The price of thinking "It would have been worse under Saddam"

After news broke that US soldiers had mistreated their prisoners at the Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq, a common reaction among pro-war politicians was to remind the public that: “It would have been worse under Saddam”. Whatever the truth of this claim, new research suggests that comparing a current situation with an even worse atrocity comes with a price – it desensitises our judgment of future moral violations.

Forty student participants read an account of the atrocities committed by US troops at Abu Ghraib. A random subset of these students then read about the torture and executions that took place at the prison during Saddam Hussein’s regime. Regardless of their own beliefs, they then had to compose an argument for how conditions at the prison would have been worse under Saddam’s control. Other students, instead of reading about the prison under Saddam, read about an Iraqi prison run by Danish guards where captives were treated ethically. These students then had to compose an argument for how the standards of the Danish guards were better than the US guards. A control group of students just read about the US troop atrocities.

After all this, the students reported their own views on the US troop atrocities and they answered questions about how US troops should treat prisoners in the future – for example, by stating whether or not they agreed with the use of torture to gain enemy information.

It turned out that the students who’d been asked to compare US-controlled Abu Ghraib conditions with conditions when under Saddam Hussein’s control subsequently reported more lenient views of the atrocities by US troops and, most crucially, expressed lower ethical standards regarding how US troops should treat prisoners in the future, than did the control students and the students who compared US with Danish prison standards.

Keith Markman and colleagues who conducted the research said: “Our point is to question the usefulness of drawing a comparison between Abu Ghraib under American control and Abu Ghraib under Saddam’s control….[I]t appears that the contemplation of such a comparison lowers personal standards toward the very comparison standard against which one is seeking to contrast.”

MARKMAN, K., MIZOGUCHI, N., MCMULLEN, M. (2008). “It would have been worse under Saddam”: Implications of counterfactual thinking for beliefs regarding the ethical treatment of prisoners of war. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(3), 650-654. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2007.03.005

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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