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Chapter: Psychology: Social Psychology

Social Psychology

Leaning over the corpse of Manadel al-Jamadi, U.S.Army specialist Sabrina Harman flashes a thumbs-up and a smile.

Social Psychology

Leaning 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.


A 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.


Following 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?


The 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 psychologically “normal.”

And 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.”


You 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.


As 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.


Perhaps 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.

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