Tuesday, September 25, 2007

On Psychology and Torture

If you’ve been watching the American Psychological Association’s recent ethical debates about interrogation and torture, you know that psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals are heavily implicated in GWOT interrogation activities. At the same time, psychologists have done some of the best analysis of the individual and institutional factors that influence one’s propensity to engage in cruelty. In framing the masses of primary documents on GWOT detention, interrogation, and torture, psychologists' work on evil is very helpful.

I started with Stanley Milgram and Phil Zimbardo (who, interestingly, were childhood classmates) and recently discovered a quite provocative book on evil and genocide by James Waller (Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, Oxford University Press, 2002). Waller, Milgram, Zimbardo, and others all make the same point: as Waller puts it, “it is ordinary individuals, like you and me, who commit extraordinary evil” (18). I like Waller’s definition of evil, actually: “the deliberate harming of humans by other humans” (12). It’s simple and elegant. Although Waller’s book focuses on genocide, his model explaining how and why humans are capable of extraordinary evil is useful in framing torture, too.

But let’s begin with two of Waller’s predecessors. Stanley Milgram’s experiments tested the limits of authority, obedience and cruelty: If you were put in a psychological experiment in which you were told to shock someone every time they answered a test question incorrectly, and the experimenters told you that part of the protocol was increasing the voltage with each successive wrong answer, how far would you go? If you were anything like Milgram’s subjects, the answer is that you’d go pretty far. You can read about the experiments and get references to Milgram’s works here.

Then there’s Phil Zimbardo’s landmark Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE). Zimbardo has been very outspoken about the Abu Ghraib torture. He was an expert witness in Chip Frederick’s trial, and in his recent book The Lucifer Effect (Random House, 2007) he revisits the Stanford Prison Experiment and compares it to the events at Abu Ghraib, using Frederick’s experience as an entry point. It’s a fascinating read. The parallels between the SPE and the events at Abu Ghraib are astounding, particularly the rapid emergence of sexual humiliation in both contexts. Zimbardo has an excellent discussion of the SPE on his website.

Whereas Milgram and Zimbardo both emphasize institutional conditions (though neither would argue that institutional settings absolutely determine whether or not a person engages in torture), Waller’s model incorporates evolutionary psychology into the discussion of evil. He writes that “humans have evolved in the context of group living” (151). In doing so, he (and other evolutionary psychologists) challenge what Leda Cosmides and John Tooby famously called the “Standard Social Science Model,” or SSSM – the view of human nature as a tabula rasa on which society imprints itself. (Cosmides and Tooby’s SSSM idea predictably generated enormous controversy among social scientists, but I won’t go into that here). The point that Waller makes is that “human minds are compelled to define the limits of the tribe,” and that as a result, we tend to be biased towards “us” and against “them.” Waller calls this our “ancestral shadow,” and sees its expression in xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and a desire for social dominance, which quickly degenerates into aggression and violence (see 153-154). Waller certainly doesn’t disregard institutional or historical context; I read his model as adding dimension to psychological research that emphasizes, as Zimbardo puts it, “the social dynamics of conformity and obedience” (296). And like Zimbardo, he emphasizes that understanding the many conditions that tap into what seems to be a very human propensity to commit extraordinary evil is critical in preventing evil.

I’ve not done any of these researchers justice, of course – their work is a lot more nuanced and complicated than I can explore in a blog. But anthropologists interested in the problem of torture should take a look at this work to get a better sense of the complexity of torture as a social phenomenon. I think one of the challenges for anthropologists is to figure out how we can ethnographically frame the problems of detention, interrogation, and torture in the current Global War on Terrorism so that we can add to the really excellent analyses of our colleagues.


Unknown said...

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John Roco said...

I address Senator Daniel K. Inouye, his chief of staff, Patrick DeLeon, and waterboarding in my next program on how the American Psychological Association changed its Ethics Code to the Nuremburg Defense for torture: John Roco for Senator, Episode 3, Length: 0:28: Juan Roco Campofrio, 5/19/2010 Wed 11:00 am, Channel FOCUS Channel 49 on OLELO. If not near a TV you can watch it from anywhere real time on the internet (if not in Hawaii you must calculate Hawaii real time) on:


Just click the icon for ‘FOCUS 49 livestream’ on the right hand side of screen

Thank you,

John Roco
a candidate for U.S. Senate for Hawaii