Awesome Strangers


He looked not at himself, but at an awesome stranger.                                                                        – William Golding, Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies was published in 1954, and languished in obscurity until the 1960s,when it became an international best seller. In 1963, a film version was released, directed by Peter Brook. Golding’s tale of British choir boys transformed into a band of murderous hunters by the stresses of their situation captured the imagination of a young American psychologist named Philip Zimbardo. He was particularly taken by the chilling transformation in the persona of Jack Merridew after painting his own face:

He began to dance and his laughter became a bloodthirsty snarling. He capered toward Bill, and the mask was a thing on its own, behind which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness.

In 1969, strongly influenced by the work of Stanley Milgram,  Zimbardo devised an experiment to evaluate the effect of social deindividuation (more than simple masking) on a specific behavior – the propensity of a person in a position of arbitrary power to inflict pain on a stranger. Female students at NYU were told they were participating in a study that would measure the ability of humans to remain creative when placed under stress, in this case their sudden subjection to electric shock, via switches controlled by the volunteers. The two shockees were also young women, one of whom was depicted to the shockers via tape recorded interviews as “very nice”, the other as “bitchy”. Half the participants were highly individuated via name tags and referred to by their names. The other half were hooded, and given numbers, with names unknown.

Each participant was then placed in separate cubicles, so as to eliminate peer pressures. Both groups were then given multiple opportunities to shock the two creative subjects, and observe their response to the inflicted pain through a one way mirror. They were also able to see Professor Zimbardo himself, through the observation window. The subjects had been trained how to convincingly simulate the pain of the shock. There was no actual delivery of electrical current, though as far as the volunteer participants knew, the situation was fully wired; the subjects, entirely at their mercy.


As Zimbardo reports in his rambling catalogue of awesome strangers, The Lucifer Effect:

The behavior of interest was the duration of shock administered – how long each student continued to hold down the shock button after the shock-ready signal appeared. Their decision was not whether to press the shock switch but how quickly to pull their finger off the switch or to keep pressing it down  and deliver longer shocks to the victims.

The hooded and nameless volunteers delivered twice the duration of shock, and did not differentiate between the very nice woman and the bitchy one. The named and visible group still delivered the shocks, though for half the duration as the nameless hoods, and delivered significantly more pain to the designated bitch. Not a single volunteer refused to deliver any shock, though that option was never specifically ruled out in advance by the research team.

Zimbardo and his colleagues concluded that the infliction of pain does not derive from perverse interior sadistic motivations, but rather from the structure of the situation. When the situation offers the ability to inflict pain on a helpless victim, the “energizing effect” of exercising that power becomes self-reinforcing, and takes on a life of its own.

Elsewhere in 1969, an awesome stranger working for the US Department of State arrived in Uruguay. His name was Dan Mitrione, an experienced specialist in advanced counter-insurgency. A Cuban double agent, Manuel Hevia Cosculluella, later claimed that Mitrione built a soundproof room in the basement of his house in Montevideo for the teaching of advanced torture techniques to Uruguayan police officers. In 1970, Mitrione was captured by the Tupamoros, interrogated, and killed. His body did not show any signs of having been tortured.

In 1971, Zimbardo’s findings regarding power, individuation and character transformation were further amplified in the Stanford Prison Experiments, which took place in a university basement.

In 1972, the film director Costa-Gavras released his masterwork, State of Siege, based on the interwoven stories of Dan Mitrione, Uruguayan death squads, the US embassy and the Tupamaros; in 1973, Zimbardo’s work became much more widely known through publication of an article in the New York Times magazine,”The Mind Is A Formidable Jailer”, in which he lays out his case for a situationist perspective when evaluating certain behaviors in prisons and other closed systems. The article is subtitled: “A Pirandellian Prison”.

Following a military coup led by Augusto Pinochet in September 1973, a network of more than 1,130 secret detention and torture centers was established in Chile. Estimates of victims range between 40,000 and 400,000, including at least 1198 disappeared. The overwhelming majority of those detained were also tortured, often involving electric shock. Thousands of the victims were women, many of whom were creative artists or intellectuals. While some of the torturers were trained professionals, there were also numerous enthusiastic volunteers. Their degree of individuation is unknown.

The year 1973 also saw the first publication in English of George Bataille’s Literature and Evil, which as far as I know has never been cited in the voluminous work of Philip Zimbardo. It first appeared in French as La litterature et le mal in the year 1957, and does not include a discussion of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, nor of the works of Luigi Pirandello. Bataille writes:

Literature is not innocent. It is guilty and should admit itself so. Action alone has its right, its prerogatives. I wanted to prove that literature is a return to childhood. But has the childhood that governs it a truth of its own?


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