Because I am interested in the power of the group and the power of group thought, lately I’ve been investigating why and under what conditions this occasionally goes horribly wrong. Why do large groups of seemingly civilized, kindly and moral people perpetrate acts of inhumanity?
Under what mindset did many ordinary German people agree to be, as Daniel Goldhagen put it, ‘Hitler’s willing executioners’? What can be conditions under which inhabitants of the Balkans feel justified in carrying out systematic rape and the destruction of entire communities? Is there a mob psychology that takes over, prompting an otherwise loving person take up a machete and use it to slaughter women and children in Africa?
What, Joan Didion famously asked, makes Iago evil? Is evil inherent in the person or inherent in the social context?
During the 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann. the American historian Hannah Arendt concluded that far from being a dysfunctional psychopath, Eichmann was, to all intents and purposes, shockingly ordinary.
Evil, she posited, is utterly banal, capable of being committed not by the crazed and lunatic but by the unremarkable: even the most civilized among us — the happily-married, two-kids-and-two-cars regularly-churchgoing neighbor — can turn into a sadistic crazy when given social support and a legitimatizing ideology, such as Nazism.
One of the people fascinated by Arendt’s then explosive thesis was Yale University social psychologist named Stanley Milgram who created one of the most famous experiments examining this question. He’d created a study in which an actor, posing as the ‘Learner’ in an experiment, was subjected to memory tests. If he got any answers wrong, the participants in the experiment — the Teachers — were told to deliver shocks of increasing severity to the participant.
In actual fact, the Learner did not receive real shocks, nevertheless he responded convincingly as though he had. The extraordinary finding of his experiment was that every last one of the 40 Teachers had been willing to administer shocks of 300 volts and two-thirds prepared to order the full voltage of 450-volt shocks, even though the Learner was heard to scream out in agony, complain of a bad heart condition and repeatedly demand to be released from the study.
Milgram had designed the study so that his participants were both repeatedly ‘ordered’ to continue meting out ‘punishment’ and absolved of any blame for what happened. The experimenter would take ultimate responsibility if the Learner got ill or died.
Milgram concluded that Arendt was right: ordinary people would placed obedience to authority (‘I was just following orders’) above their own moral values under certain circumstances.
Perhaps the most famous study of in relation to the dynamics of groups and ‘mob rule’ was carried out in 1971, the Stanford Prison Experiment. Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo created a mock prison in which a group of nice, middle-class university students, especially screened to be the most psychologically stable of all those who’d volunteered, were assigned the roles of guards or prisoners, with Zimbardo taking in the role of prison supervisor.
The Palo Alto police were cued to ‘arrest’ the students and fingerprint them, and they were given humiliating clothing to wear, referred to only by number and made to follow endless arbitrary orders and punishments in order to mimic the dehumanizing aspects of prison.
The experiment quickly got out hand. The student guards became more and more sadistic, refusing to allow the prisoners to urinate or defecate, or to empty the sanitation bucket, forcing them to sleep on concrete, placing them in a closet deemed to be ‘solitary confinement’, and finally subjecting them to degrading and pornographic violence. What’s more, the prisoner students accepted their humiliating treatment. At least one third of the guards were judged to have exhibited true ‘sadistic’ tendencies; many of the prisoners were left emotionally traumatized by the experience.
Although it had been planned for two weeks, the study had to be halted after six days.
Zimbardo’s conclusion was that his prison experiment had all the hallmarks of mob rule: that when people assemble into groups and are given power over other groups, they cannot resist behaving sadistically.
These two pivotal studies have been cited in all the decades since in psychology classes as proof positive that groups have an automatic Lord-of-the-Flies effect, causing people to shed their moral judgment, even their humanity.
The BBC Experiment
In 2002, Alexander Haslam, a professor of social psychology at Britain’s University of Exeter and Stephen Reicher, social psychologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, wished to revisit these ideas and recreate the Stanford University experiment.
Funded and filmed by the British Broadcasting Company (and eventually shown on TV as The Experiment) the two researchers created an elaborate prison, and again randomly divided a group of men into two groups as either prisoners or guards.
Nevertheless, this time, unlike Milgram or Zimbardo, the experimenters did not in any way attempt to influence the participants’ actions. So crucially they did not provide the defining ideology – or justification for cruelty.
Over eight days, the experimenters were witness to stunning developments. Although the prisoners, the ones with less power and privilege, were initially demoralized, over time the group dynamics shifted.
As the prisoners developed a sense of shared identity, they began to function effectively as a group and also increasingly enjoyed improved morale and mental well-being.
Shared identity ultimately led to improved effectiveness and even health, with low levels of cortisol – the hormone pumped by the body in times of stress. As time wore on, the prisoners became stronger, happier and empowered.
The guards, on the other hand, who had not bonded as a group, became increasingly dispirited and powerless, exhibiting high levels of cortisol.
Eventually the prisoners staged a breakout and the authority of the guards collapsed. After the coup, everyone — guards and prisoners — spontaneously agreed to form a system of greater equality: what they termed a ‘self-governing, self-disciplining commune’.
The experiment would have ended on a happy note, but the idyll didn’t last. After the group began doubting their ability to enforce the commune, the organization of the group soon began to fall apart.
At this point, some members of the guards and prisoners began to plan a new ‘coup’ in which they would take over, re-establish a line between prisoners and guards, and establish more authoritarian order. They even requested black berets and black sunglasses to reinforce their images of a you-talkin-to-me bad ass.
Those in the commune didn’t fight back, but were in such disarray that they, too, were willing to agree to a system of tyranny again. At this point, fearing another Stanford experiment situation, Haslem and Reicher ended the experiment.
Haslem and Reicher are very clear about what they observed.
Nevertheless, tyranny was not inherent once people formed a group; it was displayed because of the failure of the groups, first the failure of the guards to form a collective bond and then the failure of the entire group to create the equalitarian commune they’d imagined.
While the prisoners had successfully fought off some relatively minor inequalities at the start of the experiment, by the end they were willing to embrace and even support tyranny because they did not enforce their collective utopian ideal.
Although the researchers believe tyranny is a product of group processes, not individual pathology, they disagree about the nature of it.
“From our standpoint, people do not lose their minds in groups, do not helplessly succumb to the requirements of their roles and do not automatically abuse collective power. Instead they identify with groups only when it makes sense to do so.’
The individual inside the group
Groups — our neighborhoods and towns, our religious affiliations and political parties, even our countries, in every sense — determine and justify what we do.
Cohesive groups are extraordinarily strengthening — indeed necessary for our survival.
Even as a beleaguered group, the BBC prisoners remained robustly immune to treatment by the guards — so long as they could connect with others in the same boat. In fact, the more they were oppressed as a group, the stronger they became.
The bottom line is that every group creates a collective culture — whether of hate or love — but every individual in the group helps to create that culture and has a responsibility.
What is important is establishing and maintaining the we’re-all-in-this-together cohesion of the group, but then taking a good long look at its values to ensure that it does not stand for oppression of anyone.
Because you are a Republican does not give you the right to behave badly to a Democrat. Because you are Israeli does not absolve you from humane treatment of a Palestinian — and vice versa.
And that’s where your individual responsibility takes over.