The Milgram experiment, conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1963, tested the willingness to obey authority by asking participants to administer high dosages of electric shocks to “victims.” Most of us can’t help but wonder if we would find it in ourselves not to “push the button.” “I wouldn’t have done it,” we conclude. We’re better than that-more educated, better leaders, and more ethical than the participants in the experiment. However, Phil Zimbardo disagrees, and brings a convincing thirty years of cutting-edge research in the field of social psychology to prove his point.
In his study conducted at Stanford in 1971, Zimbardo randomly assigned “normal” students, who happened to be living in the Palo Alto area, into two groups – prisoners and guards. Both groups had to undergo a battery of psychological tests in order to ensure that they were indeed normal, and had no prior psychological abnormalities. The prisoners were then “arrested” from their homes around the bay area and made to wear a prisoner’s gown with a stocking over their heads. They were detained in the basement of the Stanford psychology building under the supervision of those participants assigned as guards. However, Zimbardo had to stop the two-week experiment after just six days. What he learned was that, under the right set of circumstances, even average college students will take on the role that they are given and exhibit brutal behavior, which they would normally find abhorrent.
Zimbardo, who attended the same high school as Stanley Milgram, has compiled decades worth of research in the field into his new book “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.” In his recent talk at Harvard Law School, Zimbardo presented the findings from his famous Stanford Prison experiment and showed how these situational factors played out in the contemporary example of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq.
Zimbardo used his experiences to testify as an expert witness at the trial of (Former) Sgt. Ivan “Chip” Frederick, who was charged with torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Zimbardo drew parallels between the abuses at that institution and in the Stanford Prison Experiment and asserted that while the behavior at Abu Ghraib “is inexcusable,” it “is explainable” because of the unnerving similarities between the two situations. The problem in Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo claims, is not “bad apples” as suggested by our government, but a “bad barrel.”
A confluence of factors such as a high-stress environment, deference to authority, illusion of anonymity, and dehumanization of the enemy conspire to breakdown human inhibitions against immoral behavior and create situations which can cause even a “good soldier” to behave in an atrocious manner. Zimbardo has found that when subjects are asked to commit sadistic acts incrementally, where no single act seems significantly worse than the last, people often fail to recognize the problem and do not stop this downward spiral into evil.
So what does this mean for us? High stress environments, pressure from above to deliver results, anonymity in large organizations, and competitors who must be stopped…do any of these characteristics sound familiar? These were the situational characteristics at both WorldCom and Enron, and are indeed common in most business organizations. While the business world usually provides a high-stress environment with pressure to deliver results, as future leaders, we have the opportunity to shape the context in which our organizations carry out their missions. With a critical eye to the environment we create within our organizations, we can work to avoid the pitfalls that cause good people to commit unethical acts.