Left to Right: Aaron Beck, Frank Farley, and Phil Zimbardo [Photo by Fenichel]
EVIL, HATE, AND HORROR - |
A Conversation with Aaron T. Beck, Philip G. Zimbardo, and Frank Farley
As the distinguished panel prepared to discuss one of the most pressing issues of our time, Zimbardo took off his jacket to reveal a drawing of Zimbardo-as-devil on his t-shirt, to the delight of the audience. Dr. Farley mentioned Beck's recent book, Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence, and Zimbardo described his latest book project, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Of course, this has been an area of expertise for Zimbardo since the days of his "Prison Experiment" at Stanford, a study now entrenched in the annals of classic psychology experiments and one which launched all sorts of research in the field of social psychology and the study of aggression. Farley noted just how important this area is, now more than ever in this warring world, and wondered, "If psychology doesn't have a solution science in this area, who does?"
Beck began by observing that "horror, hate, and evil are the kind of words that get the gastric juices flowing. I much prefer to speak about behavior." That said, he noted the use of the word hate in his own recent book, but stated that he would refrain from using such inflammatory words in today's discussion. He went on to comment, "I think Phil and I complement each other very well because I focus on internal dynamics and he focuses on external factors." He believes we need to look at individual violence as well as organized, group violence. "I work with individuals", Beck said, "but I first became involved with violence when I was working with couples". He told the story of a woman who came in for treatment after her husband punched her in the mouth. The reason, it seemed, for the outburst was because she called someone else to help take out the trash, which husband had not done in some time. What the husband heard was: You're a no good slacker, not a real man, and he felt massively wronged and saw her as a witch. "She feels let down, he feels put down." She used to think of him as strong, reliable, etc., but now she sees him becoming 'evil' and for him she's become a witch, "almost with a broomstick". The behavior erupted in response to these images they had of each other rather than a specific provocation (e.g., the garbage).
Beck went on to say that he does believe also in the phenomenon of group violence, though his own focus has been at the level of the individual.
Zimbardo agreed that he and Beck share some "common denominators" in their frameworks. Zimbardo shared a bit of his own background: "I grew up in the South Bronx. I was always wondering how people I thought were good people ended up in jail." At the same time he noticed that "if you grow up rich, everyone wants to take credit - it's in your character, your good Protestant background." And so on.
So in terms of inner dynamics versus external factors, Zimbardo sees a complementary relationship, as does Beck. He recalled the star football players circa the World War II era, when Army had the best football team in the country. The star was known as "Mr. Inside" for his scoring runs. "That's Beck", Zimbardo says, while he is more likely identified with another player known as "Mr. Outside". "Beck has been spending his life trying to understand internal processes [while] my argument is that psychology has erred in stopping there, with what individuals bring to a situation."
Zimbardo was an expert witness in hearings about the Abu Ghraib torture and humiliation of prisoners. He shared that in his access to documents he was amazed at how bad things actually were, even beyond what made it out into the news. He wants to understand the reasons for such "evil": "Who creates those situations in which good people do evil?" He concludes that often "it's the system", within a society whose medical/psychiatric focus is on the individual. "If we really want to understand evil", he continued, "we have to have a triadic analysis. What do the [protagonists] bring in? What is the *context*? [e.g., Columbine, Abu Ghraib]. Who created the structure and what do we need to do to change it?" We still live within a medical model, not necessarily acknowledging the contributions of psychology, including cognitive study. "It's all about what's inside a person's head. With the medical model when there is a problem you change the person. [The individual.] What we need is public health policy!"
How do we begin to change the systems which create the behaviors we want to change? "We have erred in focusing on individuals. When millions of people have the same problem, we have to ask: what's wrong with the system?" At Stanford Zimbardo would often hear about students' "alienation" and he was asked about this: What would happen if there were like 1000 students presenting at the clinic for treatment? His response was that if some feeling was so endemic, they should look to see what's going on in the dorms. Social groups are a vital factor, and part of the context. He pointedly asserted that "the kid [who mass-murdered so many students] at Virginia Tech, that shouldn't have happened. What did he say? 'I gave you warnings.' In the old days they'd just suck it up [if angry and alienated]. Today they have guns."
Related to this, Beck described a study of violence in the South where he observed "there are subcultures which in fact *encourage* violence in response to things like being disrespected. [And] messages instigate violence, like propaganda, Hitler for example. In the South there's a particular rule: If a man is disrespected in some way, the offender must be punished. This rule was *encouraged* by the church." Often too, parents encourage children to fight back, "or in the future you'll be vulnerable to further attack". And so violent response may be on a hair trigger.
Dr. Farley commented: "My biggest concern is: what are we going to do about this? We've had horror and evil for 1000's of years. We're very good with theory. Are we actually making the world a better place? Are we humanizing the world? Twenty-five percent of the world's prisoners are in US prisons, not only for harming others but for putting things in their own bodies."
Farley gave advance "heads up" that he will be on 20/20 in Sept/Oct as part of a segment exploring violence on YouTube and the Internet. He's observed the apparent "thrill value" of watching violent acts, for example a video of a group of teens bludgeoning someone to death, and being thrilled by it. "Rob a 7-11 [food store]? The money in the till is only a small part of it." [The rest is the thrill.]
With regards to engaging in terrorism, Farley has observed that "what gets them in the door in some cases may be this thrill factor. It's exciting. In America they may do extreme sports for release but in some places it might be terrorism."
Zimbardo asked, "Why are we fascinated with evil?" and proceeded to speak about its nature:
"Evil is the exercise of power to intentionally harm people psychologically, or to hurt or kill..." One can hardly imagine the sense of power in taking a plane and destroying the WTC and killing 3000 people. But "once it's imaginable you know you can do it." He said he's not thinking in terms of "copycat" crimes, though that can be a factor. "It's the exercise of power." To this day, if you show a snippet of Hitler giving a speech, people are spellbound; "people are fascinated by his destruction of millions of Jews and gypsies and others." There is also a fascination with dictators and their exercise of raw power. "It's captivating. As Kissinger said, 'there's an aphrodisiac of power'." How to counter-balance this age-old phenomenon of human nature? Zimbardo thinks the solution might be to introduce "competing heroes" - positive ones. [This conforms with some of the thoughts of Bandura, Seligman, and others who spoke about moral/behavioral issues and the need for positive *leadership*.]
Beck observed that on an individual level, "We internalize images, and may feel external stimuli [but] they do not in themselves create violence. There are several steps: 1) People feel vulnerable or defeated; 2) they want to do something to get rid of the negative image; 3) they have an impulse to act. But not always violently. There does seem to be a disinhibition now: 'It's OK to employ violence.'" During the Korean War, for a different perspective, research showed that "only 20% of foot soldiers actually fired their weapons at others. They did not feel like shooting others." So they were trained in shooting at targets which looked like the enemy, and the reticence to shoot became disinhibited. "Perhaps", he speculated, "we could work to *fortify* the inhibitions". Meanwhile in some places, like Korea, violence is a complete taboo, as is even making derogatory statements about others.
Zimbardo picked up on this stream, commenting that "war is the disinhibiting of violence. It is also a way of saying that our system engages in killing people as a means of dealing with conflict. After wars, by the way, homicide rates go up."
The question has been posed, "Why do Palestinians become suicidal bombers?" In essence, "it's the perfect combination of person, situation, and system." Fuel is added to the hatred level with a lot of emotion and sloganeering ("Kill the Jews!" etc.) In homes the conversations are about a sense of injustice. Do they really want to kill? One reason they follow through is their system, where future martyrs are given training and then prepare a video, where they are wearing a headband declaring "I am a martyr". The video is sent to the home and the martyr pictures posted on the streets. The family is given a tidy sum (around $20,000 is the current rate) and all celebrate the imminent trip to join Allah and reap the awards of martyrdom. Zimbardo made the point that "nobody commits suicide bombing as an individual act". It's all systemic. The future martyrs are told not to worry, they won't feel anything and before a drop of blood is spilled they'll be in heaven. So there's a system and a "cover story". Again, one needs to consider what an individual brings to the situation AND what is the system.
Farley commented that Marshall McLuhan spoke presciently a decade ago, about a global village. Now there is disinhibition on a large scale AND there is Internet. "The Internet is an incredible means of letting it all hang out. And Reality TV: Degradation and humiliation!" Now what's good about all this? Nothing. "I fully expect snuff films to appear on YouTube. And HOW DO YOU STOP THIS? Anyone with sick, twisted ideas now has a mechanism to get their ideas out there."
The discussion was opened up to include the audience now:
QU - 13% of people in Palestine dream of being suicide bombers. What about the other 87%?
A- [Zimbardo] You are obviously part of the Seligman, positive psychology movement! What is best about human nature... we need a paradigm shift to get there.
QU- With regard to power. Is it all bad?
A- [Beck] "There's Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela - power can do good. Bill Gates now uses the power of his money to vaccinate children of the world."
A- [Zimbardo] "We need 'ordinary heroes'. There should be 'heroes of the week'! Most heroic acts are acts by ordinary people." Some tenets of heroism: 1) You take action while others are passive; you ignore your mother's advice and get involved. 2) You take action on behalf of *others*, being sociocentric, not egocentric. I'm not speaking of altruism; I'm talking about an action. The way to address evil is to implant this heroic imagination in children. Teach them that they can do good! We can begin to inoculate our children against evil by promoting good."
Farley: "And who are the #1 heroes according to research? Parents. And teachers. We need to use their power." He, like Seligman, spoke as to positive directions we might go, using education and leadership, and modeling heroes .
QU (psychology student/attorney) - What can we do to model (positive) risk taking behavior [when for example] we have one of the Attorney Generals fired for refusing to follow an order to not prosecute someone [believed to be violating the law - for political reasons]?
Zimbardo noted that a big obstacle is endemic in huge institutions: "Institutions resist change! The most interesting thing about psychology is we study behavior *change*. But APA is an institution, it relies on funding, etc. It's hard to change an institution [which is] why we are resisting going to the next level in the [international] efforts at fighting torture."
And then there are appearances. "Suppose you had a task force on sexism with 9 men and 1 woman. Who makes the decision to make biased conclusions? How did a panel reach a conclusion consistent with the Bush agenda? [See his commentary about this on his web site.] We have a big military division [within APA], funding sources, etc., and we want to keep everyone in the fold."
Farley: "Both Phil and I are past APA Presidents [and we know]: As organizations are larger, we often squeeze out the risk-taking factor. Tomorrow morning, by the way, there is a meeting on reforming the APA with some radical proponents like Nick Cummings."
QU - Any reactions to Al Gore's book on the "Decline of Reason"?
A - Beck: "I haven't seen the book and can't address that but I'd like to address a question nobody has asked: How do you change the system? I consider myself a psychologist - although I only took one course in psychology. First, we can't be grandiose, thinking we can change the whole world. But we can use analysis and try to have some sort of impact, using conflict resolution theory for example. I think reason is moving to the front stage. [In Ireland] British politics have harmed all sides. It took Tony Blair, plus a separate, less visible process. First comes the behavioral change and then cognitive. Have people exposed to easy life. Now [in Ireland] they are working on conflict resolution skills, role playing, etc. Catholics and Protestants. At the top level - the role of psychologists if they have any influence at all, is to influence the top people."
A - Zimbardo: "Bandura, yesterday, described how Mexico is working with comic book and video makers, influencing behavior based on the notion of observational learning. Many people [there] live on soap operas. So they started building in little messages, like the importance of literacy, family planning, etc. This program is now being exported around the world, including Africa, where truck drivers are stopping and picking up prostitutes, and spreading AIDS. How do we bring a message to where people go? [That's the question, and in answering it there has been some impact.] They're changing literacy rates, family planning... You start at the level of the individual but then provide pro-social messages in a venue where people voluntarily submit themselves to propaganda."
QU- Beck mentioned destructive violence. Is there "creative violence"? Zimbardo, you mentioned Bandura and his notion of moral disengagement. Yet people commit horrific acts premised on moral ENGAGEMENT - their version. And what about kids who see suicide bombers as heroes? And Gore's notion that reason is on the decline?
A- Beck: "Here's my 2 cents. I'm puzzled by the question about 'creative violence'. Are there times when violence is justified? I imagine, when you've been attacked. And some religionists believe in 'justifiable war', while some feel war is never justified." Beck said he would personally advocate for "creative NON violence", as did Ghandi.
A- Zimbardo shared that he did not enjoy his work with the military, since "as awful as we saw in the pictures at Abu Ghraib, the military is doing all sorts of horrendous things" such as raping a young girl and murdering the whole family, and burning down the house. "These are reservists, not trained soldiers" and their credo was basically simply to "soften them up for interrogation". At no time were they instructed to "do no harm". The sentences handed down were light to none, despite obvious instances of premeditated murder (which got changed to "negligent homicide"). Again we have the issue of what a system will bear. "The system says, 'we want to keep the morale of soldiers up. If we send them all to jail for murder and rape, it won't be good for morale.' In the same way, one might wonder, 'Why don't we just sign on to a moratorium?' Because in the system there are so many competing interests."
Farley: "War is Hell. So how do we stop it? How do we humanize the world so in 1000 years we're not still discussing the horrors of war?"
QU- What about the language being used in the debates over immigration policy? Some would argue for functioning not from a position of hate, but a position of preserving the good. Those in power think they're doing good.
A- Zimbardo: "Right. They are defending the nation, the religion... [But] if this is the Lord's work we're really in trouble! The human mind is incredible in its ability to justify any means to an end. Skillful leaders know how to choose the right slogan to justify the need for war. Nobody does bad, it's all good. It gets down to semantics, like Orwell's 1984".
A- Beck: "There's a common denominator. We're all seeing this type of phenomenon in our work with patients. In working with couples it's always the case that one sees the other as victimizer and themselves as the victim. That's essentially human nature. Caesar talked about how the poor soldiers had been victimized. Same with the Nazis; they portrayed themselves as the victims."
A- Zimbardo: Why are we in Iraq? Because after 9/11 the Bush administration realized that in order to maintain power they need for the first time in history to make us feel that we've been victimized. War on terror? Is that like war on poverty? How do we justify going into a country which has not attacked us? WMD, and all that? It was to promote fear and make us feel victimized. Lies! The goal before the last election was to raise the fear level, using a tape about a planned attack which was actually made before 9/11! Congress bought it. The public bought it - 70%. As a rule there are no evil people, only evil deeds - with this little asterisked footnote: See Dick Cheney for the exception. [Much applause and laughter]
QU- How would you explain the increase in negative portrayals of Muslims? What can we do to change this negative imaging?
A- Beck: "Good question. Our population is feeling vulnerable, like after Pearl Harbor. They wanted to eliminate a 5th column and anyone resembling the enemy became suspicious. Sort of like a smoke alarm. It may go off in error, but we pay attention to them. What's the answer? A few good people need to speak up, and a few brave people need to go public."
A- Zimbardo: "Detention camps! In World War 2 the sons of Japanese were soldiers, heroes! And they came home to visit their families and found them in the 'camps'! Now it's 'all Muslims' and 'all yellow races'... and it becomes 'all people who are different.' Anyone who is not me, anyone who looks different. And these are the sources of fear and prejudice."
[Beck bid farewell 15 minutes from the end as he needed to get to an event where he was to be given an award for lifetime achievement. He received a standing ovation and was embraced by Zimbardo.]
QU- Re Ghandi. Big gestures get seen, but how do we focus on the little changes which need to be made?
A- Zimbardo: "Yes, Ghandi. And Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. You need individual leaders. In fact you need 3 people at least to follow a leader in order to become effective. .... The system will tend to alienate people from 'the troublemaker', as we saw in the Prison experiment: the guards organized the *prisoners* against other prisoners, the 'troublemakers'. Divide and conquer. If the troublemakers persisted then nobody would get any food."
QU - Dr. Ellis had his approach, and there was 'unconditional regard'... What would be effective in modeling positive directions?
A- Zimbardo: "Yes, how do we model altruism, compassion? 'Heroism' goes one step further. To me the key is that to be a hero you need to take *action*. And there is inhibition. People just use words. Look at Bush and 'compassionate conservatism' - as compassionate as a boa constrictor!"
QU - follow-up - Not everyone will take action. And there are contrasts between others and say, Bush.
A- Farley: "Yes, like the new Prime Minister of Great Britain, Gordon Brown, a Ph.D. who has written two books." The first - "Courage" - uses Farley's research on heroism as part of the narrative.
QU- When I was young I played cops and robbers, played with plastic guns and so forth. Is this play a good 'outlet' or a precursor to violence?
A- Zimbardo, referring in part to more recent trends in "play" with realistic shooting/maiming "games": "The purpose of some games is to blow people apart. It produces, at the least, a 'psychic numbing'. It's almost a sexual thing with guys. In the Army they are using video games as training modules. What Tim [Beck] said about Korea, about soldiers not shooting - this has changed. It's not true any more. People are comfortable shooting guns. It just lowers general revulsion against killing, against blowing someone apart."
Farley: "And young people today are literally living inside the media, living on the Internet... Look at Tim Beck - 86 years old and he has an avatar and is active on 2nd Life! "
"In some people, [the overall exposure to passive and interactive violence] *desensitizes*, in others it brings fear, and 3rdly - this is scary - it also gives people ideas.... You've got to stop the horror! And if anyone can do it, it's got to be us."
QU about decision-making as to the directions of social activism.
Zimbardo: "I am a social change activist. I have always sought to promote positive change. It's incumbent upon us. It's a *privilege* to be able to see these issues and play a role. We have to always work for humanity."