There have been many studies in social psychology that explain the abusive behavior of guards at Abu Ghraid, Guantanamo and other prison situations. Stanley Millgram did studies back in the 50s and 60s that demonstrated the capacity of good, moral, healthy human beings to committ atrocities. This human behavior is more a function of social context than individual personality as much as we don't want to acknowledge this. An article published in the magazine, Science, on November 26, 2004 reports findings from Princeton social psychologists which remark that this kind of behavior is more a function of the environment of social context than individual morality. These social science findings fly in the face of the myth that it is just a few "bad apples". Those in leadership positions have the responsibility to develop a positive social context that does not encourage or allow this kind of behavior.
"The acts of torture committed by United States soldiers at Abu Ghraib last year that prompted protests and disgust were an example of the power of social context, according to a team of Princeton psychologists.
Their report suggests that the individuals involved were not simply a "few bad apples," but rather ordinary men and women who were influenced by complex social forces.
"People like to explain other people's behavior in terms of unique personality, but the social context matters more than people think it does," Susan T. Fiske, a psychology professor at Princeton University in New Jersey told Reuters Health.
"In short, ordinary individuals under the influence of complex social forces may commit evil acts," Fiske and her team write in a policy forum published in the journal Science.
Fiske and her colleagues cite examples from various well-known psychological experiments that point to the influence of social context on behavior, which may explain why the soldiers abused the Iraqis placed in their custody.
Previous research shows that just about anyone can become aggressive under certain conditions, particularly if an individual is stressed, disgruntled or greatly provoked. The soldiers in the 800th Military Police Brigade involved in the prison scandal were no exception, the report indicates.
In addition to the stress of being at war and in constant danger and of being provoked and harassed by Iraqi citizens, these soldiers were reportedly untrained for the work they were assigned to do, and insufficiently supervised by their commanding officers."
A film which depicts this kind of dynamic convincingly is The Experiment, which is a German film distributed in 2001 and which I reviewed on this blog on November 24, 2003 over a year ago.