyone aggress, oppress, conform, and obey.
Virtually anyone can be aggressive if sufficiently provoked, stressed,
disgruntled, or hot (3-6). The situation of the 800th Military Police
Brigade guarding Abu Ghraib prisoners fit all the social conditions
known to cause aggression. The soldiers were certainly provoked and
stressed: at war, in constant danger, taunted and harassed by some of
the very citizens they were sent to save, and their comrades were dying
daily and unpredictably. Their morale suffered, they were untrained for
the job, their command climate was lax, their return home was a year
overdue, their identity as disciplined soldiers was gone, and their own
amenities were scant (7). Heat and discomfort also doubtless contributed.
The fact that the prisoners were part of a group encountered as enemies
would only exaggerate the tendency to feel spontaneous prejudice against
outgroups. In this context, oppression and discrimination are
synonymous. One of the most basic principles of social psychology is
that people prefer their own group (8) and attribute bad behavior to
outgroups (9). Prejudice especially festers if people see the outgroup
as threatening cherished values (10-12). This would have certainly
applied to the guards viewing their prisoners at Abu Ghraib, but it also
applies in more "normal" situations. A recent sample of U.S. citizens on
average viewed Muslims and Arabs as not sharing their interests and
stereotyped them as not especially sincere, honest, friendly, or warm
Even more potent predictors of discrimination are the emotional
prejudices ("hot" affective feelings such as disgust or contempt) that
operate in parallel with cognitive processes (16-18). Such emotional
reactions appear rapidly, even in neuroimaging of brain activations to
outgroups (19, 20). But even they can be affected by social context.
Categorization of people as interchangeable members of an outgroup
promotes an amygdala response characteristic of vigilance and alarm and
an insula response characteristic of disgust or arousal, depending on
social context; these effects dissipate when the same people are
encountered as unique individuals (21, 22).
According to our survey data (13, 14), the contemptible, disgusting kind
of outgroup--low-status opponents--elicits a mix of active and passive
harm: attacking and fighting, as well as excluding and demeaning. This
certainly describes the Abu Ghraib abuse of captured enemies. It also
fits our national sample of Americans (14) who reported that allegedly
contemptible outgroups such as homeless people, welfare recipients,
Turks, and Arabs often are attacked or excluded (14).
Given an environment conducive to aggression and prisoners deemed
disgusting and subhuman (23), well-established principles of conformity
to peers (24, 25) and obedience to authority (26) may account for the
widespread nature of the abuse. In combat, conformity to one's unit
means survival, and ostracism is death. The social context apparently
reflected the phenomenon of people trying to make sense of a complex,
confusing, ambiguous situation by relying on their immediate social
group (27). People rioted at St. Paul's Church, Bristol UK, in 1980, for
example, in conformity to events they saw occurring in their immediate
proximity (28). Guards abuse prisoners in conformity with what other
guards do, in order to fulfill a potent role; this is illustrated by the
Stanford Prison Study, in which ordinary college students, randomly
assigned to be full-time guards and prisoners in a temporary prison,
nevertheless behaved respectively as abusers and victims (29). Social
psychology shows that, whatever their own good or bad choices, most
people believe that others would do whatever they personally chose to
do, a phenomenon termed false consensus (30, 31). Conformity to the
perceived reactions of one's peers can be defined as good or bad,
depending on how well the local norms fit those of larger society.
As every graduate of introductory psychology should know from the
Milgram studies (32), ordinary people can engage in incredibly
destructive behavior if so ordered by legitimate authority. In those
studies, participants acting as teachers frequently followed an
experimenter's orders to punish a supposed learner (actually a
confederate) with electric shock, all the way to administering lethal
levels. Obedience to authority sustains every culture (33). Firefighters
heroically rushing into the flaming World Trade Center were partly
obeying their superiors, partly conforming to extraordinary group
loyalty, and partly showing incredibly brave self-sacrifice. But
obedience and conformity also motivated the terrorist hijackers and the
Abu Ghraib guards, however much one might abhor their (vastly different)
actions. Social conformity and obedience themselves are neutral, but
their consequences can be heroic or evil. Torture is partly a crime of
socialized obedience (34). Subordinates not only do what they are
ordered to do, but what they think their superiors would order them to
do, given their understanding of the authority's overall goals. For
example, lynching represented ordinary people going beyond the law to
enact their view of the community's will.
Social influence starts with small, apparently trivial actions (in this
case, insulting epithets), followed by more serious actions (humiliation
and abuse) (35-37), as novices overcome their hesitancy and learn by
doing (38). The actions are always intentional, although the perpetrator
may not be aware that those actions constitute evil. In fact,
perpetrators may see themselves as doing a great service by punishing
and or eliminating a group that they perceive as deserving ill treatment
In short, ordinary individuals under the influence of complex social
forces may commit evil acts (40). Such actions are human behaviors that
can and should be studied scientifically (41, 42). We need to understand
more about the contexts that will promote aggression. We also need to
understand the basis for exceptions--why, in the face of these social
contexts, not all individuals succumb (43). Thus, although lay-observers
may believe that explaining evil amounts to excusing it and absolving
people of responsibility for their actions (44), in fact, explaining
evils such as Abu Ghraib demonstrates scientific principles that could
help to avert them.
Even one dissenting peer can undermine conformity (24). For example,
whistle-blowers not only alert the authorities but also prevent their
peers from continuing in unethical behavior. Authorities can restructure
situations to allow communication. For example, CEOs can either welcome
or discourage a diversity of opinions. Contexts can undermine prejudice
(1). Individual, extended, equal-status, constructive, cooperative
contact between mutual outgroups (whether American blacks and whites in
the military or American soldiers and Iraqi civilians) can improve
mutual respect and even liking. It would be harder to dehumanize and
abuse imprisoned Iraqis if one had friends among ordinary Iraqis. A
difficult objective in wartime, but as some Iraqis work alongside their
American counterparts, future abuse is less likely. The slippery slope
to abuse can be avoided. The same social contexts that provoke and
permit abuse can be harnessed to prevent it. To quote another report
[(45), p. 94]: "All personnel who may be engaged in detention
operations, from point of capture to final disposition, should
participate in a professional ethics program that would equip them with
a sharp moral compass for guidance in situations often riven with
conflicting moral obligations."
References and Notes
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Zanna, Ed. (Academic Press, New York, 2001).
11. When their own mortality is salient, as in wartime, people
particularly punish those from outgroups seen to threaten basic values (12).
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intergroup affect and stereotypes," unpublished manuscript (Princeton
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21. Neuroimaging data represent college student reactions to
photographs of outgroup members. These data should not be interpreted to
mean that such reactions are innate or "wired in"; they result from
long-term social context (9) and vary depending on short-term social
22. M. E. Wheeler, S. T. Fiske, Psychol. Sci., in press.
23. J. P. Leyens et al., Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 33, 703 (2003).
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42. A. G. Miller, Ed., The Social Psychology of Good and Evil
(Guilford, New York, 2004).
43. Although social context matters more than most people think,
individual personality also matters, in accord with most people's
intuitions: Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) describes a tough-minded
view that it is a zero-sum, dog-eat-dog world, where some groups
justifiably dominate other groups. People who score low on SDO tend to
join helping professions, be more tolerant, and endorse less aggression;
they might be less inclined to abuse. People choosing to join
hierarchical institutions such as the military tend to score high on
SDO, in contrast (47). Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) entails
conforming to conventional values, submitting to authority, and
aggressing as sanctioned by authority. People who score low on RWA would
be less prone to abuse. (48) High SDO and RWA both predict intolerance
of outgroups, social groups outside one's own.
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Blackwell Jr., Final Report of the Independent Panel to Review DoD
Detention Operations, accessed 8 November 2004, from
46. L. T. Harris, S. T. Fiske, unpublished data.
47. J. Sidanius, F. Pratto, Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of
Social Hierarchy and Oppression (Cambridge Univ. Press, New York, 1999).
48. B. Altemeyer, Enemies of Freedom: Understanding Right-Wing
Authoritarianism (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1988).
The authors are respectively Professor of Psychology and two doctoral
students, Psychology and Neuroscience; Princeton University, Princeton
NJ 08544-1010, USA. E-mail: sfiske at princeton.edu;
ltharris at princeton.edu; acuddy at princeton.edu
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