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Human Nature

By sL1mB0y in Culture
Tue Oct 16, 2001 at 12:25:56 PM EST
Tags: Freedom (all tags)

What happens to good people put into an evil place? In the summer of 1971 the psychologist Dr Philip Zimbardo attempted to answer this question with the Stanford Prison Experiment. The experiment, due to last 2 weeks was cut short after only 6 days because the behaviour of some of the volunteers degenerated into sadism.

The BBC now want to recreate this experiment on national TV.

The experiment took 18 volunteers from the Stanford student body, and they were divided into a mixture of guards and prisoners. They were taken to a wing of the psychology department, furnished with iron bars to complete the experience, and the volunteers designated as guards were given complete control over the prisoners. After only 6 days the experiment was aborted after the behaviour of the guards degenerated into total sadism, and several of the volunteers displayed signs of mental disturbance. Speaking after the experiment Dr Zimbardo said "These guys were all peaceniks. They became like Nazis."

A year before the Stanford Prison Experiment, Dr Zimbardo ran another experiment in Deindividuation. This experiment used college students where their identities were concealed, their names replaced with numbers, clothing covered with baggy lab coats and faces covered by hoods and masks. They were then told to administer electric shocks to other participants who were supposedly in a related experiment - even all female groups of shockers and shockees showed that the deindividuated group administered the shocks readily and with ease.

The BBC, who are planning to recreate the Stanford Prison Experiment hope that it will have a lasting scientific value as a study of how people relate to authority. Zimbardo's reaction to the BBC's plans, known as The Experiment has been one of initial horror, followed by concern for the validity of showing such an experiment on national TV.

What I'd like to know is what thoughts you have on the validity of such experiments - in particular if we forget prisons being made of bricks and mortar, but as forms of control which limit our individual freedom, what psychological prisons do we create for ourselves, in the form of racism, sexism, ageism and poverty.


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Human Nature | 19 comments (14 topical, 5 editorial, 1 hidden)
Milgram Experiment (4.81 / 11) (#4)
by Paul Johnson on Tue Oct 16, 2001 at 05:07:57 AM EST

A related experiment was carried out by Stanley Milgram. In this volunteers were asked to take part in a psychology experiment on learning and punishment. The whole thing was an amazing piece of theatre laid on for the participant, the point of which was to convince him that this experiment required him to give steadily increasing shocks to another volunteer strapped in an electric chair. The shocks started at 15v and went up to 400. They were also labelled in sections such as as "mild", "severe", and "danger" . If the participant questioned this procedure then the supervising psychologist would mildly reply "The experiment requires you to continue".

In fact the "other volunteer" was a stooge and the shocks were fake. But the participants were convinced. The real point of the experiment was to see how high up the scale the participants would go, based simply on the instructions of a stranger in a white coat who seemed to be in charge.

Milgram's original goal was to do this experiment in Germany. After WW2 he hypothesized that the reason that Hitler had been able to get away with so much, especially the concentration camps, was that Germans were naturally more obedient than other nations, and so more inclined to do violent things when told. So he decided to run the experiment in America first to calibrate it, then go to Germany, and if his theory was right then the average shock given by Germans would be higher than the average shock given by Americans. Everyone he asked agreed that of course Americans would never give severe or dangerous electric shocks in this situation.

Now at this point, think about what you would do if you were one of Milgram's subjects. You are sitting in front of a panel of switches, the man in charge is telling you to press the next one, and you quite convinced that to do so is going to give the poor guy in the next room a very nasty electric shock. In fact you can hear him yell on the intercom every time you press a switch. Just how high up that scale are you going to go?

In fact Milgram never got to Germany. Almost all his subjects were quite willing to give dangerous or even lethal electric shocks. Most continued up to the 450V level, at which point the supposed victim (in another room) had stopped responding completely. They really thought they had killed someone, and they still carried on. See this page for the raw results.

You almost certainly decided that you would go up to the point of pain, maybe to the point where the other guy asked to be let out. But no further. Of course not. You are a civilised human being who believes in human rights, not some Nazi stormtrooper.

Thing is, everyone says that. Nobody can believe that they would actually electrocute an innocent other person solely on the instructions from a man in a white coat. But Milgram's experiment says otherwise. You probably would, and I probably would as well. Its a terrifying thought.

You are lost in a twisty maze of little standards, all different.

not really 'willing' (4.33 / 3) (#8)
by delmoi on Tue Oct 16, 2001 at 08:50:55 AM EST

Actualy, almost all of the 'shockers' showed signes of remores and distress. They complaned about what they were doing, etc, it was pretty clear that they were not happy about it (but most of them, ultimatly, kept going)

Milgram went out of his way to try to convince people that what they had done wasn't bad (Some people went on quite gleefully, he would say), and that the other person was alright, etc.
"'argumentation' is not a word, idiot." -- thelizman
[ Parent ]
simple-minded madness (4.00 / 1) (#12)
by angelplasma on Tue Oct 16, 2001 at 01:43:57 PM EST

My initial, possibly socially induced reaction to this concept is: "How terrible and revolting and no, this is a bad idea." This reaction is perhaps predictable.

But I recalled a thought I had some months ago, on a long train trip through the back country of Virginia... As humans, we seem to have two opposing sides - call them Beauty and Ugly. In a sense, they could almost be thought of as aesthetics. (we have many oppositions like this inside us, this is merely a one...)

I think it is safe to say that for the most part, we as a race aspire to Beauty. Many of us fill our lives with its pursuit, spending our time trying to understand it, and revel in the process... Yet there seems to be a dark equivalent, a true polar opposite on the far side of the scale. It is composed of all those things we see as abhorrent, and anathema to Beauty; so it's understandable that we have so much less desire to explore that other side... but the feelings seem, to me, connected, and the connection far from trivial.

If you spend your life surrounded by beauty and good fortune, you lose some ability to truly comprehend what you have. There is no contrast, no edge, to give definition. To extend this (in a very valid way, i think), you cannot truly understand Beauty without understanding Ugly.

This being said, while i find experiments like Zimbardo's and Milgram's unsettling, i also acknowledge that there is something in me that is very curious to know what such explorations might reveal about the human psyche.

I guess the only important stipulation is that everyone involved is there of their free will, and of a desire to explore. Else (need it even be said) there is no point in simple-minded madness.

[ Parent ]
BBC show ? (3.50 / 2) (#6)
by Simon Kinahan on Tue Oct 16, 2001 at 07:04:46 AM EST

Does anyone have a URL regarding the BBC's plans for a show based on this ? I have to say, I find the idea very disturbing. I mean, are they aware that Zimbardo stopped the original experiment because the level of abuse some of the subjects were suffering was intolerable ? or that one student has a nervous breakdown ?


If you disagree, post, don't moderate
BBC Show (3.00 / 1) (#7)
by sL1mB0y on Tue Oct 16, 2001 at 07:24:34 AM EST

Theres no URL I've found, and nothing I can find on the BBC website - all this information is coming from a daily broadsheet in the UK although I have found this link that talks of Zimbardo's involvment in other 'Reality' shows on TV, and also talks briefly of his Stanford Prison Experiment.

Also, later in the article, Zimbardo talks of how an independant observer would be needed, able to pull the plug on the show at any time, as he himself was compromised by his experiment. In terms of the BBC show, they say that "there are limits as to what we can do in terms of physical intrusions, yes. But creating the psychological impression that they have no privacy is important to us."

I highly suggest reading the whole article - it contains a lot more information about the original experiment, and some of the safeguards the BBC say they'll implement to ensure the show doesn't repeat Zimbardo's failed experiment in 1971.

[ Parent ]

Coming soon to Fox! (4.80 / 5) (#10)
by Merc on Tue Oct 16, 2001 at 09:01:29 AM EST

Temptation Prison: 10 college girls, 10 college guys, one abandoned prison; slogan: Ooh baby, time for another stripsearch

Electric Shock Cruise: Take one cattle prod, 6 sexy ladies, 6 hot guys, and lots of bondage gear, and put them out on the open ocean; slogan: The things you'll sea will shock you.

Is that the BBC? (none / 0) (#19)
by kayrbear on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 04:59:39 PM EST

TV has to handle this sort of thing very carefully or it will end up on that trash bin whose only redeeming quality is its Seinfeld re-runs. Do you think BBC will stoop down that far, or will they keep the integrity of public television? Do you think other networks will jump on the use of psychological experiments for pure entertainment and more "reality" shows? (Although I guess they have, kinda, with Fear Factor and such).

[ Parent ]
[OT] Phillip Zimbardo (3.50 / 2) (#13)
by DJBongHit on Tue Oct 16, 2001 at 03:45:53 PM EST

Am the only one who had to watch videos hosted by this guy in psychology class in high school? This guy is a nutjob.


GNU GPL: Free as in herpes.

Are you KIDDING? (none / 0) (#14)
by Jacques Chester on Wed Oct 17, 2001 at 05:04:47 AM EST

Zimbardo's videos used to play on Open Learning Australia on saturday mornings. When I was a kid, and had the organs and neurotransmitters to rise on saturday mornings, I used to watch them. It's Zimbardo who got me interested in Psychology. Now that I have other chemicals in my blood, I thank the good doctor for directing me to a subject with a 3:1 female-male ratio and an easy 7:3 hottie-to-average ratio.

In a world where an Idea can get you killed, Thinking is the most dangerous act of all.
[ Parent ]
How much of a nutjob? (none / 0) (#15)
by squigly on Wed Oct 17, 2001 at 01:08:54 PM EST

Never seen him, so what do you mean exactly? A fun eccentric, a complete psycho that enjoys torturing people or what?

[ Parent ]
Zimbardo (none / 0) (#16)
by sL1mB0y on Wed Oct 17, 2001 at 01:43:47 PM EST

From what I can tell he was very interested in seeing how humans react to different situations, but he didn't appreciate all the consequences there could be, and, from what I can tell, with the Stanford Prison Experiment he got too involved with the experiment and didn't realise it was going wrong until it was almost too late. One of the prisoners broke out with a psychosamatic (?) rash from the mental torture he received.

[ Parent ]
BBC (none / 0) (#17)
by tc1974 on Fri Oct 19, 2001 at 06:40:34 AM EST

It surprises me to hear that the BBC are thinking about restaging this in some way.

I'm not one to get on my high-horse about these things, but I don't like the idea that part of the licence fee I pay gets used to create an experiment in which some people end up with lasting psychological damage in order that I can be "educated" by the television. It makes it worse to think that they might wring some degree of sensationalism from it at the same time (as is almost guaranteed, given the public's voracious appetite for such things).

Now, let's not be hypocritical. If they put this on as a programme, would I watch it? Almost definitely. However, I'd rather they did it as a documentary focussing on the original experiments of this nature already conducted.

Do I think these experiments yield valuable results? Well, to a degree, yes.

Personally I think the actual result, when compared against a sort of "control" prediction of what most people would expect to occur, illustrates a very skewed sence of human nature or, more importantly, an over inflated reliance on innate morality. This sort of thing makes me think of the long standing debates (Hart - Bentham was it?) on (paraphrasing hugely) innate morality vs. relative morality.

I think it also makes people re-evaluate the implications of various oppresive regimes. It's very easy to quickly condemn an entire society or belief system as "evil" because it operates a set of rules which appear to be incomprehensibly cruel, irrational or sadistic to the external observer. I think it's much harder to answer the question whether, placed in the same situation, the majority of those self same external observers might find themselves taking on the mantle of opressor with some degree of ease, or even relish.

As a soundbite, I think this type of cruelty and sadism are very much a part of human nature.

Over time most scocities have develeoped a set of rules to supress and condemn sadistic/violent types of behaviour. I think the root of this is a fundamental acknowledgement that a society which allows bruitality and sadism to operate on a widespread basis (either with religious and/or legal endoresement or without) is inherently less stable, less productive and therefore less prosperous.

As a result, like so many other things, the deisre within most people to express this side of their personality exhbitis itself in other ways, as sexual fetishes, war games, computer games, physical contact sports - the list is nearly endless - which I think is a good thing.

Relating to Today (none / 0) (#18)
by kayrbear on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 04:55:33 PM EST

As a student of psychology, the Prison Experiment has always fascinated me. And right now, I think it's important to get a reminder of it. After all, even with their casual American garb, those responsible for the disaster we speak of every day were victims of deindividualization. (Not giving excuses here, so don't jump at that...keep reading!) They were sent here in groups so that their identities would remain as jihad-executors, as impervious to the American values, and as true fundamentalists, so they believed. If not in groups, the singles would have gained their individuality, with a touch of American culture no doubt, and not carried out the job. As it was, they were there to pressure (or support) each other all the time, they remained in the mindset of living only for the whole and never for themselves, and so were able to do what one individual or one person allowed to have a personality could never do.

Human Nature | 19 comments (14 topical, 5 editorial, 1 hidden)
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