Monday, May 31, 2004

Psychology and atrocity.

In PSYCH 101, we talked about the Milgram Experiment, and we talked about Kitty Genovese. I later learned about the Stanford Prison Experiment. These all variously demonstrate how real people don't necessarily do the good things others expect.

In Milgram's experiment, ordinary people were made to kill another person. They didn't really kill anyone, but they didn't know that. The experiment was done at a time when the Nazis were saying, "just following orders." Milgram showed that people really do just follow orders.

The case of Kitty Genovese, as popularized, had a few dozen neighbors watching as a woman was murdered. Everyone thought someone else would call authorities, so no one did. In my psych class, we called this the "bystander effect" or "diffusion of responsibility." There's some dispute about whether the situation really was as popularized and so the bystander effect may not apply, but the effect is real. The more people there are to take responsibility, the less likely any of them are to do it.

In the Stanford Prison Experiment, ordinary students were put in the roles of guards and prisoners. In a short time, the guards had assumed their roles to the point of being sadistic. MTV News points out that the conditions at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad were similar to the Stanford Prison experiment in many ways.

In the situation at Abu Ghraib, the results follow from human nature. That's not to say that the soldiers who did it are "off the hook." We don't let toddlers play with matches just because it's their nature to be curious. It means that in the future, we must prevent the situation from happening again.

You don't keep matches laying around where the two-year-old can get them. You don't put young soldiers in charge of prisoners with no supervision.
Post a Comment