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May 11, 2004

Roots of Iraqi Prison Abuse Seen in Famous 60's Psychology Experiments

As news coverage of the abuse and torture of Iraqi POWs at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib Prison continues, many Americans are trying to fathom what made the accused U.S. soldiers behave so inhumanely towards other human beings.

More puzzling still is the question of why some soldiers blew the whistle while others carried out violations of the Geneva Conventions so routinely that souvenir snapshots were taken.

There are many historical precedents of soldiers "just following orders" and comparisons to My Lai and the Holocaust have already been made in the mass media, but perhaps the most troubling questions about Abu Ghraib are the underlying ones about human nature and authority.

Thomas Blass, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), thinks many of the answers lie in his research and writing about the work of Dr. Stanley Milgram, one of the most controversial psychologists in modern history, known for his experiments on obedience to authority.

"We should all be shocked by the sheer humiliating, degrading aspect of it," Blass said in a recent Houston Chronicle interview about the abuse at Abu Ghraib, "But...I'm not that surprised, given what we know about the power of an authority whom a person accepts as legitimate enough to dictate my behavior."

Milgram is best known for his "Obedience Experiments" carried out at Yale University in the 1960's. These experiments showed how 65% of test subjects repeatedly gave seemingly real and painful electrical shocks to another subject (actually an actor) just because a scientific authority figure running the experiment commanded them to.

Blass, a social psychologist and Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, has studied Milgram for 15 years and authored over 20 publications and an equal number of academic papers on Milgram's life and work, including a recent article for Psychology Today.

Blass recently completed "The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram" (Basic Books, 2004), which Library Journal called "among the best biographies of psychologists...highly recommended." He also runs the website, devoted to preserving Milgram's legacy and connecting his research to current events.

In 1965, Milgram, who is also famous for originating the "small world" or "Six Degrees of Separation" method, summed up his infamous obedience experiments with an observation that still echoes through today's headlines:

"A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority," Milgram said.

For more information on Blass, his book, and Stanley Milgram, please visit

Media Contact Information:

Thomas Blass
Professor of Psychology
University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)

Office: 410-455-2428

Personal Homepage:

Posted by dwinds1 at May 11, 2004 12:00 AM