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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Social Psychology and the Military

The Abu Ghraib prison incident was definitely horrifying. The treatment of the prisoners who were tortured and abused by members of the United States military was both unacceptable and shocking. When I first read about this event; I immediately thought of the Stanford Prison Experiment and how this experiment correlated with such an incident like what happened at Abu Ghraib.

In the Stanford Prison Experiment, Philip Zimbardo used undergraduate students to re-create a prison environment, complete with guards and prisoners furnished with lifelike costumes and props (Zimbardo, 1999). In this experiment, prisoners and guards rapidly adapted to their roles. They even stepped outside their boundaries which led to dangerous and psychologically damaging situations (Zimbardo, 1999). Even Philip Zimbardo became so engrossed in his role of prison superintendent that he did not stop the experiment right away.

This shows how cognitive dissonance theory and the power of authority can make people do sadistic, unethical things. The results of the experiment supported situational attribution, the situation the prisoners and guards were in cause them to act in the way they did.

These theories can be applied to the situation that occurred at Abu Ghraib. Cognitive dissonance theory would suggest that these people were not normally sadistic people but that their behaviors caused dissonance to their original self-concept. The attribution theory could be used in this situation since the situation was ultimately said to be the reason why these people acted in such vicious ways.

The social group processes theory of groupthink can also explain the situation at Abu Ghraib. If some guards were participating in these horrible acts; they could deem this torture and abuse as the “norm.” In order to avoid appearing deviant, other guards could have conformed and participated in these immoral acts.

I think that the soldiers should be held accountable for their actions. I know that certain situations can make you act different; but the United States Military receives extensive training on the Law of Armed Conflict, The Geneva Conventions, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice (USMJ). I know this because I myself was in the military. We are taught the proper treatment of prisoners and how they should NOT be tortured or abused in anyway or you can get punished under the UCMJ. Although these soldiers might have been influenced by situational attribution, authority, and principles of groupthink; they should have taken a second to think about the consequences of their actions.


Zimbardo, P. G. (1999). The Stanford Prison Experiment. Retrieved August 27, 2009, from

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