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Hope for Iranians in the French Torture Game

by SAM SEDAEI in Washington, D.C.

23 Mar 2010 00:3215 Comments
8038-jeu-de-la-mort-docu-choc-france-2.jpg[ comment ] 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 -- who was purportedly tortured with as much as 460 volts of electricity for each wrong answer as a roaring crowd screamed "Punishment!" Of the 80 volunteers, only 16 refused to participate and walked out. The other 80 percent went all the way until the actor appeared to have died. One of those who participated admitted that she was the granddaughter of a Jewish couple who were tortured and persecuted by the Nazis in World War II.

The experiment paralleled a famous one performed by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, in which participants were directed to inflict excruciating electrical shocks on other "test subjects." Most of the recruits in that experiment similarly went forward, following the authority of doctors in white coats, even as they heard screams and pleas from the person in the 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. Under certain social circumstances, it seems clear, any ordinary individual is capable of committing violence on another person. These circumstances often involve someone with an apparent claim of authority who issues the orders and a group of people who follow those orders. The more people who obey, the less likely it is that any single person will question the authority figure.

Many historians have referred to these experiments in explaining the atrocities committed by rank-and-file Nazi soldiers. The current situation in Iran provides another real world example. 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, the Revolutionary Guards, were willing to use violence against protesters.

When one attempts to encourage Iranians to use proven nonviolent civil resistance strategies that have succeeded against the most ghastly dictators, such as Slobodan Milosevic 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 in trying to reason with and persuade those who are committing violence because they can never be convinced to side with the people. Some even regard the basijis as less than human, referring to them as "heyvoona" (animals).

But Iranians have a lot to learn from the French "Game of Death." While the highest levels of Iranian leadership may indeed be dominated by fanatics who can never be persuaded that they are responsible for atrocities, many of the foot soldiers who commit the acts on the ground are not intrinsically iniquitous. For the most part, they are average people from various segments of Iranian society who do what they do because of factors that largely fall into two categories: economic and sociopsychological.

The economic element that explains their behavior is quite simple. They often desperately need the paychecks and other forms of compensation -- such as bags of rice and roghan-e jaamed (solid cooking oil) -- that they receive from the government.

While Iran analysts often mention this economic imperative, they tend to overlook the many sociopsychological factors that can lead someone to commit horrific acts. Many elements in Iranian culture implicitly approve the use of violence to settle disputes. When students underperform in school, teachers respond with corporal punishment, and many men use violence against women in their own homes. These acts occur not just among basiji families, but in some of the most affluent and "progressive" homes in Iran. Chances are every Iranian can think of someone in his or her extended family who has engaged in this kind of behavior.

Fear also plays a huge factor. Imagine a basiji faced with an angry crowd screaming, "Mikosham! Mikosham! Anke Baradaram Kosht!" (I will kill, I will kill, that who killed my brother). Even if that basiji has not killed anyone himself, he begins to see his commission of violence as 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?

Another crucial factor is the respect for authority and pressure to conform whose power the French psychologists revealed in the torture game. When a member of the Sepah or Basij receives an order to crush the protesters with full force, and he is surrounded by others who are executing that order, the circumstances are ripe for him to follow suit. This does not mean that he is mentally flawed or cannot be persuaded. Understanding these factors, we can see that reciprocal violence is by no means the only way to achieve victory.

As the French torture game highlights the capability of normal human beings to engage in seemingly inexplicable behavior, it goes a long way to explain how members of the security forces in Iran are capable of committing acts of violence against their fellow citizens. Acknowledgment of this reality should strengthen Iranians' belief in the effectiveness of persuasion in making allies of even the most seemingly unpersuadable members of society. The focus should be not on intimidation and threats, but on reason and incentives.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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our culture infact keeps respect for everyone, just because our gvrnmnt says some stuff it does not mean it is in our culture

americans kill iraqis and afghans and many other people but you would never say it is part of their culture, would you?

sorush / March 23, 2010 3:50 AM

I hope the world has not forgotten the violence that IR did in throughout 80s all along as well as 90s. 80s was just bloody and horrific! They proved they were capable of such violence some 30 years ago...why the world is silenced? it is like the fall of IKARUS...nobody cares about the suffering of others and life goes on...

Taraneh / March 23, 2010 4:40 AM

"Many elements in Iranian culture implicitly approve the use of violence to settle disputes. When students underperform in school, teachers respond with corporal punishment, and many men use violence against women in their own homes."

I think the author mistakes domestic violence, a horrific problem, but a universal one at that, with "culture". And he probably went to school in the early 20th century. I went to school in Iran, a public school, and violence was not an issue - although it certainly is in some schools. I don't know a country where it isn't at all.

No need to put down an entire nation just for the sake of writing an article on some TV show.

I suggest the writer stop watching too much TV and google "columbine", "Virgina tech massacre" "Iraq war", "Afghan war", etc, and englighten himself on these issues before making such sweeping statements.

Pedestrian / March 23, 2010 7:22 AM

I think as Iranians, we need to stop flattering ourselves and get defensive every time the smallest criticism is made about our culture. Yes, violence is a part of many cultures. But one can easily argue that because of the influence of Islam, violence is more prevalent in Islamic cultures. I went to school in Iran in the 80s and 90s, and teachers used rulers to punish kids on a regular basis.

We aren't going to be able to have an honest conversation about anything if we are so easily pushed into blind rage of nationalism every time someone says something slightly critical. The first step toward perfection is admitting that we aren't perfect.

Sam Sedaei / March 23, 2010 9:12 AM

It amazing how the author can relate any far off evil thing with Iran and its rulers amazing simply.
The Americans are so good human being so gentle they drop soft Atom bombs kill millions yet they are so gentle and human.They invade and kill yet they are so decent and gentle.
Keep it up .
Long live CIA long live MI6

Steve Austen / March 23, 2010 3:26 PM

anyone interested in this subject ought to read "The Lucifer Effect" by Phillip Zimbardo

Ardavon / March 23, 2010 5:56 PM

what does "flattering ourselves" or "blind rage of nationalism" have to do with anything?

Learning to write a good critique has everything to do with everything. This just isn't one. Actually criticizing, pointing at fault lines, and not just slandering or making sweeping statements has everything to do with everything. It's very easy to say "this culture" is this way or that. It's much harder to make an intelligent critique of that culture.

The author may find this helpful:

Pedestrian / March 23, 2010 6:15 PM


I think that much of the criticism above is on the right path but, just as your piece, slightly misses the mark. I think the main point in your writing is buried.

If I understand correctly, you are using the "French experiment" as background support, and the 'cultural acceptance' of violence as a possible counterargument to your main focus: The fact that individuals could be persuaded to reason just as easily as they can be pressured into becoming bullies.

I think you're getting at the right argument, but it's clouded by the structure and focus of your piece.

Luise / March 23, 2010 9:07 PM

Thanks to SAM SEDAEI, good article.

Here we go again, IR lackeys in force coming to defend a culture that rapes, tortures,

IR raped virgin students in the name of Islam, don't you all forget that.

I am waiting for Pirouz and rest to come back from vacation to defend IR and blame every thing on USA and Israel.

I have no doubt if IR gets the nuke; they would use it on their own people in the name of Islam.

Feral IR enjoys not only rapes and tortures but also pray five times a day with so many peace upon you in their Lexicon.

Dylan / March 23, 2010 10:13 PM

Sam is right. Iranians have zero tolerance for criticism. They are quick to take offense and deflect blame anywhere but at themselves.

As long as this undemocratic attitude persists, Iranians won't be able to critically engage with the issues that need fixing.

Amir / March 23, 2010 10:22 PM


I understand what you are saying. I think you have misunderstood the point about culture. I wasn't offering that, fear and economic factors as counter arguments. The point is to understand that the dynamics that lead individuals to commit horrific acts are often complex and multi-dimensional, and that there is not a single factor but a culmination of multiple factors that, together, can lead someone at a point in time to justify the use of violence in his or her own head.

But based on the comments, I am afraid that readers have been putting too much focus and emotion into the short comment about the culture and missing the main point of the article, which is that individuals in the basij who commit violence against Iranian protesters are often average individuals placed in usual circumstances that make them psychologically prone to following those orders. I hope that regardless of whether one believes certain cultures do or do not implicitly condone violence, readers can read passed it and focus on the main point.

Sam Sedaei / March 23, 2010 10:24 PM

A penetrating study by Elias Canetti "Crowds and Power" grappled with the roots of war, violence within and between groups from Stone Age man on.Although he never came to a definitive conclusion, as such, regarding what was his lifes work it seems to point to the old saying " Man is wolf to man" and even more so in groups or 'crowds'. Again and again he returns to the Nazi phenomenon which he witnessed personally in Vienna. Is there some lesson there? He tackles it from every angle psychological, political and sociological but not religious.It seems to elude him.Has man become more not less brutal with the advance of science? Is civilization just a veneer?That is the conundrum.

pirooz / March 23, 2010 10:34 PM

Based on my own experience of early years of the revolution, many of these bassijis are very similar to their counterparts the "comitechis". These were young or otherwise inexperienced people who had never been in the position to force their will or exert pressure on others; if anything, they had always been the victims of force or will of others. When they achieved the position to act as they wished, they mostly felt good about themselves and very happy to "do to them, what they did to me". Now anybody who was in any way superior (better educated, better dressed, better off or had a place to live and so on) was considered "they" and deserve the punishment the comitechis dished out. The present day Bassiij is no different from the comitechi of earlier days plus the added element of usually being better off. They are also indoctrinated that if "the opposition" succeeds, they will lose their privileged situation. Add to this a bit of religion that the opposition is described as not quite religious and you get a fanatic that can act horribly with "clear conscience".

Anonymous / March 24, 2010 3:02 AM


This is an intelligent article, that raises awareness about the importance of understanding and compassion for the "enemy".

The only way forward to a bright future for Iran is if the green movement acts with wisdom, and gives amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes. If they are cornered and threatened, they will fight back and there will only be a cycle of violence which will harm us all and our children.

If our goal is an Iran where liberty, the value of freedom and the rule of law are made the status quo, then we need to be patient in diffusing the anger, rage, and hatred that has taken hold of our minds (the greens).

Learning about the psychological mechanisms of the human being, and thus appreciating that WE TOO have the potential of making the same mistakes as the basiji if the right conditions were present, allows for diffusion of the poison of hatred and revenge.

Understanding can clear away hatred, and without hatred, we can act more powerfully.

I hope someone at Tehranbureau will write about the crucial need for the green movement to develop the strategy of amnesty for the perpetrators of the crimes around the election... once the green movement finally, hopefully, succeeds in coming to power. What a challenging road we have ahead of us! But our dreams are possible.

South Africa and Mandela offer a great example for us Iranians to consider. Yes, prison sentences are required, as criminals should be brought to justice and face the consequences of their criminal acts. But without revenge and excess on the side of the greens.

The cycle of revenge, hatred, and righteousness must end with the greens if Iran is to be politically healed.

In the hopes of a wise, free and respectful Iran for ALL Iranians.

Articles like Sam bring the green movement understanding, patience and wisdom. I commend the publishing of this piece.

Saeed / March 27, 2010 3:28 AM

What Ped said.

Pirouz / March 28, 2010 7:24 AM