Sunday, June 12, 2005


Men never do evil so fully and so happily as when they do it for conscience’s sake. Blaise Pascal, (Pensees, 1660).

An essay on relationships between brain function and social-cultural behavior was begun in March of 2004, (before the news of failures by U.S. military personnel to abide by the Geneva Convention in our military prisons or the televised murder of Nicholas Berg by beheading, became uncommon currency). Also noted was this well known quote from Blaise Pascal, which might have served to blunt some of the surprise following the news reports without doing much to cushion their shock or repugnance: In fact, all the pros and cons about who is responsible for such breeches of conduct were investigated at least 30 years before. That statement by Pascal is true of nearly all people at nearly all times, in varying degrees; psychologist Stanley Milgram demonstrated it in his landmark study “Perils of Obedience”, and Robert Jay Lifton wrote of it when describing the warm, affectionate home life of Nazi doctors who concurrently were conducting brutal experiments on prisoners of all ages in German concentration camps. He referred to this effect as “doubling”, the tendency to be two different people in disparate roles. An overview of such studies suggest the primary variables involved in taking on sadistic behaviors by most ordinary people appear to be: (1), The general development of one’s moral sense, or conscience, (2), how close to active consciousness, and how deeply impacted by a socialized conscience, is our emotional quotient for Sadism, and (3), how culturally and socially susceptible we are to authoritarian or to peer influences.

Phillip Zimbardo, past president of the American Psychological Association, is remembered for, among other works, a study he conducted in 1971entitled the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which a dozen bright, likeable students perpetrated Iraqi/U.S. prison-type torture and abuse on their “prisoners”. The latter were known by the perpetrators to be fellow students who were “imprisoned” for experimental purposes; one week into the study it had to be halted due to violent behavior, mostly on the part of the “guards”. There were outspoken fears of irreversible effects by the observers, who feared for their own susceptibility to long standing emotional repercussions.

In that day and age, in the context of the death of prisoner George Jackson, killed in San Quentin, and other news similar to that of the Attica prison riots of 1971, the Stanford Prison Experiment was indeed “newsworthy”. It told the world how “ordinary people, middle-class college students, can do things they would have never believed they were capable of doing. It seemed to say, as Hannah Arendt said of Adolf Eichmann, that normal people can take ghastly action”. Answering an advertisement in the Palo Alto Times and following interviews and a battery of tests, the two dozen applicants judged to be the most normal, average, and healthy were randomly assigned to be either prisoners or guards. Zimbardo’s reasoning was given as an interest in focusing “on the power of roles, rules, symbols, group identity and situational validation of behavior that would repulse ordinary individuals…. I had been conducting research for some years on deindividuation, vandalism and dehumanization that illustrated the ease with which ordinary people could be led to engage in anti-social acts by putting them in situations where they felt anonymous, or they could perceive of others in ways that made them less than human, as enemies or objects”. (Toronto, 1996). Zimbardo had wondered, in the course of experiment planning, “…what would happen if we aggregated all of these processes, making some subjects feel deindividuated, others dehumanized within an anonymous environment in the same experimental setting, and where we could carefully document the process over time.” The study showed the development of danger to individuals early on; even though the Guards had been instructed not to use violence but maintain control of the prison, the “worst instances of abuse occurred in the middle of the night when the “guards” thought the staff was not watching …(and)resulted in extreme stress reactions that forced us to release five prisoners, one a day, prematurely.” Zimbardo told the Toronto Symposium in 1969 that his prison experiment “was both ethical and unethical”. It was unethical, he said, “because people suffered and others were allowed to inflict pain and humiliation on their fellows over an extended period of time. “And yes, although we ended the study a week earlier than planned, we did not end it soon enough.”

There is a current trend to account for such behaviors as “hard wired” or “genetically” ordained for some people, (see Whose Life Would You Save? Discover magazine, April, 2004), but the evidence remains poorly substantiated and highly impressed by a certain popular infatuation with electronic gadgetry. Developmental fantasies put forward by researchers about what human brain-behavior was like thousands of years ago still have no more credence today than does anybody else’s educated guess. In the otherwise impressive efforts to establish maps of localized brain functions, observing a particular neuronal response to experimental stimuli seems currently to congregate all attention onto an MRI scanner. Mapping of the more painstaking, perhaps pedestrian, effects of socialization and acculturation, to say nothing of concomitant personality variables, often tend to be almost ignored. Also often given short shrift are efforts to show developmental patterns of brain-behavior within various age-groups. The work of J. Giedd, (NATURE, March 9, 2000), showing a marked increase in growth of prefrontal brain cells in early teen years, using fMRI (frequency Magnetic Resonance Imaging), is a redeeming case in point.

In previously relating popular culture to brain function it was noted that while making such a connection might seem somewhat oxymoronic to some, it was and is presented in all seriousness. The perils of bias and cultural, time-binding effects are rampant in such ventures however; efforts at off-setting the major and more inevitable consequences were attempted in part by stating some of the biases and personal, probably idiosyncratic, opinions at the outset. For one thing it should come as no surprise to anyone that what are often considered to be new and innovative attitudes and practices may be old stuff garbed in the latest fashions. In particular the assumption that in “the old days” people were more repressive and hypocritical about their “true” feelings, especially about sexual practices, sexual openness in general, public cursing and ethnic preferences, to name a couple of sensitive spots. It was maintained here that in numerous ways it can be shown that people today are generally just as hypocritical and repressive about their underlying feelings and practices as ever they were; they just seem to be selecting different elements to repress, or veil. What is openly presented is in line with their current cultural values.

The same considerations apply to our social-cultural management of aggression; differences over time are shown primarily in terms of which values are suppressed and which values are in plain view. Not only Pascal, but Cesar Chavez, that nonviolent warrior, saw the underlying and overt relationship when he wrote in 1968, “In some cases, nonviolence requires more militancy than violence.” Their observations sheds some glimmer of light on the famed study conducted by Stanley Milgram in the late 1960s, sometimes titled “Perils of Obedience”. Milgram referred to the writings of Hannah Arendt, (1950), who asserted that evil, such as seen in Germany during the Holocaust, was perpetrated by very ordinary, run of the mill citizens under the various propagandist devices of German authority. The Milgram study showed this observation to be more than hypothetically true in terms of the resultant unbridled willingness of naïve U.S. persons selected at random, under the direction of white-coated, authoritarian, clip-board bearing experimenters, to administer torture in the form of apparently painfully disabling electric shock --to fellow human beings.

So who should bear the onus of guilt and criminal responsibility for lapses in humane treatment of prisoners? The guards are the perpetrators and should face some punishment, but as Phillip Zimbardo and others clearly demonstrated, it is a failure in taking proper, ordinary management of any detention center and its program that matters most. Whether it is a government such as one imbued with Nazi propaganda issues, or an entity overseeing prisoner detention in the most benign setting, it is always the fault of those responsible for guarding the guards from their own worst impulses.

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