Sunday, April 11, 2010


I’m just finishing up Phillip Zimbardo’s 2008, New York Times bestseller, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.

Zimbardo, a boyhood friend and schoolmate of Stanley Milgrim, author of Obedience to Authority, was fairly well-known prior to The Lucifer Effect for his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) in which normal mentally healthy male college students randomly separated into either “prisoners” or “guards,” almost immediately internalized their roles: “guards” became increasingly abusive and “prisoners” often became obedient to the point of participating in cruel and demeaning tasks designed off-the-cuff by the “guards.”

The SPE, I learned from the book, is but one data point in the body of social psychology research that has looked at the behavior of otherwise normal people who find themselves in situations or working in systems that condone, encourage, or fail to stop behavior that would ordinarily be deemed cruel or monstrous.

The early part of the book is dedicated to a reenactment of the SPE, replete with much transcribed dialog and comment. It is a bit tedious. The middle section of the book is engrossing and provides insight into the characteristics of situations that can and have led to many instances of abuse and widespread atrocity. The latter part of the book is a look at the system and situation that led to the abuses that occurred during the Bush administration’s War on Terrorism.

For anyone with an interest in the factors that lead to the expression of the dark side of human behavior, The Lucifer Effect will be worth your time.

One commonality in many of the instances of abusive behavior, both in the controlled scientific studies and the historic episodes surveyed by Zimbardo is the dehumanization of the enemy, prisoners, or intended victims. Seeing someone as less-than-human apparently invites ill-treatment and even extermination. Zimbardo says repeatedly throughout the book that dehumanization goes far in explaining how and why someone feels motivated and empowered to harm someone else.

I was struck by this observation and Zimbardo’s consistent reliance on it to explain so many people’s abusive and even murderous behavior. Zimbardo does not need to explain to his readers why dehumanization is synonymous with the permission to inflict harm because it is an a priori assumption that hurting and killing non-humans isn’t a very serious matter and that it is even to be expected.

This deep and largely unexamined assumption is the bedrock upon which rest institutional guidelines governing animal care and use.

This goes a long way in explaining why, in an institution like the University of Wisconsin-Madison, animals are treated so poorly, situations that contribute to their detriment and suffering are allowed to continue for so long, why the internal inspections are so cursory and ineffectual, and why job performance related to the quality and efficacy of oversight of animal care and use is of little concern to the administration.

The system itself is intended to exploit to the fullest those who don’t need to be dehumanized because they aren’t human. Given the key role that dehumanization has played in atrocities like the Holocaust, the Rwandan massacres, the Rape of Nanking, the Melai massacre, the hundreds of instances of abuse and murder of prisoners during the War on Terrorism, and so very many others cases, it should come as no surprise that animals are abused so often in situations designed specifically for their systematic exploitation.

What Zimbaro’s and others’ work demonstrates is that those who are generally kind and compassionate easily transform into monsters in the right situation. The people involved in the atrocities named above were not exceptionally bad people; they were and are you and me. The evidence seems clear that our behavior is controlled to an overwhelming degree by the circumstances we find ourselves in. This explains why no one did anything about the boar who was unable to walk without falling down because of the inappropriate and slippery surface in the pen he was being kept in by researchers at UW-Madison. It is the "normal" behavior of those who work around the animals -- created and condoned by the system and situation they find themselves in -- to ignore the animals’ plight.

A recurring argument defending the use of animals is that they were made to be used by us; first, it is sometimes argued, by God, but now through our breeding programs. So not only are they less than human, and thus OK to harm, but additionally, they were made by us to be harmed, plastering on a further layer of justification for the suffering we heap upon them.

In the vernacular of the labs (and in most other industrial settings using animals), animals raised to be used as experimental subjects (or as food or fiber) are termed: purpose-bred. Using purpose-bred animals, it is argued, is less odious than using wild-caught ones. [See for instance: This Monkey Died for You. OHSU animal researchers fire back at their critics. Willamette Week, March 31st, 2010.] Set on a human stage, the weakness and ugliness of this argument becomes clear: would it be less immoral to raise children for the sex trade than to kidnap them off the street?

If dehumanization explains in large part our inhumanity to one another, it isn't difficult to see why people who hurt animals are confused by the arguments and outrage of their critics.

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