Today’s papers are full of comment on the brilliant Panorama exposé of care
home abuse. But none have mentioned what jumped out at me: the parallels between this and the Stanford Prison Experiment. The way that the
tattooed Wayne treated his mentally ill patients is sickening — but, to me, this is not just a story about human evil. It’s a story about how institutionalisation brings out the evil in
people, and that this evil is far closer to the surface than we like to admit. Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford, randomly divided 25 volunteers to play the roles of prisoners and
guards in a poorly-regulated, mock prison. Before too long, the "guards" were inflicting torture on their "prisoners", who were taking the beating and even ganging up on other
prisoners at the guards’ request. It was stopped, at the request of Zimbardo’s girlfriend who feared even he was getting caught up in it. That was in 1972, and in 2004 Zimbardo wrote a
brilliant book, The Lucifer Effect, about this phenomenon.
What we saw in Panorama was criminal and deplorable. But were the people especially wicked, or sadistic? Perhaps. But they were also bored, paid £16k a year and operating in an environment
where abuse had become the norm. And this applies in all manner of situations. Put 50 boys aged 11 to 18 together in an ill-regulated boarding house, and it’ll turn into a massive game of
Lord of the Flies. No one (well, almost no one) believes that that Germany was an especially
wicked country, predisposed to Nazism. It was subjected to an almighty economic shock which Hitler exploited with his creed of National Socialism. Slavery was a norm pretty much the world over,
before Wilberforce and his predecessors raised objections. And that wasn’t because mankind was evil, just that it had been inured to evil.
I can feel CoffeeHousers revving up to denounce me for moral relativism, saying that man is a hapless victim of his environment. That’s not my position. There are always conscientious
objectors, and this groundbreaking Panorama was made possible by a former guard at Winterbourne View who risked his job and blew the whistle. Germany had its von Schwanenfelds. My point is that institutional environments are very good at incubating the dark side of human
nature: what Lynndie England did at Abu Ghraib was deplorable, but it is explained not just by the evil of one woman. It’s explained by the system that incubated and nurtured this evil, and
allowed this to happen.
That’s why the response to the Panorama episode should not simply be to lock up the "nurses" caught abusing the patients. It should be to look at how these institutions have been
allowed to operate in this way. To look at the way that, as Zimbardo says, "powerful but subtle situational forces can seduce
people into evil". the government’s priority should be to identify the "situational forces" at work in care homes and similar institutions — and remove them, without
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