In his TED talk on the ‘psychology of evil’, Philip Zimbardo discusses one of the most prominent cases of abuse of power in recent years, the abuse of detainees by US officials and Army personnel in Abu Ghraib prison, Iraq in 2003. Zimbardo’s analysis is particularly relevant today, given the ongoing investigation into alleged abuse of Iraqi detainees by British soldiers. Whilst it would be easy to condemn these prison officials for their behaviour, he focuses upon the processes that may have led to that situation arising – acknowledging that each of us, rather than existing as fixed entities of purely ‘good’ or ‘evil’, has the capacity for both good and bad. In doing this, Zimbardo’s approach might make us think about other times where people are constructed as ‘evil’ or ‘heroic’.
Traditionally, the social sciences (especially criminology) have argued about the causes of behaviour with two main heavyweights vying for power – theories which locate the cause of behaviours within the individual (they have free will to behave as they do); and those attributed to situational factors (their behaviour is determined by the situation they are in). It is a split that we might all have an opinion on, and often prompts fierce debate. However, rather than using these two groups, Zimbardo divides the potential influences on an individual’s behaviour into three categories:
• Individual factors determine a person’s disposition and their own free will. As Zimbardo terms it, “the bad apple”.
• Situational factors include external influences that affect an individual’s immediate situation. As he terms it, “the bad barrel”.
• Systematic factors concern the wider external influences on a person that relate to systems of power, such as policies and forms of governance. Zimbardo’s “bad barrel makers”.
Importantly, Zimbardo suggests that these three sets of factors interact and are dynamic – meaning that they potentially all influence our behaviour.
Using the example of Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo proposes that it was the giving of “power without oversight” which allowed these acts to occur, suggesting that this was a “prescription for abuse”. In locating (at least some of) the causal influences in the systemic and situational factors affecting the prison and those within it, Zimbardo moves away from an approach that only considers the individual’s blameworthiness, to one which considers the influences of the person’s surroundings, both immediately surrounding them and in wider governance systems. Additionally, Zimbardo acknowledges that the same situations can present opportunities for both ‘heroism’ and ‘evil’, citing the example of the official who reported the abuses in Abu Ghraib as an example of this heroism. Such an analysis could be applied to wider topics, such as criminal behaviour, corporate malfeasance or abuses of state power.
Although his proposals might be criticised (for example for not moving away from the categories of ‘heroism’ and ‘evil’, which in themselves are contestable), Zimbardo does give us all some food for thought. In an age where media coverage is obsessed with reporting on ‘evil’ rather than ‘heroic’ acts; actions are labelled as ‘morally wrong’ but remain legal (such as tax avoidance schemes, or paying tradesmen cash-in-hand), and accusations of abuses of power emerge in the UK (for example the parliamentary expenses ‘scandal’, or the hacking of mobile phones by major media institutions) – should we be going beyond only looking for the ‘bad apples’ or the ‘bad barrel’, and be looking too at the ‘bad barrel makers’?