On Cruelty and Torture

The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted in August 1971 under the direction of Professor Philip Zimbardo. It became famous, or notorious, because it seemed to prove that behaviour was situational rather than dispositional, a matter of environment and assigned role rather than of personality: both the randomly-selected ‘prisoners’ and the randomly-selected ‘guards’ appeared to internalise their roles rapidly and act in accordance with them – the prisoners were submissive, the guards cruel and dehumanising.

There were problems with the design and interpretation of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Only a small group of male students participated (12 ‘guards’, 12 ‘prisoners’), making the findings statistically dubious; there was probably selection bias in recruitment because an experiment advertised as concerning ‘prison life’ presumably attracted some personalities and repelled others; the behaviour in each group was more heterogeneous and variable than popular reports allow; Zimbardo participated personally in the study by assuming the role of ‘prison supervisor’, making his objectivity as experimenter challengeable; and Zimbardo’s long-time commitment to the belief that bad circumstances create badness in people could have influenced the design and outcome of the study. (Scientifically, it isn’t smart to conduct experiments to test your cherished beliefs without including careful controls, which the Stanford Experiment lacked; it’s far better to test a ‘null hypothesis’, which Zimbardo didn’t.)

Criticisms notwithstanding, the results of the Stanford Experiment must give us pause for thought. Remember the Milgram Experiment, conducted ten years previously at Yale? There’s a family resemblance between the outcomes: give people an opportunity to be cruel and sadistic with impunity, place them under the authority of someone who expects and encourages them to be cruel and sadistic, and guess what happens. Of course personality has an influence; some individuals won’t become torturers, won’t behave as though they’re devoid of feeling, however much you pressurise them to act cruelly; but as Stanley Milgram demonstrated, they’re a minority. A position of power, a permissive and encouraging authority, and the promise of impunity, combine to elicit sadistic behaviour – including torture – from many if not most of us.

A columnist and thinker whose work I admire, Michael O’Leary (Patrick Colman), an Irish national who for many years has lived in Sri Lanka, has recently posted two articles about torture in Ceylon Today. The links are https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2015/01/21/torture-part-one/ and https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2015/01/28/britain-teaches-the-world-to-torture/ I commend them to all readers. As with all Michael’s articles they’re meticulously researched and (tendentiousness notwithstanding) written with balance and fairness, and I’m not going to argue with him about facts or matters of history. But I believe his assessments should be considered in the light of what I’ve written here about the Stanford and Milgram experiments. The countries that he rightly accuses of conducting torture, the USA and Britain, were in positions of power when the unacceptable acts were committed. The circumstances under which those acts were performed gave the perpetrators impunity. And from someone in authority there came, or appeared to come, permission and encouragement.

The issue of real guilt turns on that final point. Michael accuses the relevant government ministers who were in post at the time. He might be right, but did those ministers know in detail what was being planned or executed in their country’s name? Perhaps not, in which case we might need to identify others who can be more justly accused; but of course the holder of a ministerial post has to accept ultimate responsibility for what happens under her or his watch. But there’s no escaping the inference from the Milgram and Stanford experiments: someone told the perpetrators to get on with it, or they’re unlikely to have done it.

In his second article, Michael makes the case that Britain ‘taught the world to torture’, introducing and implementing methods for ‘enhanced interrogation’ and disseminating them to countries throughout the world. Again, there’s no denying the facts, and as a British national I’m ashamed of them. But I offer two comments in response.

First, Britain’s guilt in this regard was a matter of circumstances. Any other country with the same power, given the same situations, would have done much the same. That’s no excuse, of course, but the overwhelming majority of Britons, like the overwhelming majority of people of any nationality, are repelled and disgusted by the torture and mistreatment of other humans, no matter what the circumstances… unless we’re given power, impunity and encouragement.

Second, there was nothing new in what Britain did, except for details of techniques. Look at any people with power (however temporary) at any time in human history and you’ll see the same phenomenon. The victors, the colonisers, the dominant group, will always be the ‘guards’ and the victims, the colonised, the subordinate group, will be the ‘prisoners’. Cruelty and torture have always been with us. Whatever the scientific defects of the Stanford Experiment, it gave us insight into a type of behaviour that is, sadly, universal in our species.


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