The enduring interest in the Stanford Prison Experiment over many decades comes, I think, from the experiment’s startling revelation of“transformation of character”—of good people suddenly becoming perpetrators of evil as guards or pathologically passive as prisoners in 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 that promote anonymity and reduce personal accountability. When people feel anonymous 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 induced to behave in antisocial ways.
When all members of a group are in a deindividuated state, their mental functioning changes: they live in an expanded-present moment that makes past and future distant and irrelevant. Feelings dominate reason, and action dominates reflection. The usual cognitive and motivational processes that steer behavior in socially desirable paths no 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 there was no accountability.” It became the norm for guards to stop wearing their full military uniforms while on duty. All around them, most visitors and the civilian interrogators came and went unnamed. No one in charge was readily identifiable, and the seemingly endless mass of prisoners, wearing orange jumpsuits or totally naked, were also indistinguishable from one another. It was as extreme a setting for creating deindividuation as I can imagine.
Dehumanization of prisoners occurred by virtue of their sheer numbers, enforced nakedness, and uniform appearance, as well as by the guards’ inability to understand their language. One night shift MP, Ken Davis, later reported how dehumanization had been bred into their thinking: “As soon as we’d have prisoners come in, sandbags instantly on their head. They would flexi cuff ’em; throw ’em down to the ground; some would be stripped. It was told to all of us, they’re nothing but dogs. . . . You start looking at these people as less than human, and you start doing things to ’em that you would never dream of.”
The Stanford Prison Experiment relied on deindividuating silver reflecting sunglasses for the guards along with standard military-style uniforms. The power the guards assumed each time they donned these uniforms was matched by the powerlessness the prisoners felt in their wrinkled smocks. Obviously, Abu Ghraib Prison was a far more lethal environment than our relatively benign prison at Stanford. However, in both cases, the worst abuses occurred during the night shift, when guards felt that the authorities noticed them least. It is reminiscent of Golding’s Lord of the Flies, where supervising grown-ups were absent as the masked marauders created havoc.