Friday, May 21, 2004

You're wrong, Mr. Saletan

In his quest to make his case that the Abu Ghraib soldiers were merely "bad apples", Mr. Saletan tries to diminish any connection between the lessons of Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) conducted by Zimbardo and what happened at Abu Ghraib.

In doing so, he tramples all over the important features of the SPE, pulling out a few aspects between the two that don't match, crowing triumphantly over his victory. My first reaction: You are wrong, Mr. Saletan.

And in the week that followed his essay, I see he responded to his readers on his next essay. I bet he got a lot of responses. Kudos to him. But I still don't agree with him.

But first off, my issues. Mr. Saletan diminishes the lessons derived from the SPE totally, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.

The biggest point of the SPE is it shows the importance of the social system and how that system impacts the behavior of the individual. It says that most people, given the right circumstances, have the capacity to do heinous things to other humans.

Regarding the right circumstances, Zimbardo says:
    In a situation that implicitly gives permission for suspending moral values, many of us can be morphed into creatures alien to our usual natures.
However, this experiment doesn't say personal responsibility has a role in a person's behavior. This experiment is more about how power without oversight can affect our behavior.

A bit of background on the Stanford Prison Experiment: Zimbardo selected a group of college students, screened them for the presence of any mental disorder, and randomly divided the kids into guards and soldiers. While this was an arrangement to last two weeks, Zimbardo ended the experiment in 6 days after finding the guards were being... inappropriate.

The surprising thing to him was how easily and quickly this occurred.

What Saletan struggles with in his first essay are valid issues concerning social psychology experiments: generalizability or external validity.

How generalizable is an experiment to a real life situation? In this case, are the results of the SPE generalizable to what happened at Abu Ghraib?

He tries to debunk the generalizability of the SPE in his first essay, bringing up three points. Regarding the specifics Saletan brings up, he's correct superficially. Those points are not the same in the two situations. Social psychology experiments never duplicate real life situations 100%. This is acknowledged.

But in this case, Saletan argues "excluded factors often turn out more important than included ones". My take is the similarities between the two go beyond the excluded factors Saletan mentions.
    1. Personality. Saletan implies the Abu Ghraib guys were not your typical normal college student. They aren't the same. However, only one Abu soldier so far has a history. This doesn't explain the rest of the soldiers. If anything, the SPE shows the normal college student, who under Saletan's assumptions would be less violent, is in fact capable of horrible things, too.

    2. Race. Ummm. Mr. Saletan mixes up race with cultural identity here. To further confuse the issue, he goes on to conflate racial issues with identity and power in his supporting argument. He says the Stanford experiments, everyone was white, well except for the Asian guy. In Abu, "the guards were American but the prisoners were Iraqis". Okay. It turns out one guard is African American. He brings up differences in country of origin, Americans/Iraqis; that is not the same as race. In fact, he goes on to argue about power differences between guards and prisoners. This is a different issue than race or nationality.

    3. Supervisor's input. This is where recent revelations may make a difference in Saletan's argument.

I do agree with Saletan about the importance of personal responsibility. But I take issue with this statement:
    The point of the Stanford experiment, after all, was to discredit personal responsibility.
The SPE doesn't say the situation is to blame entirely for your behavior. It says power in the right circumstances can result in heinous behavior. Nowhere does it exempt a person from their behavior. The SPE shows people can do terrible things in a relatively innocuous situation, a fake one; it doesn't say it's okay to do these things and you can blame the situation for it. I think this is where Saletan gets all pissy but he's getting that way from drawing the wrong implications.

But I guess he doesn't really want to focus on how these conditions were created, which are 'situational'. It seems more and more the situational issues might be more deliberate than we all first thought. My guess is that if Saletan does look more closely, he may have to look at how the system stinks, a problem that goes all the way up the chain of command. By that, I'm talking about the guys who are sitting on top of the whole pile of dung, our neocon guys who got us all into this mess in the first place.