Devil in the details

May 18, 2007

I agree in part with Steve Reicher's criticisms of Philip Zimbardo's famous experiment ("The devil inside us all", Features, May 11).

However, his legitimate concern that acceptance of social influences on behaviour may be used to excuse abusers and torturers as mere victims of circumstance may serve to further limit a full understanding of human behaviour.

The general tone of the main piece tends to endorse the view that Zimbardo uncovered some fundamental aspect of human nature (the devil inside us all), which makes us behave as a cruel prison officer or a submissive prisoner. The forces necessary to bring this "inner devil" to the fore are explained in terms of aspects of the immediate social situation that can be manipulated and controlled. Indeed, this is the standard explanation of mainstream social psychology.

But this narrow focus presents an oversimplified explanation of the causes of behaviour and negates engagement with wider social issues.

An understanding of the Abu Ghraib abuse in terms of the individuals involved in the immediate social situation is far too convenient. It seems that Zimbardo is once again ahead of the game in calling for us to consider the wider social forces.

Howard Taylor
Oxford

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