Illustration: Brian Cronin
"Torture," Vanity Fairs' James Wolcott once wrote, is "the invention and production of men." Certainly, as details come to light about the CIA's abuse of Iraqi and Afghan detainees, those authorizing the waterboarding, wall slamming, and mock executions have been male. And although army reservist Lynndie England made headlines five years ago—photographed at Abu Ghraib with her left hand cocked like a pistol and aimed at the genitals of a naked prisoner—it was, in part, the rarity of the image that made it so disturbing.
But are women more capable of torture than we think? Polls show they are only slightly less likely to find it justifiable than men (47 percent versus 51 percent). Furthermore, scientists revealed decades ago how easy it is for an ordinary person to turn into a torturer. And a new study confirms that this "ordinary person" can just as easily be a she as a he.
The classic cruelty experiment was conducted at Yale in the early '60s by psychology professor Stanley Milgram, PhD. Each subject was assigned the role of teacher and asked to test a student, who sat on the opposite side of a thin wall. Whenever the student answered a question incorrectly, the subjects were instructed by a man in a lab coat to deliver increasingly powerful electric shocks (in reality, the student was an actor who felt nothing). As the severity of the "shocks" increased, the student screamed and begged to be released, cried that he was in excessive pain, even that his heart was bothering him, and ultimately stopped responding. Still, 65 percent of the subjects continued to shock him to the maximum voltage.
Milgram performed 18 versions of the experiment on men. Surprisingly, the one time he used female subjects, they shocked at the same rate. But he never followed up. Fast-forward to the lab of Santa Clara University psychology professor Jerry Burger, PhD, who replicated Milgram's study (adjusting for ethical concerns) and published his findings this year. Burger's subjects—70 adults—included both men and women. He got nearly the same results as Milgram, and there was no difference between the sexes. Under certain conditions, Burger says, humans carry out acts of cruelty they would otherwise consider reprehensible. In both studies the presence of an authority figure (the man in the lab coat) appeared to factor heavily into the subjects' continued willingness to shock the student. Also, the subjects had little time to think about the consequences of their actions, the punishment increased incrementally, and the victim was depersonalized. Finally, according to other studies, being in a group makes it easy for subjects to think, "Everybody's doing it, so it must be okay."