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Discussion on the Zimbardo Prison Experiement and Abu Graib, Iraq

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By clinical PsyD graduate student.

Discussion on Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment and Recent Events in Iraq at Abu Ghraib

Phillip Zimbardo's simulated prison experiment in 1971 was a powerful example of what can occur when people are given power and others have it taken away. In the experiment, people were randomly assigned to be prisoners or guards. Within a remarkably short time, the participants, especially the guards, took their roles to the point of brutalizing and humiliating their "prisoners". The two-week experiment was called off after six days due to the behavior of the guards getting out of control, and the emotional trauma experienced by the prisoners (Myers, 2010). Despite the controversy of the study that still resonates decades later, it illustrated the dehumanizing effects that can occur to prisoners and the sadistic tendencies that can emerge in guards. This study illustrated what can happen when people are dehumanized and deindividuated, especially in the context of a power situation such as a prison, even a simulated one (Reiman, M. & Zimbardo P., 2011).

The recent events at Abu Ghraib illustrate this. US soldiers in charge of guarding the prisoners took part in systematic acts of torture and brutality that dehumanized the prisoners. The ensuing reports and images emerged shocked the world, especially coming from a military authority that had supposedly held itself to a high standard of honor when it came to treatment of prisoners of war.

Why did the guards in both of these situations act as they did and allow for things to get so out of hand? Why did no one step in for so long? In both of these situations, the guards were placed in positions of power over prisoners who had conceivably done something wrong (even though it was make believe in Zimbardo's experiment, the same aggressive impulses were aroused, resulting in the abusive behaviors). The guards were the authority; the prisoners were perceived, rightly or wrongly, as being bad, less than human, worthy of maltreatment. The four-factor model of aggression (Buss & Perry, 1992 as cited in Reiman, M. & Zimbardo, P., 2011), lists the following as leading to aggressive and evil human behavior: hostility, anger, verbal aggression and physical aggression (Buss & Perry, 1992 as cited in Reiman, M. & Zimbardo, P., 2011). Hostility is the cognitive component, and represents a sense of ill will and injustice, and can be concurrent with an unwillingness to recognize whether the prisoners had indeed done anything wrong or not (Reiman, M. & Zimbardo, P, 2011). In the case of Abu Ghraib, the guards became angry at the prisoners: for being terrorists, for hurting Americans, for being Iraqi, for being the reason they were there, etc., even though many of them were just caught in the crossfire of war and may have been in the wrong

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