Skip to content

The Savage in Us All

Many since the nineteenth century, including Ghandi and Churchill, have said that a society should be judged by how it treats its weakest members. They must be right – although of course it’s not the only relevant measure.

The Panorama programme which uncovered the systematic abuse of highly vulnerable people by staff at the Winterbourne View unit in Bristol provides good evidence that our society may be doing quite badly. The abuse is vicious and shocking. But it should not be surprising.

In 1971, Professor Philip Zimbardo, at Stanford University, carried out an experiment to study the psychological effects on human beings of becoming prisoners or prison guards. Here’s the description from Wikipedia (I know, I know…):

‘Twenty-four students were selected out of 75 to play the prisoners and live in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. Roles were assigned randomly. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond what even Zimbardo himself expected, leading the “Officers” to display authoritarian measures and ultimately to subject some of the prisoners to torture. In turn, many of the prisoners developed passive attitudes and accepted physical abuse, and, at the request of the guards, readily inflicted punishment on other prisoners who attempted to stop it. The experiment even affected Zimbardo himself, who, in his capacity as “Prison Superintendent,” lost sight of his role as psychologist and permitted the abuse to continue as though it were a real prison. Five of the prisoners were upset enough by the process to quit the experiment early, and the entire experiment was abruptly stopped after only six days.’

The course of the Stanford experiment is, of course, not an aberration. Countless other experiments, and indeed much of history, provide clear evidence that, if you give one group of human beings power over another, abuse – sometimes on a huge scale – is not unlikely to be the result.

What to do? In the case of care homes, I think it can help to consider which safeguards you would want in place if you were to end up in one (as any of us might, of course). For me, one part of the answer is simple: continual video monitoring and recording in all public spaces and audio in private (with consent where appropriate, of course). Human beings cannot be trusted, and it is time those who regulate, own, and run care homes woke up to that unpalatable fact.

Share on

9 Comment on this post

  1. Anthony Drinkwater

    The statements "you can't always trust people" and "no-one can be trusted" are far from identical. It seems to me that you have moved rapidly from the first to the second, despite the evidence trha

  2. Anthony Drinkwater

    The statements "you can't always trust people" and "no-one can be trusted" are far from identical. It seems to me that you have moved rapidly from the first to the second, despite the evidence that at least some of the staff at Winterbourne tried to blow the whistle, which contradicts the second statement.
    This enables you to come to the repellent conclusion that we should spy permanently on all vulnerable persons and their carers. Two brief comments :
    1. I wonder what the scope of this spying should be ? Prisons, hospitals, hostels, schools, military organisations, medical consulting rooms, IMF internal meetings …?
    2. Perhaps it would better to question why we collectively allow carers to be amongst the least esteemed and least well paid professions, and how we should collectively address the questions of status, training and reward for those who undertake taks that most of us refuse to undertake.

    1. Thanks, Anthony. Actually, my point was that, in certain circumstances, no-one can be trusted. I wasn't drawing that as an inference from the claim that some people can't be trusted. Experiments such as the Stanford and many others suggest that it is a strong possibility that any one of us will treat others violently in certain circumstances. This may not *actually* be the case, but the strong possibility is sufficient to justify a lack of trust in anyone in those circumstances.

      I take your point about civil liberties, which of course applies to all the surveillance apparatus now used in many of the places you mention, and indeed (at least in the UK) in many streets. I was drawing a conclusion based on my own preference behind a veil of ignorance. I was of course assuming that the evidence from surveillance would be used appropriately and properly regulated. But in fact I'd rather take the risk of inappropriate use than that of suffering the kind of abuse that went on at Winterbourne. You can't guarantee the presence of whistle blowers, let alone their effectiveness: at Winterbourne it was covert surveillance by a journalist that exposed the problem.

      On 2): Clearly this is important. But it wasn't lack of status or reward that led to the violence in Stanford. And even well-trained professionals sometimes cannot control their naturally savage tendencies.

      1. Anthony Drinkwater

        Thanks for your reply, Roger. I understand that you are only saying only saying that no-one can be trusted "in certain circumstances".
        But one difficulty, as I see it, is to define in what circumstances no-one can be trusted. I'd agree with you that dubious psychological experiments such as those undertaken by Zimbardo should be video-monitored (in fact this was the case – I remember seeing parts of it a long time ago). But where do you draw the line ? And on what basis do you draw the line ? ( I'm aware that I'm merely expanding a little on my point 1 above)
        Another difficulty is that trust is a quality that has a strong element of reciprocity – I invite you to examine your own reactions in the hypothetical circumstances where it is clear that you are not trusted : how for example would you feel if you were not allowed to receive a student in your study without a video camera recording ? How would this perceived lack of trust affect your performance and attitudes ?
        A third difficulty is that it seems to me empirically to be very rare that well-trained, well-paid and highly esteemed professionals"fail to "control their naturally savage tendencies".
        Video-surveillance has some merits in certain circumstances, but should not be used to morally degrade those who care for people that the rest of us run a mile from .

        1. "Video-surveillance has some merits in certain circumstances, but should not be used to morally degrade those who care for people that the rest of us run a mile from."

          Huh seems to me you are making an effort to defend the indefensible, maybe one day when your old or ailing, it will be your turn to suffer the abhorrent abuse that these people suffered.

          Cameras are not the answer, but by the day this society is becoming sicker! less trustworthy and its professionals lie, twist and deceive at every turn. Not trust anyone, too right. Our politicians are made of jelly and will all but briefly look into the worst abuses of the modern day so called care systems, but as for challenging the law that allows this to occur, they would rather run away like the gutless cowards they are, or find more ways of preventing these things coming to light more likely.

          Whilst others use fancy words to seemingly defend the defenseless. No it is not them I would run away from it is the kind of people who run this wretched and stinking system who most should run away from. The methodical uncaring unprincipled and dangerous new type of professional which walks in every hallway and every hospital, around this country.

          The educated ignorant, whose only service is to themselves, overtaken by their own sense of power and delusion, those who would willingly cover up bullying and abuse where they can while they can and many examples exist of them.

  3. An interesting anecdote from the Stanford prison experiment is that Zimbardo himself was so traumatised by the experience that it took him about 30 years to actually write it up as a book. His account in that book, which I read a few years ago, is fascinating (and broadly consistent with the Wikipedia entry).

    The original purpose of the experiment was to study the effect of context on people's personality and behaviour, and surely this is also the key point here. This is not a choice between unquestioning trust and spying. What we need to do is to figure out what it is about the environment these people were working in that led them to behave in this way. According to author Malcolm Gladwell this focus on context underpinned Guilani's cleaning up of NYC: they went after the rampant petty crimes of train vandalism and fare-dodging, on the grounds that these were contributing to a general atmosphere of lawlessness that encouraged more serious crimes.

  4. Dmitri Pisartchik

    As horrible as the abuse is at the care home, I strongly question the premise that it is indicative of how society at large treats its most vulnerable.

  5. Thanks to all of you.

    Anthony: Good point about where to draw (or rather to consider moving) the line. One way to think about it is to ask yourself what you'd like to be in place in such institutions if you were going to end up in one. I wouldn't want cameras in my local library; but I would in any care home for the vulnerable I might end up in.

    On trust. Some of my colleagues always leave their office doors open when they meet students, because there have been in academia certain cases of false and malicious charges of harrassment. I don't imagine this affects their relationships with students in the slightest. And my point is that *all* of us ought to accept that our very superiority to the vulnerable puts them at risk, however much we might like to think the opposite.

    I suspect you are right about the rarity of abuse by the kind of professionals you mention. But it happens (consider the Nazi doctors), and often enough for it to be a problem that needs to be dealt with by reasonable means.

    Peter: Excellent point. Monitoring is only part of the solution.

    Dmitri: What it shows is that we are prepared to put these people at known and serious risk.

    1. Excellent point about considering if we'd want cameras in the home we were placed in. Does this example extend generally? Is it desirable to have cameras in all circumstances where a power differential exists? If ultimate power and authority is to rest in the public, this seems to make sense.

Comments are closed.