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The Stanford Prison Experiment, SPE

Phillip Zimbardo, Professor, Stanford University--Social Psychologist:
Extended Adorno’s and Milgram’s work

  • Zimbardo’s SPE experiment predicted later events:
    • Abu Ghraib and similar detention centers
    • The several modern genocides
  • The SPE became a “SYSTEM,” a miniature system that foretold Abu Ghraib—all too realistically!

Abu Ghraib System: Phillip Zimbardo

  • Zimbardo was an insider to Abu Ghraib, after the fact.
    • He saw: A corrupt “American system".
    • He concluded: “The Problem Is Not About Bad Apples In A Barrel, It Is About Bad Barrels.” (Created, of course, by a few high-level Bad Apples!)

Paraphrasing Zimbardo

Updated 09 Sept 2013

Systemic (Bad-Barrel) situations that:
Corrupt the morals of otherwise decent people who happen to be susceptible to "Blind Obedience."

[We would add]: Authoritarian Bad Apples:
Otherwise known as Sociopaths who hijack organizations for their own advantage.
A real life incident in which a phony cop induces a chain-restaurant owner to investigate an employee he accused of stealing from customers provides substantial support for these two social scientists. “Officer Scott” visited a restaurant and asked for the manager. When she arrived, he simply stated that an employee had been stealing from customers and that it would be simpler for everyone if the employee were searched on the premises. Officer Scott claimed to have the manager’s boss on his cell phone. The 18 year old female employee was strip-searched with no money found. At that point, Officer Scott induced the manager’s fiancé to watch over the employee when the manager claimed she had to take care of something out front. That something was to call her boss who was shocked by what the manager said. Meanwhile Officer Scott had induced the manager’s fiancé to rape the employee.
Posted 4 June 2007.

Zimbardo metaphors abound in this arena. For example:

"It's not the bad apples, it is the bad barrels."

The barrels of course is the social system we all live in. Most of us take it for granted. It takes an unusual mind to see the damage we do to ourselves, by just going along with and perpetuating a system.
As used on this site: A belief system adhered to by many in a coherent, concise manner. Communism, Confucianism, capitalism, atheism, extremism, authoritarianism, and monotheism are examples. while this singular word captures one essence of RTP, it is not intuitively abvious enough. Peace will only come as a society-wide peace-ism. Establishing and naming that "ism" remains.
Posted 23 June 2006; Updated 17 Mar 2007

The play acting was supposed to be benign, as play acting usually is. As if by the stroke of a magic wand, Philip Zimbardo proved otherwise in 1971 in his now-famous Stanford Prison Experiment. His two-week study of the psychology of incarceration had to be called off on the sixth day because the conditions of Abu Ghraib had developed of their own accord. For some of his later commentary see: Stanford News Service.

The White House and Congress agreed in May 2007 to a series of benchmarks that could lead to an end of American occupation of Iraq. The second report on progress is due 15 September.

Our take is that too little has been achieved to justify continued support. True downtown Baghdad is a basically safer behind the equivalent of an iron wall that is not quite impervious. Like the eye of the hurricane, Baghdad is relatively calm while being surrounded by the high winds of violence.

Is terrorism a natural expression of the human genome?
If so, what can be done about it?
If not, why not?

Terrorism does arise from the human genome--an architecture designed by natural variation and selection of species most fit to survive the environmental niche within which they live. Nature took her time. Her genomic experiments culminating in humanity were gradual over a period of several hundred million years. Some instinctive behaviors we share with insects as well as animals in the great phylum of vertebrates to which we belong! Over at least the last seven million years since we split from the gorillas, evolution preserved our aggressive, cooperative, nurturing, parenting and altruistic traits with some of these arising tens to hundreds of millions of years before that. Nature is nothing if not Consilient.

Continuing Zimbardo:

We must be:

  • Attentive to our independence and individuality as we respect our social group.
  • Conscious of reality; wise to relabeling words;
  • Watchful for ramifications of our own and collective actions;
  • Aware that giving up freedom for security means yielding to dictatorship; where there is no such thing as security, even for in group!
This is not all...

Paraphrasing Zimbardo

We must be:

  • Able to admit our mistakes and learn from them
  • Aware that even smart people can do very dumb things
  • Responsible, for our own actions and those of our group
  • The best we can be
  • Respectful of legitimate authority; resistant to unjust authority
"The System" defined by Zimbardo is so pervasive it is proper to give it a special name. Phillip Zimbardo first identified, then illustrated how EVIL it can be. He lived the system in his laboratory and later participated in the defense of a sergeant victimized by the American system at Abu Ghraib. The Abu Ghraib System condemns the lowest-level actors only. The hierarchy is immune from punishment, even if its designers created the system and gave the orders orally.

Social Conditions Leading to Trouble in
Abu-Ghraib, Rwandan genocide

    • Excluding others from the moral order.
    • Feeling little personal responsibility in anonymous situations where external social restraints are weak.
    • Fear of retribution by the "in-group."

Milgram noted that Authoritarians:

  • Have an administrative outlook instead of a moral one
  • Act on authority other than their own
  • Need hierarchy
  • Rationalize and use euphemisms to ease guilt
  • Shift responsibility upward
  • Propagandize the noble light of ideology
  • Think it is bad form to talk about what they do
  • Obey because one dares not buck the SYSTEM, as Zimbardo later termed this feature
Updated 21 Mar 2010

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Bob Altemeyer:

Social Psychologist - Professor of Psychology, University of Manitoba
Wrote: “The Authoritarian Specter”


  • Assessed thousands of individuals.
  • Used advanced mathematical analysis to reduce authoritarian traits observed to three:
    • Hierarchical Submission,
    • Either / or Conventionalism, and
    • Aggression.
  • Found our basic traits match our politics!!

“The Lucifer Effect” (Phillip Zimbardo)

Came as another national surprise. Updated 09 Sept 2013

  • North American college students in a prison experiment:
    • Were corrupted in 24 hours, feeling and playing the roles of abusive tyrant or crushed prisoner
    • The first “prisoner” broke in 36 hours.
  • This is the Lucifer Effect.
    • A product of the SYSTEM--and predictor of Abu Ghraib!
6 Sept 2006

Also known as simply Pvt Scott Thomas in news releases, Beauchamp reported extensive sadistic behavior on the part of three soldiers in his battalion in Iraq.


  • Yes, given the backdrop of Abu Ghraib and the Haditha massacre (Marines killed 24 civilians).
  • No, if you want to hang tough on the idea that Americans are all good guys--because they are American.
As we well know by now, the Obama administration has outlawed those procedures most of us consider to be torture. Other rulings included a target date for closing Guantanamo and exempting low-level CIA personnel from punishment. We approve these steps. We also prefer that our president look forward for the future is now.

However, letting criminal behavior go unrestrained provides ammunition to critics both at home and foreign who can claim Obama is copying Bush and is himself a polarizing president. That is not true of course, but it is the appearance that counts. We strongly suggest action be taken to punish criminal behavior, provided that the solution is bi-partisan, the Constitution is amended to prevent criminal behavior on high and at the same time that we as a people look inward for the deeply seated roots of this problem that most of us may not even realize.

Why is there so much violence?

  • Historic events in our era attest to the fact that we know little of ourselves—as individuals or societies:
    • The Holocaust: (German citizens supported Hitler's mad eradication of Jews)
    • Genocide:
      • Rwanda (Hutu slew Tutsi; neighbor slew neighbor; children killed their parents)
      • Kosovo (Ethnic cleansing of Muslims by Catholics)
      • Darfur (Ethnic cleansing of African farmers by nomadic Muslim Arabs)
    • Abu Ghraib: (Revolting indecencies arose consistent with presidential signing statements. Other military prisons suffered as well. Ref: Major General Taguba or Phillip Zimbardo.)

"It's a very different kind of person." Mukasey said in reply to Senator Dick Durbin, Illinois Democrat, who asked about water boarding. This seems at first glance to be a 'so what.' But think about it. Is this not 'BLACK AND WHITE' thinking--Authoritarian to the core? Mukasey waffled the rest of the way, never clearly stating he does or does not approve water boarding. After all, he wanted the prestigious AG job, and he got it.
Lectures are fine and are often needed to impart information. That is OK, even necessary. But they are only one/third of the education pie. Most importantly they are weak in the most basic reason for education: Learning how to learn on our own. Lectures are also woefully weak in the "How To" department, which takes hands-on experience if not insight--also hard to provide by lectures alone. In one example, many PhDs we know are great at describing phenomena, but virtually incapable of discovering (learning) how, why and where to go from here. For further example, lectures on how to ride a bicycle, drive a car, or even analyze data are fine. But are these enough? For example, who would dare ride an airplane knowing the pilot had never flown before? Not in our experience nor in the cohorts we have contacted. Relating theory to practice falls short all too often, even in our great universities. This is sadly true even in science and engineering, where our experience with graduates fell somewhere near half who could apply their very real and evident skills to the challenge on a new job. Creativity suffers greatly as well. Societies that get the education equation right will be the societies that survive in the cyber-jungle we created for ourselves.

The system was authorized by Mr. Bush explicitly in his signing statements. Authoritarian personalities in the line officers took it from there. Few questioned either the morality or legality of the abuse. In his book, The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo gets very specific.
The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the Frontiers of Life.
Lee M Silver
Book Review with commentary

This book is an excellent counterpart to "God's Politics" by Jim Wallis. Each addresses a "natural" divide within and between many cultures of the world. The angles are different. Wallis addresses religion and politics; Silver expounds on the religious controversy over evolution. Wallis seeks to reach out and remove the cultural barriers. Silver is interested in why the world populace is so fearful and wary of the offerings of biotechnology. Like Wallis, Silver has stature in his calling; he is a world renowned molecular biologist. And his book is provocative.
Turn the tables on terror by eliminating Blind Obedience and reversing Milgram's Findings! Instead of 65-85% of us blindly following orders to harm others just because some authority figure tells us to, we "stiffen our spines" and bring that percentage down to near the 4% level where the sociopaths, those without conscience, reign. Surely the "can do" spirit for which Americans are known can pull off this little trick (not so little really).

Stanley Milgram - Social Psychologist

Yale University, Harvard, City University of New York.
Wrote: “Obedience to Authority”

Updated 09 Sept 2013

Adorno's characterization of Germans was all well and good. But Americans rationalized: "We are different; we won WW II!" Milgram proved otherwise by powerful, scientifically-well-designed, experiments.

  • Milgram found: Authoritarianism is prevalent among Americans—65-85% of us are Authoritarians.
A Film directed by Lu Chuan - 2009

The Rape Of Nanking (now Nanjing) was an atrocity of the first order. Simply put, it was Genocide. And under Chuan's insightful directing, his film was more: It reveals the paper-thin barrier between the tender and savage parts of most of us. At the time, 1937, and especially once WWII began, we Americans simply demonized the Japanese as being mere animals.

Chuan deserves great credit for his ability to understand and depict humanity as it really is. Even the rare exceptional individual, as noted by Milgram, was present in the body of Sargent Kadokawa who was so filled with revulsion by what his countrymen were doing that he blew his own brains out.
Misquoting Jesus Extended Book Review

Bart Ehrman

An early and confirmed Christian, a born-again Christian, Ehrmam has lived the gamut of Christianity—and beyond, if that is the right word. As a naturally-curious and thinking boy becoming a man, Ehrman was, like most of us, reared to believe, which he did with fervor. In the tenth grade he joined Campus Life Youth for Christ club. Its leader was a eager and charismatic 20 something who held meetings off campus at various club-member homes. Ehrman got to know Bruce, the leader, and was awakened to a new experience of happiness and salvation only a believer could know. In due course he became a born-again Christian.

Updated 15 Nov 2018

This site is a work in progress. Because the mosaic of information from so many different disciplines fits together so neatly, one can only conclude that the mosaic is basically correct in form--consilience in other words. For example, Natural History (physics, chemistry, biology), evolution, anthropology, human history, sociology, psychology, political science, and our common sense, all converge upon a theme that indicts our aggressive instincts and obedience to Authority, legitimate or not--as when wielded by the psychopath--as a root cause of violence. Our altruism, parenting, and herding instincts provide possible solutions, but they get covered up by societies inured to violence, if not overtly taught that violence as the only solution to violence. Ironic? To say the least. Non sequitur? That too.

Questions now on the table:
"Where will that narcissist in the White House take us?
How can we as a people realign ourselves for an uncertain future?"

The hall of fame for peace research might include:

Richard Dawkins
Theodor Adorno
Stanley Milgram
Jerry M Burger
Gene Sharp
Phillip Zimbardo
Bob Altemeyer
John Dean
Jessica Stern
Martha Stout
Robert Hare
Justin Frank
Andrew Bacevich
Malcom Gladwell
Edward O Wilson
Lee Alan Dugatkin

Undoubtedly there are others who have contributed in like manner and amount. See: Links to scores of issues that could benefit from further study and / or verification.

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Martha Stout’s Frank Assessment
Updated 6 Sept 12; 09 Sept 2013
21 Oct 2014

"Short of a sociopathic leader who diverts the course of an entire nation, leading it into genocide or unnecessary war, the psychopathic killer is surely the most terrifying example of a psyche without a conscience..."
Yes democratic governance has stood the test of time. However, in its very attractiveness it can be dangerous. While that is understandable (people everywhere want the quick fix), it is easy to forget that in Britain democracy, as the Brits now know it, was some 1200 years in birthing and developing. American style democracy has had some two and a half centuries to define itself while becoming the new empire with an economic twist. Both of those political events rode the backs of innovation and development of infrastructure. Along with those achievements, democratic ideals became institutionalized. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand followed the same template, but with governance of the parliamentary type instead of the American tri-partite style. After WWII, Western Europe embraced democracy as did India and other remnants of the British empire.
14 Sept 2007

Too often key events that affect the future of humankind go unnoticed or even forgotten. The works of Mendel, who discovered the genetic code is one example coming to mind. Charles Darwin himself was not fully appreciated in his own time in spite of a high and controversial profile. Some of his deepest insights are just now coming into general acceptance. Giants who followed him would include not only Gregor Mendel, but James Watson and Francis Crick with vital help from Rosalind Franklin. Because of them, humanity now has a much better view of itself. They enabled a new beginning on the question of nature/nurture. Neither was very clear before Darwin. Darwin, Mendel, Watson, Crick, and Franklin comprise humanity's heroes in biology, the nature side of the coin.
William Pfaff
Extended Book Review with commentary
By: Harry Rosenberg

Pfaff brings the currents of history to life, not by listing a series of events on timelines, but by illustrating their underlying currents: struggles for dominance and control. He does this--in ways unique for his time--in the retrospective style of a historian. He views current events in their proper and often surprising historical context. Nationhood and nationalism go hand in hand. In his view, nationalism will pass in due course as something better comes along. He does not dwell on what that might be. But we surely agree. Nationalism is too much akin to jungle warfare to bring peace to humanity.
Mind control has been practiced for eons. Even before that, other species did it. We know that for they still do. But there is a new dimension, or rather an avenue by which to achieve it: The search engine. Neither Google nor Yahoo are suspected of such misbehavior, but as Evan Leatherwood points out in the 9 May 2013 issue of The Nation , it could happen. What is scary about the research we have done is that each of us has that exact propensity for having our minds controlled by others, or our controlling theirs. It has happened before. Radio, TV, and now Search Engines all have the potential for mind control. Although Eric Schmidt, Serge Brin, and Larry Page of Google recognize the possibility that Google has such power even though they are apparently not attempting to actually do so, they have nevertheless acknowledged in the past that they can.

Others, notably Robert Epstein, a research psychologist, Michael Fischer of Yale, and Frank Pasquale of Seton Hall believe search engines can sway public opinion, and alter election results to the Left or Right! Each of these personages comes from a different quarter.
Unique Experiments that Illuminated Our True Human Natures.
Stanley Milgram
Book Review With Commentary

Reviewed by Harry Rosenberg.

If there is a kernel to the story of violence in American culture, this book is that kernel. Milgram adds magnificently to the pioneering work of Adorno et al on the Authoritarian Personality. Milgram details his many rigorous experiments, and interprets them relentlessly.
Headline: "Shocking revelation: Santa Clara University professor mirrors famous torture study"

Editor's Forward:

Many think Stanley Milgram was denied tenure at Yale because of his controversial studies into human nature. He found most ordinary people will inflict severe electric shocks to another person in response to an authority figure having no more "real authority" than a white coat in a formal setting. Jerry M. Burger of Santa Clara University has replicated the essential features of Milgram's classic work with essentially identical results.

Excerpts from Mercury News - 12/21/2008

By Lisa M. Krieger

    "Replicating" [reproducing] "one of the most controversial behavioral experiments in history, a Santa Clara University psychologist has found that people will follow orders from an authority figure to administer what they believe are painful electric shocks.
Conceived on 12 Sept 2001, RoadtoPeace is a web site individuals can use and study in trying to make a difference in our violent times. We also provide extensive internal and external links to sites and pages pertinent to the subject at hand. As a friendly site linking to us put it:

[RoadtoPeace:] "Seeks reasons for terrorism in various aspects of religion, economics, history and psychology, stressing the complexity of the issue. The way out appears to be seen in equalizing opportunities, remedying historical injustices, and advancing independent thinking."
Updated 04 Apr 2010

For a quick overview of our research see: Peace Via Nature's Way.

Roots of Terror Briefly and Some Avenues Now Apparent

This project illuminates some very human ills that we and our children face. From what we now know, questions posed have or can find answers. It is that simple yet that complex in implementation, for no culture on earth has the ready answers, only partial ones.
The Truth About the White House's Plans for Regime Change.
Scott Ritter
Book Review With Commentary

This is Iraq all over again with some twists. One highly significant twist is that Iran is admittedly pursuing technology prerequisite for either power generation or WMD. A second twist could logically be to lead Islam back to the prominence it enjoyed a millennium ago. Yet a third twist could be to turn the tables on the Sunni states.
Stanford Prison Experiment
Understanding How Good People, in Their Blind Obedience, Turn Evil.
Philip Zimbardo
Book Review with commentary: by Harry Rosenberg

(Zimbardo's results predicted Abu Ghraib!)

The Problem Is Not About Bad Apples In A Barrel,
It Is About Bad Barrels.

Philp Zimbardo in reference to Abu Ghraib
This legacy of the Korean War came as a huge surprise at the time. American soldiers captured by the Chinese army were forced to attend classes daily on Communist doctrine. Many, too many, came to believe what they were exposed to. This was the shocker. "How could this be?" We all asked ourselves. We are patriotic are we not ? Of course we were, and so were our soldiers. And that is still the case. Those are the facts, and we were perplexed at the time. How could that not have been? After all, this was an entirely new dimension of war, to us at least.

It took this site editor a good long while to realize that it could not have been otherwise. And our godless adversaries had figured that out and were able to take full advantage of our cultural ignorance, some might say weakness.
Updated: 01 Jan 2009

John Dean of the Nixon Administration and Watergate fame
Book Review with commentary

We quote from Publisher's Weekly

"Few critics have as effectively put the disparate pieces together, linking them to what Dean says is a broader pattern of secrecy from an administration that does its best to control the flow of information on every subject ... and uses executive privilege to circumvent congressional scrutiny."

See also: John Dean's own remarks on this.
Pseudo-Science, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time

Michael Shermer

Extended Book Review

The publisher of Skeptic magazine both enlightens us with a lot of material new to us, and disturbs us with his insights to the effect that the human condition may be so rigid that peaceful living may remain a dream of idealism. In any event, his broad background in biology, psychology, and the history of science enables him to bring consilience to the core of his methods in "debunking bunk," to use his term. And that makes his position compelling to those open enough to follow his insights and take them to heart. Nevertheless, his insights also need to be looked at skeptically. You are remiss if you do not, for there is much for most of us to learn--one of them being the practice of being a skeptic.
A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths
Bruce Feiler
Book Review with commentary

To know Abraham, one must also know something of one's self as well as of his scribes. With stunning insights, Feiler leads us through the hundreds of descriptions of Abraham across three faiths.
Lee Alan Dugatkin

Extended Book Review

Even Darwin was plagued by doubts. For a decade he pondered and tweaked his theory until he heard Wallace was preparing a manuscript. Moved at last to polish his notes, he published his pioneering “Origins of the Species.” One of Darwin’s reservations was the simple question, "If natural selection and survival of the fittest is the true state of affairs in nature, why are there so many examples of goodness in so many species." In the fifteen decades that have elapsed since Darwin pondered the question, not that much has changed in the public mind. Dugatkin explains that while that may be so, it is not the true state-of-the-art for evolutionary theory. In fact, Dugatkin relates vividly how Darwin’s legacy has evolved to the point where not only does goodness arise through Darwinian selection, it can be reduced to a simple cost / benefit equation from economic theory that contains a factor derived directly from the degree of relatedness between individuals. In each case, mystery upon mystery suddenly found a common explanation. This occurred mostly under the public radar over the last half century or so. Dugatkin relates how seven British, Russian, and American scientists played prominent roles.
Edward O Wilson

Book Review with Commentary

Readable, accessible, dramatic, and profound, Wilson is at once a first-rank scientist and storyteller. He wrote a book we could not put down until we finished it. And then we felt like reading it again. We grew up believing that nothing could be more complex than Einstein's theory of gravity. We were wrong. The human brain is far more complex and difficult to predict than a mere apple falling from a tree! As Wilson patiently explains, human behaviors arise from the brain and are in fact multiples more complex than physical laws known to date. Furthermore, Wilson convincingly argues, human behavior (psychology and sociology) is a consilient branch of science, at least so far. He is not an absolutist. The only real axe he grinds is consilience itself, and his axe is finely honed. For example, he explains nicely how evolution itself gives rise to our humanistic as well as existential belief systems. Each is an epigenetic expression of our genes.
Creative insights come with a rush sometimes, but slowly is the usual route. The whipsaw feature of Authoritarianism is one of those insights.
By William J. Lederer
co-author of The Ugly American.
Book Review with commentary

It is astonishing to read how things never change, even when one knows what seems to be a law of “civilized America.” Lederer was not prescient. He just reported the events of his day as an historian would—objectively. This book first published 46 years ago, went through two re-printings within a year.
Dispatch from Ground Zero
Harry Rosenberg

Fourteen years, nearly a generation, have passed since those awful days in 1994. From America, we can only know what we read or hear from others about how things are going. When an opportunity arose to spend some time in Rwanda, we grabbed the chance. Were our perceptions right? If not, where did we go wrong, and, more-importantly, why? It turned out that we were missing a great deal of detail--not surprising--except some of it matters.

The ultimate fascist is the sociopath, or the more frightening moniker—psychopath. As we have discussed elsewhere, there is no difference between these terms. Sociopaths are quite sane and in full control of their senses. What sets them apart is their lack of any conscience. The most dangerous ones are those with smarts and charisma. Hitler literally held his audiences spellbound, sometimes for an hour or more. Fortunately, true fascists have come to power only twice in spite of a dozen or more serious efforts.