Why is the world so cruel

Psychology: How good citizens become cruel sadists

The images resemble each other in a frightening way: guards mistreat prisoners who are more or less clothed and cannot see anything because bags have been put over their heads. They were recorded in Abu Ghraib in 2003 and in 1970 during an experiment at Stanford University in California. What makes people torture and humiliate other people so cruelly?

The award-winning American documentarist Alex Gibney pursued this question in his film "The Human Behavior Experiment". Tilman Wolff edited his film, which was broadcast in the USA on the specialty channel Court TV, for WDR. Under the title “The beast in us - scientists explore human abysses” the report will be shown on Wednesday at 9 p.m. on WDR television.

The focus is on two socio-psychological experiments that aimed to determine how people behave when they gain power over other people.

The famous Milgram experiment was first carried out in 1962 by the American psychologist Stanley Milgram. Test subjects were given the task of punishing their students with electric shocks for wrongdoing. The students were actors, the electric shocks weren't real. However, this was not known to the “teachers”. They acted with terrifying, cruel consistency. Over 60 percent of the test participants were even willing to give fatal electric shocks if the test director took responsibility.

The Milgram experiment sparked a broad discussion about how much evil there is in every person and under what circumstances people are willing to torture and kill mercilessly.

Tormentors were considered very religious

Alex Gibney also tells the story of the student Matthew Carrington in his film. In February 2005, his fraternity friends tortured him during one of the usual raw admission rituals. They poured ice cold water over him and forced him to drink water until he collapsed and died. None of the people involved helped him. His tormentors had never before been guilty of anything and were considered very religious. This cruelty is just as incomprehensible as the actions of three inmates of the Siegburg juvenile prison who killed a fellow inmate. "With the description of this case, we supplement Alex Gibney's film," reports Tilman Wolff.

The pictures of the Stanford Prison Experiment, which was carried out in 1971 under the direction of the psychologist Philip Zimbardo and with which the film deals in detail, are also shocking. It was to be a fortnightly simulation study to examine the behavior of guards and prisoners. A prison had been built in the basement of the university and real police arrested the inmates. In just a few days, the situation in Stanford Prison derailed so much that even the researchers lost control. Only the visit of Christina Maslach, the friend and later wife of Zimbardo, stopped the cruel experiment.

The American documentation also complements a conversation with the German social psychologist Harald Welzer. In his 2005 book “Offenders - How Ordinary People Become Mass Murderers”, he states that nobody should rely on his or her moral convictions. People are too quick to adopt the moral patterns of their superiors and to forget their own values. Only those who have already acquired great autonomy and psychological strength as a child can resist the pull.

Note: "The Beast Within Us - Scientists Exploring Human Abysses" Documentation by Alex Gibney. German revision by Tilman Wolf. WDR television, Wed 12 December, 9 p.m. - 9.45 p.m.