over the corpse of Manadel al-Jamadi, U.S.Army specialist Sabrina Harman
flashes a thumbs-up and a smile. Were it not for the dead body in the
photograph, you might focus on how pretty she looks. But blood dribbles from
beneath Jamadi’s bandages, his bluish jaw is locked, and ice surrounds his
torso. Something very wrong has happened here.
few months after this picture was taken at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, the world
learned that indeed many wrongs had happened here. U.S. military police and CIA
interrogators killed Jamadi in November 2003 while interrogating him at the
prison. Other photographs revealed that U.S. soldiers and personnel routinely
tortured, humiliated, and sexually abused dozens of other prisoners—many of
whom were not guilty of any crime.
investigations, 12 soldiers, including Harman, were tried, convicted, sentenced
to federal prison, and dishonorably discharged from the military. Several years
have passed since the Abu Ghraib atrocities were revealed, but people are still
asking, Why did these seemingly normal soldiers behave so cruelly?
easy answer is that these soldiers were just evil, or “bad apples,” as some
American leaders suggested. But despite their photographed smiles, many
soldiers were bewildered by their own behavior. “I can’t handle what’s going
on. . . . What if it was me in their shoes?” wrote Harman in a letter home,
which was later excerpted in an article in the New Yorker. Moreover, all the soldiers had passed the Army’s
psychiatric evaluation, suggesting that at least when they enlisted, they were
so we look to the situation: Working in a wartime prison, with substandard food
and water, they were members of a large group of similarly trained, young
soldiers surrounded by enemies. Many were part-time reservists who joined the
military to earn money for college. In their hasty training, many had not
learned about the international laws protecting prisoners of war. In the
ambiguous and often frightening situation of Abu Ghraib, they looked to their
leaders to show them the way. And like good soldiers, they did what they were
told. “I was just fol-lowing orders” was their common defense, echoing so many
soldiers judged war criminals in the past. As the New Yorker article points out, by taking pictures of the prisoners
the Abu Ghraib guards “demonstrated two things: that they never fully accepted
what was happening as normal, and that they assumed they had nothing to hide.”
will learn about the many subtle reasons that ordinary people perform acts of
extraordinary evil—as well as extraordinary good. As it turns out, the common
thread that connects these explanations is that most human behavior is
trig-gered in part by other people.
you will also see, much of our everyday cognition resembles the work of social
psy-chologists. We all try to figure out why people behave as they do—an
activity called attri-bution. Like so much of our psychology, attribution is
strongly shaped by culture. Just as America’s leaders gave internal
explanations for the Abu Ghraib guards’ actions, Americans and Western
Europeans generally explain behavior in terms of internal, indi-vidual factors
like personality, moral goodness, psychiatric status, and mental state.
Meanwhile, much of the rest of the world tends to look outside the
individual—to situa-tions, environments, relationships, and histories—for clues
to account for people’s actions.
because of our cultural tendency to look inside people to explain their
actions, Americans and Western Europeans are often wary of social influences.
Yet there is no such thing as an isolated individual, free of context and
immune to others’ influences. Humans are hardy, long-lived, and widespread
precisely because we form social connections and cultural bonds that help us
make sense of our environments. This social nature is not just a source of bias
and wrongdoing, as it was at Abu Ghraib; it is also the root of our strength,
as individuals and as a species. To under-stand both our social vulnerabilities
and our social prowess, we must consider how people think about, influence, and
relate to one another.