I am glad that we are leaving the one-sided views of issues that demand a balanced view.  For example, we have long thought that criminals should be held entirely responsible for their behaviors.  Then we discovered that they may have biochemical reasons to act in anti-social matters.  So we became a little more understanding, and were better able to prevent some criminality via drugs or other preventative measures.

But in assessing the impact of, say, our genes (see My genes made me do it) on our behavior, we can swing all the way to the extreme where we excuse behaviors entirely, and in doing so, fail to assign any responsibility for a transgressor’s actions to them.   Now, a recent article in New Scientist, entitled They made me do it, discusses a similar trend in crimes done within an influential peer group.

It was horrific.  Soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison tortured prisoners.  But were they entirely responsible for their actions?  Were they really perverted, mean, sick sadistic pschopaths, or were they merely regular people influenced by a difficult environment?  And if the latter, how does that affect their culpability, and their punishments handed down by the courts?

1. The profile of one such prison guard:

Staff Sergeant Ivan “Chip” Frederick was one of them. It was not the
only abuse he perpetrated at Abu Ghraib. Among other things, he
admitted making three prisoners masturbate while his colleagues looked
on, and thumping another so hard in the chest that he had to be
resuscitated. Most people would label Frederick as morally corrupt, a
classic “bad apple”. The judge at his trial certainly did. He sentenced
him to eight years in jail, handed down a dishonourable discharge, and
removed his salary and pension. Frederick deserved severe punishment,
the judge argued, because he was exercising free will when he committed
the acts. But was he?

2. How good fathers and husbands turn into monsters

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo from Stanford University in California
thinks not. He believes the judge was guilty of the “fundamental
attribution error” – overestimating the effects of someone’s
temperament on their behaviour and underestimating the effects of the
environment in which they were acting.
Zimbardo was an expert witness
on Frederick’s defence team. He interviewed him at length before the
trial and carried out extensive psychological tests. He found no hint
of mental illness or sadistic tendencies in Frederick. “In many ways
this soldier was an American icon: a good husband, father and worker,
patriotic, religious, with many friends and a history of having lived a
most normal, moral small town life,” says Zimbardo. Then he went to Abu
Ghraib and turned into a monster.

3. Group think: we are all susceptible to the various group scenarios

In each of these scenarios, personal culpability is lessened due to various factors, highlighted below.

  • Mob mentality –  anonymity and imitation are the important factors
  • Group mentalitypersonal allegiance to leaders, comrades, and the community

4. Polarization – the natural progression when people of like mind isolate themselves

When any group of like-minded people get together, the result can be
equally alarming. One common effect is that the group ends up taking a
more extreme position than the one its members started with – it
becomes polarised.

For example, a group of people who begin a discussion believing George
Bush’s policies on Iraq are merely ill-advised may finish convinced
that his policies are insane. Cass Sunstein, professor of law and
political science at the University of Chicago has identified two

First, in like-minded groups you tend to hear only arguments
that support your own viewpoint, which is bound to reinforce it.
addition, people are always comparing themselves with others and will
shift their position so as not to appear out of line.
The same kind of
thinking is behind the phenomenon known as “risky shift” in which
adolescents, already prone to risky behaviour, are even more inclined
to throw caution to the wind when they are with their peers.

5. Polarization and groupthink are magnified by a need for cohesion, a sense of power (which bolsters member self-esteem), manipulative leaders, and manifest themselves in the suppression of dissent.

Polarisation is related to another form of group psychology known as
groupthink, where members strive for cohesion at the expense of all
else. Maintaining cohesion can give a group a sense of power and
bolster the self-esteem of its members, but it can also lead them to
make bad and dangerous decisions.
“When group cohesion is based on
congeniality, criticising ideas means attacking the source of group
says Clark McCauley, director of the Solomon Asch Center for
Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at the University of Pennsylvania,
Philadelphia. As with social cascades and polarisation, problems often
arise when people rely on what they think others know and fail to share
useful information they might have.
This mistake can be compounded by
the influence of a manipulative leader.

6. Crisis (real or imagined) leads to group think

Are you thinking global warming yet?

Another situation in which we are all prone to assuming a strong group
mentality is at times of crisis. This explains why support for national
leaders increases in wartime – and why George Bush achieved almost
unanimous backing for his “war on terror” after 9/11.

7. What do we do to discourage groupthink and polarization?

  • For a start, we should discourage isolated cliques of like-minded
    people and encourage people with opposing views to speak out
    – and that
    applies whether you are trying to prevent terrorism or elect a new
    school head [or come to consensus on Global Warming].
  • The flip side of this is that we should recognise that
    extremist groups are usually remarkably homogenous in terms of the
    interests, political affiliations, age and socioeconomic status of
    their members [which can help Intelligence services in the discovery of fellow extremists)
  • Understand that the wider social environment influences the decisions made by groups. …. “This is
    particularly encouraging as it shows a way of reversing a process that
    otherwise can increase public support for terrorism,” he says.

But still, even if the group influences a person, aren’t they still responsible for their behavior and decisions?  Should my punishment be lessened because I said “my genes/peer group/devil made me do it?”  I think not.  But understanding these dynamics can helps us individually resist them, and corporately, to intervene in ways that positively influence the environment.