A group of French psychologists recently recruited 80 volunteers for what they claimed was a pilot for a new TV Show. The game involved posing questions to another "player" -- in reality, an actor --and punishing him with as much as 460 volts of electricity when he answered wrong as the roaring crowd screamed "Punishment!" Of the 80 volunteers, only 16 refused to obey and walked out. The other 80% went all the way until the actor appeared to have died. One of the contestants who went forward with the torture admitted that she was the granddaughter of a Jewish couple who were tortured and persecuted by the Nazis in World War II.
The experiment was paralleling that the Yale Psychologist Stanley Milgram, in which individuals were told to inflict pain on subjects. Similar to the French show, most of the recruits in that experiment went forward and followed the authority of doctors in white coats, even as they heard screams and pleas from the person next room that they thought they were torturing.
Psychologists have used the results of Milgram's experiment and others done since then to support the concept that in contrast to the belief of many, it doesn't take a mentally deranged individual to commit horrific acts. But rather, under certain social circumstances, any average individual is capable of committing violence against another individual. These circumstances often involve someone with an apparent claim of authority who is issuing the orders, and a group of other individuals surrounding a individual who are following those orders. The more people who follow the orders, the less likely it becomes for every single person to question those orders.
Many historians have used the results of Stanley Milgram's experiment and now the French torture game to explain the atrocities committed by rank-and-file Nazi soldiers. But a more recent real world example is the situation in Iran. Following the eruption of the Green Movement, the world was shocked to find out the extent to which members of Basij and Sepah-e Pasdaran (also known as the Revolutionary Guard) were willing to use violence against the protesters.
When one attempts to encourage Iranians to use proven nonviolent civil resistance strategies that have been successful in defeating the most ghastly dictators -- such as Slobodan Milosevic, Argentine Juntas and Augusto Pinochet -- many claim that the Iranian regime is different and cannot be affected by such methods. Similarly, many Iranians who are rightly mad at the regime believe that there is no point trying to communicate, reason and persuade those who are committing the violence because they can never be convinced to side with the people. Some don't even consider these basijis humans, often referring to them as "heyvoona" (animals).
But Iranians have a lot to take from the result of the French "Game of Death." The fact is while individuals at the highest levels of Iranian leadership may be fanatics who can never be persuaded that they are committing atrocities, many of the lower-ranking "foot soldiers" who actually commit those acts on the ground are not intrinsically iniquitous. They are rather average people from various segments of the Iranian society who do what they do because of factors that often fall into two main categories: economic and psychological.
The economic element that explains their behavior is quite simple. These violent individuals often desperately need the paychecks and other forms of payment -- such as bags of rice and roghan-e jaamed (solid cooking oil) -- that they get from government.
But as often as Iran analysts mention the first factor, they do not emphasize the many psychological factors that can lead someone to commit horrific acts. First, there are many elements in the Iranian culture and traditions that implicitly approve the use of violence to settle disputes. When students underperform in school, teacher uses a ruler to inflict pain on them, and many men use violence against women in their own homes. These practices don't just happen in the basiji families, but in homes throughout the most affluent and progressive parts of Iran. Chances are every Iranian reading his piece can think of someone in his or her own extended family who has engaged in this kind of behavior.
Secondly, fear plays a huge factor. When a basiji is faced with an angry crowd that is screaming "Mikosham! Mikosham! Anke Baradaram Kosht!" (I will kill, I will kill, that who killed my brother), even if that basiji has not personally killed anyone, he begins to see his commission of violence in a fundamentally different way: an act of self-defense. After all, he wonders, is there any chance that such a crowd would afford him clemency should they succeed in bringing change?
And the third factor has to do with the concept of conformity and respect for authority that the French psychologists revealed in the torture game. When a member of the Guard or Basij receives an order to crush the protesters with full force, and he is surrounded by other members who are moving forward with the execution of those orders, the circumstances are ripe for any individual with the mentioned personal concerns to follow suit in that specific context. This does not mean he is mentally flawed or cannot be persuaded, and it does not mean that the only way to achieve victory is to engage in reciprocal violence.
As the French torture game highlights the capability of normal human beings to engage in seemingly inexplicable behavior, it also goes a long way to explain how members of the security forces in Iran are capable of committing such acts of violence. Acknowledgement of this reality should strengthen Iranians' belief in the effectiveness of persuasion in making allies of even the most seemingly unpersuadable members of society by focusing not on threats and intimidation, but reason and incentives.
This article was originally published by Tehran Bureau