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Elisa Goldstein, Ph.D.Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
A blog about mindfulness, stress-reduction, psychotherapy and mental health.

What are you capable of? Abu Ghraib and your mental health

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: Dec 24th 2008

bloody handsIn the early 1960's Stanley Milgram ‘shocked' the world of social psychology, so to speak, when he showed that 79% of the people in his experiment would shock study participants to a potentially fatal degree for incorrectly answering questions. Even in the face of people screaming for help and pleading to stop because of their heart condition, the shocking ensued.  Recently, Jerry Burger replicated this study, albeit in a manner ethical to today's standards, further suggesting that we have the potential in us to follow orders even at the serious expense of others.

On a similar note, in 1971 Phillip Zimbardo showed us that given the situation, any person is potentially capable of filling the shoes of a torturer. He took a group of Stanford students and divided them up into prison inmates and guards. Far exceeding his expectations, he found that within a few days the guards were taking the roles too seriously where they were making inmates strip.  Zimbardo also realized that he wasn't stopping this until an outsider cried out that it was unethical. He went on to consult with the current Abu Ghraib abuses begging the question of whether those prison guards were under a similar influence as the prison guards in his classic study. 

What does this all tell us? In the right (or wrong) circumstances is everyone capable of doing inhumane things? Can the power of a situation influence our shadows to come alive?

How does this relate to you in daily life? This might help us become more aware of our own surroundings and how they might be influencing our perceptions and values. Can this explain why some people get stuck in habits that are harmful to them and society? Might those who litter be of a certain mindset that is influenced by their situation and the group they surround themselves with thinking littering is acceptable. What about if we have issues with eating or drinking excessively? 

How about you? How might the situation or environment you spend most your time in be influencing you? How do the media influence your values and choices? What about your friends and family or those you spend most your time with?

As always, feel free to share your thoughts on these studies and how you think a person's situation can be a powerful influence on their behavior, even if that behavior was once deemed unacceptable.  

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

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