[Marxism] Why Ordinary People Torture-In Full

Rod Holt rholt at planeteria.net
Wed Dec 8 00:43:11 MST 2004

14,000 characters
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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7, 331 (2003).
   3. B. A. Bettencourt, N. Miller, Psychol. Bull. 119, 422 (1996).
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Bull. 15, 377 (1989).
   6. C. A. Anderson, B. J. Bushman, Rev. Gen. Psychol. 1, 19 (1997).
   7. A. Taguba, "Article 15-6. Investigation of the 800th Military 
Police Brigade," accessed 30 June 2004 from 
   8. B. Mullen, R. Brown, C. Smith, Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 22, 103 (1992).
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  10. J. Duckitt, in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, M. P. 
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).
  12. S. Solomon, J. Greenberg, T. Pyszczynski, Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. 
9, 200 (2000).
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Psychol. 82, 878 (2002).
  14. A. J. Cuddy, S. T. Fiske, P. Glick, "The BIAS map: Behaviors from 
intergroup affect and stereotypes," unpublished manuscript (Princeton 
University, Princeton, NJ, 2004).
  15. L. J. Heller, thesis, Princeton University, 2002.
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Macrae, C. Stangor, M. Hewstone, Ed. (Guilford, New York, 1996).
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discrimination: A meta-analysis of the racial attitudes- behavior 
literature," unpublished manuscript (Princeton University, Princeton, 
NJ, 2004).
  19. A. J. Hart et al., Neuroreport 11, 2351 (2000).
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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 
context (46).
  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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  32. S. Milgram, Obedience to Authority (Harper & Row, New York, 1974).
  33. T. Blass, J. Appl. Soc. Psychol. 29, 955 (1999).
  34. H. C. Kelman, in The Politics of Pain: Torturers and Their 
Masters, R. D. Crelinsten, A. P. Schmidt, Eds. (Univ. of Leiden, Leiden, 
NL, 1991).
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  40. L. Berkowitz, Pers. Soc. Psychol. Rev. 3, 246 (1999).
  41. J. M. Darley, Pers. Soc. Psychol. Rev. 3, 269 (1999).
  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.
  44. A. G. Miller, A. K. Gordon, A. M. Buddie, Pers. Soc. Psychol. Rev. 
3, 254 (1999).
  45. J. R. Schlesinger, H. Brown, T. K. Fowler, C. A. Homer, J. A. 
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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