The Bad Barrel

Jack Miles, author of the Pulitzer prize-winning book God: A Biography, interviewed Dr. Zimbardo as part of The Lucifer Effect’s book tour in Los Angeles, California. In this interview, Jack Miles assisted in Dr. Zimbardo in explaining how something like Abu Ghraib could occur in today’s world by the very people who were supposed to be caring for the prisoners (Zimbardo & Miles, 2007). It is difficult for one to identify with behaviors that, generally, society deems as unacceptable. Western cultures that stress individuality find it more difficult to identify with the “possibility of evil within” than cultures that stress community (Zimbardo, 2007). The SPE clearly demonstrated that all people are not that far removed from acts of aggression or dehumanizing behaviors.

The Stanford Prison Experiment created a mock prison at Stanford University. All applicants participated in psychological interviews. Those that appeared to be free of: psychological or personality disorders, history or crime, emotional/physical abuse, intellect or social disadvantage, or were “normal” were invited to participate in the two week-long experiment. The group was randomly assigned to two groups, prison guards or prisoners. Each participant was intended to behave in their assigned roles. Prisoners were assigned a number and only referred to as the number and not by name. This was to assist in the de-individuation process. Although there was some hesitation at first, most of the participants quickly fell into their roles. Due to the level of stress the prisoner participants began experiencing and the increasing level of aggressive and dehumanizing behavior of the guards toward the prisoners, the experiment was terminated after only 6 days. Such behavior included: forcing the prisoners to do push ups, interrupted sleep, taking away beds, dragging blankets in thorn bushes, and sexual harassment. Prisoners began displaying: passivity, dependency, and depression. These are symptoms of learned helplessness which was first identified by Seligman (Aronson, Wilson, Akert, 1999). Also adding to the learned helplessness experienced by the prisoners was focusing on the present. Ninety percent of their conversations were regarding their life in prison, and 10% of their conversations were about their personal life (Zimbardo, 2007). The continual focus on the present stressful situation amplified stress already experienced by the way in which they were treated.

Although the negative effects of the experiment on the prisoners is significant and worthy of great attention, looking at the abusive behavior of the guards is also worthy of further inspection. In the SPE there were excessive, negative, hostile interactions between the guards and the prisoners. Although initially many prisoners rebelled, most began to quickly respond with passivity. The guard’s instruction grew increasing hostile as the days passed, specifically during the night shift where there was less supervision. Some guards were responsible for more aggressive behavior than other guards, but the guards that allowed such behavior to occur and not make attempts to stop it is striking and will be discussed later.

The background information of the SPE provided a stage for Abu Ghraib to be understood. As mentioned earlier, Dr. Zimbardo testified on behalf of the defense in the Abu Ghraib trial. He used the SPE to illustrate how individuals who are not prone to “evil” can succumb when immersed in an environment that enables it. On a lesser scale, similar abusive behavior can be seen in the famous brown-eyed, blue-eyed experiment by the teacher Jane Elliot in Riceville, Iowa (Aronson, Wilson, Akert, 1999). In this experiment, the children experienced prejudice based on the color of their eyes. The group that was first being prejudiced against became the recipients of insults, segregation, etc. When the experiment changed the groups so that the other group became the recipients of the lesser status, no hesitation or sympathy was shown for the new “lesser” group even though the children had just experienced what it felt like to be prejudiced against. There are many other examples on varying scales, but ultimately the end result is the same. Seemingly nonviolent, non-abusive individuals have the potential to behave in such ways when in an environment that promotes it. Dr. Zimbardo (2007) stated:

The primary simple lesson the Stanford Prison Experiment teaches is that situations matter. Social situations can have more profound effects on the behavior and mental functioning of individuals, groups, and national leaders than we might believe possible. Some situations can exert such powerful influence over us that we can be led to behave in ways that we would not, could not, predict was possible in advance. (p. 211-212)

Dr. Zimbardo suggests “Putting the System on Trial,” as a way of combating the existent of environments that enable abuse. Specifically, he states that higher authorities are responsible for torture as are those who are committing the actual acts. He reports that torture is often “outsourced.” High ranking officials rarely do the dirty work; orders are given to subordinates to perform unpalatable tasks, including torture (Zimbardo, 2007). This is seen in many arenas such as: the Mafia, the Nazis, and the armed forces. To assist in deterring abuse, supervision should be adequate. Dr. Zimbardo describes at length how proper supervision was lacking at Abu Ghraib and the working conditions were unacceptable. These conditions along with other factors created an environment that enabled and, in some ways, promoted the abuse of the Abu Ghraib prisoners. He goes on to say that punishing individuals who are directly involved with torture or “evil” behavior is not enough. All of those directly and indirectly involved need to be held accountable, and steps to be proactive need to be made to help prevent such atrocities from occurring again. He states, “’Bad systems’ create ‘bad situations’ create ‘bad apples’ create ‘bad behavior,’ even in good people” (Zimbardo, 2007, p. 445). Thus, society needs to intervene at the root of the cause.

The Lucifer Effect attempts to end on a lighter note and give suggestions for resisting unwanted influence. In his ten-step program he suggests the following: 1- admitting to mistakes is encouraged, 2 – being mindful of the environment and situational clues, 3 – taking responsibility for decisions and actions, 4 – asserting individuality, 5 -respecting just authority and question unjust authority, 6 – valuing independence, 7 – being aware of other perspectives of situations, 8 – balancing time perspectives (consider past, present, and future), 9 – not allowing personal/civil freedoms to be compromised for the “illusion of security”, and 10 – recognizing the potential to oppose unjust systems (Zimbardo, 2007). Additionally, celebrating heroes and heroism is greatly encouraged; heroes that challenge what is wrong and strive to change it.

In conclusion, through the work of Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D., and others as well, the world has gotten a glimpse of humanity; unfortunately, it appears to be somewhat of a rude awakening. Research, real world experiences, and self-reflection have all proven to be helpful in identifying where as a world we are going wrong and what we can do to make it right. Briefly listed here are ways to help individual cope with unwanted influences or the bad barrel, but what else can you do to be a hero?


Aronson, E, Wilson, T. D., & Akert, R. M. (1999). Social Psychology (3rd ed.)
Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, Inc.

Zimbardo, P. G. (2007). The Lucifer Effect. New York: Random House,Inc.

Zimbardo, P. G. & Miles, J. (2007, March 27). The Lucifer Effect. Book tour interview.

Los Angeles, California: Los Angeles Public Library