the official site of Michael Shermer

top navigation:
Scientific American

Bad Apples & Bad Barrels

published August 2007 | comments (4)
Lessons in Evil from Stanford to Abu Ghraib
magazine cover

The photographs of prisoner abuse from Abu Ghraib shocked most Americans. But social psychologist Philip Zimbardo had seen it all 30 years before in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford University, where he randomly assigned college students to be “guards” or “prisoners” in a mock prison environment. The experiment was to last two weeks but was terminated after just six days, when these intelligent and moral young men were transformed into cruel and sadistic guards or emotionally shattered prisoners.

As he watched the parade of politicians proclaim that Abu Ghraib was the result of a few bad apples, Zimbardo penned a response he calls the Lucifer Effect (also the title of his new book from Random House), namely, the transformation of character that leads ordinarily good people to do extraordinarily evil things. “Social psychologists like myself have been trying to correct the belief that evil is located only in the disposition of the individual and that the problem is in the few bad apples,” he says.

But, I rejoin, there are bad apples, no? Yes, of course, Zimbardo concedes, but most of the evil in the world is not committed by them: “Before we blame individuals, the charitable thing to do is to first find out what situations they were in that might have provoked this evil behavior. Why not assume that these are good apples in a bad barrel, rather than bad apples in a good barrel?”

How can we tell the difference? Compare behavior before, during and after the evil event in question. “When I launched my experiment at Stanford, we knew these students were good apples because we gave them a battery of tests and every one of them checked out normal,” Zimbardo explains. “So, on day one they were all good apples. Yet within days, the guards were transformed into sadistic thugs and the prisoners were emotionally broken.” Likewise at Abu Ghraib. Zimbardo notes that before going to Iraq, Staff Sergeant Ivan “Chip” Frederick — the military police officer in charge of the night shift on Tiers 1A and 1B, the most abusive cell blocks at Abu Ghraib — “was an all-American patriot, a regular churchgoing kind of guy who raises the American flag in front of his home, gets goose bumps and tears up when he listens to our national anthem, believes in American values of democracy and freedom, and joined the army to defend those values.”

Before Abu Ghraib, Frederick was a model soldier, earning numerous awards for merit and bravery. After the story broke and Frederick was charged in the abuses, Zimbardo arranged for a military clinical psychologist to conduct a full psychological assessment of Frederick, which revealed him to be average in intelligence, average in personality, with “no sadistic or pathological tendencies.” To Zimbardo, this result “strongly suggests that the ‘bad apple’ dispositional attribution of blame made against him by military and administration apologists has no basis in fact.” Even after he was shipped off to Fort Leavenworth to serve his eight-year sentence, Frederick wrote Zimbardo: “I am proud to say that I served most of my adult life for my country. I was very prepared to die for my country, my family and friends. I wanted to be the one to make a difference.”

Two conclusions come to mind. First, it is the exceedingly patriotic model soldier — not a rebellious dissenter — who is most likely to obey authorities who encouraged such evil acts and to get caught up in believing that the ends justify the means. Second, in The Science of Good and Evil (Owl Books, 2004), I argued for a dual dispositional theory of morality — by disposition we have the capacity for good and evil, with the behavioral expression of them dependent on the situation and whether we choose to act. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who knew a few things about the capacity for evil inside all of our hearts of darkness, explained it trenchantly in The Gulag Archipelago: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

topics in this column: , , ,

4 Comments to “Bad Apples & Bad Barrels”

  1. Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth[skeptic griggsy] Says:

    This book and
    The Myth of Self-Esteeem” and ‘The Reason-Driven Life” and ‘Forbidden Fruit” are must reads on humaanist morality. When theists reason rightly, they use our morality rather than that of ignorant men of yore. This is inverse to their silly claim that we live off theirs.
    Yes, that is the banality of evil!

  2. Andrew Gould Says:

    I found “The Lucifer Effect” very difficult to read. But difficult though it was, I am very glad I read it and I’m happy to recommend it to anyone. There’s a new prison being built nearby, and I would like if possible to donate a copy of this book to the prison library.

  3. Gene Densmore Says:

    I like the line from “Chinatown”: ‘Given the right circumstances, anyone is capable of anything.’

  4. Rick Says:

    My mother-in-law is a detention officer at the county jail and was a state correction officer before that. SHe is just the opposite of those few (bad apples) at Abu-Ghraib. One of the inmates was recently released that lived in my neigborhood. He had found out by my mother-in-law that I lived near him and that she was a frequent guest. He came over looking for her because he wanted to thank her for being nice to him and for bringing him snacks from the canteen. I definitely think that there are genetic aspects involved as well as social aspects that contribute into why people commit crime. It’s not a nature vs. nurture, it’s both. BTK had a very normal child hood and life. Anti-social or sociopathic tendencies are definitely genetic.

Leave a Comment