Stimulus and response

I just saw a very interesting, and disturbing, movie at a downtown Ottawa cinema. “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is an account of the famous (infamous?) 1971 psychological study aimed at determining how people act in a particularly brutal setting (i.e. jail). Volunteers (who were paid $15 a day for what was planned as a two-week experiment – it lasted just 6 days) were divided into two groups, “guards” and “prisoners”, and researchers monitored their interactions.  I don’t know how close the movie version was to actual events, but it sure looked like the “guards” quickly began to de-humanise and brutalise the “prisoners”.  Verbal abuse escalated to physical mistreatment and several “prisoners” begged to be released (“paroled”) early.  The head researcher, Philip Zimbardo, pulled the plug  on the whole thing before the first week had ended.

I spoke briefly about this experiment in a previous post (Anyone can do it – July 19) but want to return to it for a couple of reasons (and not just because I was affected by the screen version).  There are two aspects to the experiment (as portrayed in the movie) that have a bearing on radicalisation and terrorism.  The first is that the decision to split the students into “guards” and “prisoners” was done by coin flip.  Hence, their placement in either category was entirely random.  Secondly, it did not appear that the “guards” entered the experiment with a pre-existing propensity for violence: it was the circumstances, the environment and the “protocols” of the study that made them so.

What’s the link to terrorism?  Simply that terrorists are not “born” (caveat: unless you are born into a terrorist family a la Khadr in Canada): they are made.  What makes them is the environment in which they are placed or place themselves.  Since “self-radicalisation” is a non-issue, people radicalise to violence through their interactions with others and under the influence of others (interestingly, Zimbardo played the role of radicaliser in the experiment, supporting the “guards” – and ignoring the plight of the “prisoners” – and goading them on to more and more violent action).

Secondly, there is an incredible amount of randomness to the radicalisation process.  Backgrounds (psychological, socio-economic, family, ethnic, etc.) have been found to have little relevance.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: anyone can radicalise to violence given the right circumstances (what I have called the “perfect storm” of factors).

There is, however, no inevitability to all this.  Just as a few of the “guards” refused to engage in dehumanising behaviour towards the “prisoners”, so it is that not everyone exposed to, or immersed in, a violent radical environment will necessarily engage in violent behaviour themselves.  Whether it is a matter of conscious choice or some other inhibitor, I don’t think we know.  And I am doubtful we ever will.

An analogous experiment today would of course be impossible for several reasons, not the least of which would be ethical considerations.  We can’t have people “play terrorist”.  As a result, we are left with a conundrum that I see no solution to: in a given environment some people become violent extremists and some don’t, and we cannot predict either group.  So we are left with detecting behaviour (which we can do) and that is indeed something.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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