The enduring interest in the Stanford Prison Experiment over manydecades comes, I think, from the experiment’s startling revelation of“transformation of character”—of good people suddenly becomingperpetrators of evil as guards or pathologically passive as prisonersin response to situational forces acting on them.
Situational forces mount in power with the introduction of uniforms,costumes, and masks, all disguises of one’s usual appearance thatpromote anonymity and reduce personal accountability. When people feelanonymous in a situation, as if no one is aware of their true identity(and thus that no one probably cares), they can more easily be inducedto behave in antisocial ways.
When all members of a group are in a deindividuated state, theirmental functioning changes: they live in an expanded-present momentthat makes past and future distant and irrelevant. Feelings dominatereason, and action dominates reflection. The usual cognitive andmotivational processes that steer behavior in socially desirable pathsno longer guide people. It becomes as easy to make war as to make love,without considering the consequences.
At Abu Ghraib, MP Chip Frederick recalls, “It was clear that therewas no accountability.” It became the norm for guards to stop wearingtheir full military uniforms while on duty. All around them, mostvisitors and the civilian interrogators came and went unnamed. No onein charge was readily identifiable, and the seemingly endless mass ofprisoners, wearing orange jumpsuits or totally naked, were alsoindistinguishable from one another. It was as extreme a setting forcreating deindividuation as I can imagine.
Dehumanization of prisoners occurred by virtue of their sheernumbers, enforced nakedness, and uniform appearance, as well as by theguards’ inability to understand their language. One night shift MP, KenDavis, later reported how dehumanization had been bred into theirthinking: “As soon as we’d have prisoners come in, sandbags instantlyon their head. They would flexicuff ’em; throw ’em down to the ground;some would be stripped. It was told to all of us, they’re nothing butdogs. . . . You start looking at these people as less than human, andyou start doing things to ’em that you would never dream of.”
The Stanford Prison Experiment relied on deindividuating silverreflecting sunglasses for the guards along with standard military-styleuniforms. The power the guards assumed each time they donned theseuniforms was matched by the powerlessness the prisoners felt in theirwrinkled smocks. Obviously, Abu Ghraib Prison was a far more lethalenvironment than our relatively benign prison at Stanford. However, inboth cases, the worst abuses occurred during the night shift, whenguards felt that the authorities noticed them least. It is reminiscentof Golding’s Lord of the Flies, where supervising grown-ups were absentas the masked marauders created havoc.