• SophistiCat
    1.2k
    Most people have probably heard about the famous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which college-age volunteers were assigned roles of guards and prisoners in a simulated prison environment. According to the standard narrative, over the course of a week the participants on both sides of the bars spontaneously assimilated their roles, with guards becoming cruel and insensitive without being prompted by the experimenters, and prisoners becoming docile and cowered, to the point that they were unable to quit the experiment, even though they were free to do so at any time.

    Here is a typical presentation by the experiment's author, Philip Zimbardo, who became world-famous in the aftermath of the study's publication, in one of his many media appearances:



    Although there have been critical and skeptical voices all through this time, and a book-length expose has recently been published in French, the extent to which the famous study was flawed and misrepresented by Zimbardo has not been widely known. The iconic study is invariably presented in psychology classes, it is in almost every intro psychology textbook, and it has a secure place in the cultural landscape, being regularly trotted out in conversations about mass psychology, the extent to which external circumstances and the roles we find ourselves playing shape our thinking and our behavior.

    Here is an article that casts both the study and its subsequent role in quite a different light: The Lifespan of a Lie.

    When I first learned about the experiment, my reaction was probably typical: although the details were shocking, I was ready to accept its lessons. It accorded with my own observations and my thinking, and with other well-known psychological studies I had come to know at about the same time, such as the Milgram experiment. I am still ambivalent about it. There is some truth in the story that it tells, corroborated by other observations - or other such narratives? - and everyone involved was, no doubt, well-intentioned. And that is probably what has made the Stanford experiment so compelling even to those who knew better, some of whom perpetuated falsehoods for the sake of a larger narrative that they believed to be true and important to tell. But just how much of the narrative is true?

    Interestingly, some of the true details of the Stanford experiment are actually closer to Milgram's experiment, in which apparently unnatural behavior of participants was prompted by authority pressure and a sense of importance of what they were doing - see for instance Dave Eshelman's recollections in the article.
  • SophistiCat
    1.2k
    And here is a critical article about the Milgram experiment: Rethinking One of Psychology's Most Infamous Experiments. From what I have read though, it seems that the Milgram experiment was more sound, although there is a lot of doubt about its interpretation.
  • Moliere
    1.7k
    Hrm! That's the first I've heard of this. I certainly had gone over the experiment in our intro psych class. Thanks for sharing.
  • GodlessGirl
    18
    I was told by my Psychology 101 professor that the Stanford Prison Experiment became so out of control that it had to be shut down early. I held that false belief for years. It is so irritating how you cannot believe what anybody says without investigating it for yourself.
  • SophistiCat
    1.2k
    Here is an op-ed by a psychologist who did not include the Stanford study in his textbook - and he made that decision while taking Zimbardo's report at face value, based on a careful and critical analysis of the study's (declared) methodology. Some of the follow-up comments and the author's responses are interesting as well.

    The author and some of the commenters also note that, given that the "guards" were most likely doing what they thought was expected of them, the setup was closer to that of the Milgram studies, except that Milgram was explicit about what he was studying, and he attempted to tease out the circumstances in which his subjects did and did not end up following orders.
  • unenlightened
    4.7k
    Some of the follow-up comments and the author's responses are interesting as well.SophistiCat

    Here's one:
    I saw Zimbardo talk (I think at APS) a few years back. His talk was designed to provoke an emotional response, I suppose. It was after his Lucifer book came out and he made sweeping statements (about torture and the Bush administration) without saying much about science at all. My personal reaction was that I found his talk repellent, although I am no fan of Bush or torture. Zimbardo's prior beliefs were primary, evidence was secondary, and contradictory evidence didn't exist.

    When Zimbardo's time was up, he made comments to the effect that his message was too important to be constrained to the allotted 50 minute time slot and continued to talk. (Kahneman, who had proceeded him, had stuck to the time limit.) When someone stood up to leave, Zimbardo called him out. I don't remember the details, but I do remember that Zimbardo tried to shame him, and created a situation of immense social pressure on the man to sit back down, with a large crowd watching.

    I thought the moment was supremely ironic. Here was Zimbardo, talking about the coercive power of social pressure, and how it should not be abused. And he was using that power to try to make people stay as his talk went over time.

    But how could it not be the case that the psychology of the psychologist is what is most prominently revealed by his experiments? Zimbardo's willingness to use cruel and coercive methods in what he believed to be a 'good cause', are the beginning, middle and end of the whole story. And the larger story of experimental psychology is always one of deceit and manipulation in the name of truth and progress.
  • Bitter Crank
    8.7k
    Excellent topic and excellent responses.

    I myself have secret desires to conduct manipulative experiments on people, do very intrusive observations of private behavior, manipulate environments so I an observe the changes that makes in behavior, use hidden microphones and hidden cameras to get the low-down on what's up, and more! And I'm not the only one. It's not hard at all to get carried away when there is no one overseeing one's activities who can interrupt the busy planning sessions with "Wait a minute -- what the hell are you planning to do here?"

    I suspect Milgram and Zimbardo didn't have much oversight. I don't think either one of them are at all evil, but when one is laying plans with some co-conspirators, it's easy to get carried away with the extremes of an experiment and overlook the actual consequences for the subjects.

    A different question about Milgram and Zimbardo: By the time they began their research, we had been through 2 world wars, a brutal regional war in Korea, and were in the middle of a second brutal regional war in Vietnam. Much research has been published on the behavior of the SS, the Gestapo, Jews, Aryans, et al in Germany during the years of National Socialism. Was there something that history wasn't telling Milgram, Simbardo, et al about manipulation, brutality, dehumanization, submission, studied ignorance, and so forth that wasn't available in the histories?
  • Srap Tasmaner
    2k

    Thanks for posting this. I read all the links, and their links, and I'm still sorting through it. Something happened here, something we should probably be interested in, just not what Zimbardo says happened.
  • Srap Tasmaner
    2k
    Was there something that history wasn't telling Milgram, Simbardo, et al about manipulation, brutality, dehumanization, submission, studied ignorance, and so forth that wasn't available in the histories?Bitter Crank

    As far as that goes, reading Timothy Snyder's Black Earth can be a pretty strange experience. There's chapter after chapter of atrocities and no explanation offered. Some explanations are brought up only to be rejected. (For instance, he denies that Lithuanian people were more anti-Semitic than other Europeans and this explains something.) He makes a point of bringing up instances like a police unit being redeployed from Belgium and within weeks (maybe it was days) is shooting Jews lined up in front of ditches. You get the idea that he's making a point, that anyone might do this, but that's not quite right, or not the whole story. He ends with stories about people who rescue Jews and again refuses to explain. Makes a point of how those you might expect to rescue don't, and those you might not, do. Finally there is a glimpse of what he's about: people did what they chose to, period. You can explain a lot about the circumstances in which those choices are made, and he does, but people are not pawns of circumstance.
  • SophistiCat
    1.2k
    And the larger story of experimental psychology is always one of deceit and manipulation in the name of truth and progress.unenlightened

    Yes, as if the subject of psychology wasn't hellishly complex enough, psychologists' work is further complicated by the difficulty of conducting experiments on human subjects. As science goes, in terms of pure logistics psychologists aren't the worst off (just ask geologists or cosmologists), but the ethical difficulties are pretty much unique to social sciences. On the other hand, we already are social creatures, and we engage in manipulative games all our lives. Is it so much worse to engage in "deceit and manipulation in the name of truth and progress" than to do the same for your selfish purposes, or just for fun?

    Setting aside extreme cases like the ones discussed here and looking at "the larger story of experimental psychology," I think you are rather exaggerating the harm of such games. We are, on the whole, psychologically pretty robust, otherwise how could we survive our daily interactions with other people? For one who has an absolute distaste for manipulation and deception the only choice is to be a hermit, I suppose.
  • SophistiCat
    1.2k
    I was told by my Psychology 101 professor that the Stanford Prison Experiment became so out of control that it had to be shut down early. I held that false belief for years. It is so irritating how you cannot believe what anybody says without investigating it for yourself.GodlessGirl

    Well, the story told by Zimbardo is that it was a fellow psychologist (and later his wife) who was horrified by what she saw and persuaded Zimbardo to stop the experiment early, so what you were told is not far from the truth - assuming that is the truth (AFAIK we don't know any different).
  • SophistiCat
    1.2k
    Here is another one for you:

    The “Robbers Cave experiment” is considered seminal by social psychologists, still one of the best-known examples of “realistic conflict theory”. It is often cited in modern research. But was it scientifically rigorous? And why were the results of the Middle Grove experiment – where the researchers couldn’t get the boys to fight – suppressed? “Sherif was clearly driven by a kind of a passion,” Perry says. “That shaped his view and it also shaped the methods he used. He really did come from that tradition in the 30s of using experiments as demonstrations – as a confirmation, not to try to find something new.” In other words, think of the theory first and then find a way to get the results that match it. If the results say something else? Bury them.A real-life Lord of the Flies: the troubling legacy of the Robbers Cave experiment

    As for why study this - as if we didn't already know that people can treat each other horribly - the job of a social psychologist, like that of any scientist, is to try to understand the hows and the whys, to find patterns and regularities, to expose hidden connections, to cut nature at its joints - that sort of thing. More practically, as you can read in these stories, such studies are often motivated by lofty goals (but just as often nowadays by commercial interests ). Nowadays when lay people talk about the Stanford Prison Experiment, their interest is usually in human psychology in general, or in trying to find an explanation for some (seemingly) extraordinary atrocity. But Zimbardo and others who promoted his "experiment" were interested in very ordinary and practical things, such as criminal justice and the penal system. They believed that they could and should make a difference. And what makes this story even more ambivalent is that their beliefs and prescriptions weren't all wrong either - just not necessarily for the reasons stated.

    The problem is that human psychology and social dynamics are so very complex, and we want to see a simple pattern, a story that will neatly explain it all. You can see it in Zimbardo's case, and in Sherif's, how they were seduced by the simplicity of their favored explanations to the point that they could not and would not see the confounding complexities of the real life.

    As far as that goes, reading Timothy Snyder's Black Earth can be a pretty strange experience.Srap Tasmaner

    Sounds like this is someone who is brave enough to face the imponderable complexities and honestly concede ignorance when simple explanations are found to be lacking. But saying that "people did what they chose to, period" is not even an attempt at an explanation, this is just giving up. We don't have to give up trying to find explanations, we just have to be honest and patient and never trust stereotypes and preconceptions.
  • unenlightened
    4.7k
    we already are social creatures, and we engage in manipulative games all our lives. Is it so much worse to engage in "deceit and manipulation in the name of truth and progress" than to do the same for your selfish purposes, or just for fun?SophistiCat

    I think the answer is 'yes, much much worse'. I'm not confident that I can explain it in clear terms, but I'll have a go. Firstly, a small dispute: sure we all lie and manipulate, we are all sinners, but not all our lives. For if lies were the rule, then communication would have no value. It is because the truth has value, that lies have negative value, and undermine communication. The value of crying 'wolf' when there is a wolf is obvious, and also that it is devalued by crying 'wolf' when there is no wolf. But if it was normal to cry 'wolf' when there was no wolf, then it would not mean anything more than a cough in the first place.

    We understand well enough that the boy who cried 'wolf' was doing something both anti-social and foolish. If he explained that he was investigating the nature of language and social relations, and this would make us all able to get on much better, I would not believe him, but think he was adding lies to lies to justify himself.
  • StreetlightX
    5.3k
    The philosophers of science, Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour, have long been writing about the insufficiency of the Milgram 'experiments' - which themselves made me suspicious of the Prison experiment - for quite some time. Here's a wonderful tidbit from Latour:

    "Only in the name of science is Stanley Milgram’s experiment possible ... In any other situation, the students would have punched Milgram in the face… thus displaying a very sturdy and widely understood disobedience to authority. That students obeyed Milgram’s torture does not prove they harbored some built-in tendency to violence, but demonstrates only the capacity of scientists to produce artefacts no other authority can manage to obtain, because they are undetectable. The proof of this is that Milgram died not realizing that his experiment had proven nothing about average American inner tendency to obey —except that they could give the appearance of obeying to white coats! Yes, artefacts can be obtained in the name of science, but this is not itself a scientific result, it is a consequence of the way science is handled" (Latour, Body Talk).
  • Srap Tasmaner
    2k
    But saying that "people did what they chose to, period" is not even an attempt at an explanation, this is just giving up. We don't have to give up trying to find explanations, we just have to be honest and patient and never trust stereotypes and preconceptions.SophistiCat

    Of course, and it goes without saying that I have oversimplified. ("One might say that oversimplification is the occupational hazard of philosophy, if it were not the occupation." -Austin)

    The book is well worth reading. There are explanations offered for macro phenomena (crucially, why were German Jews more likely to survive the Holocaust than, say, Polish Jews?), and there's interesting stuff about the political resources available to resist and so on. The main argument of the book has to do with institutions and state structures. I think he does his job as an historian, but stops cold at psychology and does not explain why individuals do what they did. Again, I'm simplifying.

    I was surprised to find that by the end of the paragraph I was writing about Snyder I was once again addressing the issue supposedly raised by Zimbardo, the responsibility of individuals in situations. Snyder is not a psychologist, but he works as an anti-Zimbardo.
  • Moliere
    1.7k
    I don't think you have to resort to hermitude. (is that a word?) to avoid playing games. It's just a matter of having an authentic relationship with someone. Not that this is possible for everyone, but surely we do have authentic relationships with people too.

    I have to admit that I feel skeptical about psychological science. I tend to think of humanity as primarily historical in character, without defining features which transcend our historical epoch. So it is possible to say that this group of people in this time period have these tendencies, but it is not possible to say that humanity, as a whole, shares such and such features. To do so is just to generalize from a particular historical moment to some kind of human nature. Interesting features can be revealed, but the experimental setup is just another instance of history.
  • SophistiCat
    1.2k
    Firstly, a small dispute: sure we all lie and manipulate, we are all sinners, but not all our lives.unenlightened

    I don't think you have to resort to hermitude. (is that a word?) to avoid playing games. It's just a matter of having an authentic relationship with someone.Moliere

    Deceptive and manipulative behavior isn't always a sin, and when it is, it isn't necessarily a big deal - that's my point. We do it all the time, even unconsciously, and often for good reasons: when we try to look our best, when we try to be persuasive, when we are being tactful, when we try to make someone feel good (or bad), when we avoid giving "too much information." And then there are different degrees and modes of candidness that are appropriate to different relationships: with your spouse, with your child, with a friend, with a colleague, with a shop clerk, with a police officer, etc. Someone who is absolutely candid with everyone at all times would be rightly considered a sociopath. (I know someone who says that he despises movies and theater, because he values truth and honesty. I think he is a douche.)

    There are tolerable and even desirable levels of "dishonesty," and I don't see why all of experimental psychology should be put into a zero-tolerance category. What was so distasteful or harmful about, say, Asch conformity experiments, in which an unsuspecting subject was placed among a group of actors who attempted to influence his or her judgment of the relative lengths of lines drawn on a piece of paper? (Here is another example of a psychology experiment that is as well-known as it is widely misrepresented - but in this case not by the author but by popular media and even textbooks!)


    Will reply later, sorry.
  • unenlightened
    4.7k
    Deceptive and manipulative behavior isn't always a sin, and when it is, it isn't necessarily a big deal - that's my point. We do it all the time, even unconsciously, and often for good reasons: when we try to look our best, when we try to be persuasive, when we are being tactful, when we try to make someone feel good (or bad), when we avoid giving "too much information."SophistiCat

    There is a difference between trying your best in an exam, or a sport, and cheating. There is a difference between trying to look your best and putting a photoshopped picture on your dating profile. It's a moral difference.

    What was so distasteful or harmful about, say, Asch conformity experiments, in which an unsuspecting subject was placed among a group of actors who attempted to influence his or her judgment of the relative lengths of lines drawn on a piece of paper?SophistiCat

    It beggars belief that you can seriously ask the question. In any other circumstances, it would be called gaslighting. It is a concerted and deliberate attempt to make the subject doubt his own experience and judgement, it is bound to lead to increased suspicion and paranoia. It leads very directly to the sort of manipulative advertising that is disguised as personal recommendation, and the machinations of fake news, to undermine and manipulate political opinion.

    All your acquaintances are in a conspiracy to manipulate you. How does that thought feel?

    There is general principle: if you treat people as objects, you will learn only how to manipulate them.
  • Moliere
    1.7k
    Deceptive and manipulative behavior isn't always a sin, and when it is, it isn't necessarily a big deal - that's my point. We do it all the time, even unconsciously, and often for good reasons: when we try to look our best, when we try to be persuasive, when we are being tactful, when we try to make someone feel good (or bad), when we avoid giving "too much information." And then there are different degrees and modes of candidness that are appropriate to different relationships: with your spouse, with your child, with a friend, with a colleague, with a shop clerk, with a police officer, etc. Someone who is absolutely candid with everyone at all times would be rightly considered a sociopath.SophistiCat

    Would you say that we engage in authentic relationships with people all the time, too?

    It seems that way to me.

    Authenticity is not deceptive or manipulative, I agree there. But I'm uncertain about some of your examples. Acting tactfully or trying to make someone feel good or bad are quite possibly authentic expressions or actions. It's a matter of whether or not you are tactful or want to make someone feel good or bad.

    Persuasion might be done authentically, even. It just depends on whether you believe what you are saying -- so telling someone what persuaded you isn't deceitful, while thinking up anything to change someone's belief to match what you want it to be regardless of whether you find it persuasive isn't.

    Looking your best, I agree, is not part of an authentic relationship. We treat those we love worse than those we are strangers to because we don't have to put on a show for them.



    How big of a deal it is... well, I sort of feel that a life with less deception is a happier life. So I don't know if I'd cast these things as sins, though they certainly can be in some cases. It's more that by engaging others in a strictly deceptive manner you cut yourself off -- you are only hurting yourself, because you can no longer trust people and be with them. To dovetail a bit of what @unenlightened is saying above, they become objects which, likewise, are manipulating you too, which destroys all hopes of any kind of relationship with people.


    EDIT:
    (I know someone who says that he despises movies and theater, because he values truth and honesty. I think he is a douche.)SophistiCat

    I wanted to hone in on this a bit but wasn't sure how to at first.

    There is a difference between authenticity, and valueing truth and honesty and following through in some respect because of that value. Active valuation of this sort ties into one's identity, a lot of the time. But being authentic is anything but an identity -- at least of the sort we are attached to, express in words and decide actions from. Authenticity is tied to feeling.

    Now, I don't know this someone. Perhaps he is an authentic douche. :D But there is a difference between simple candidness, the active valuation of truth/honesty, and an authentic relationship -- one seems to be caught up in pure self-expression, whereas the other includes someone else and is felt prior to any expression.



    How does any of that relate to the OP? Well, it's a bit tangential. I just felt it was important to say, and hoped that maybe it related after the fact. Maybe with a bit more work it will.
  • SophistiCat
    1.2k
    The philosophers of science, Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour, have long been writing about the insufficiency of the Milgram 'experiments' - which themselves made me suspicious of the Prison experiment - for quite some time.StreetlightX

    I don't really understand your or Latour's point here. Insufficiency for what? Milgram himself had certain psychological models in mind that he wanted to test with his experiments; he also believed that the experiments provided clues to the psychology of willing collaborators in Nazi atrocities. I am aware that, in light of those models and those examples, his experiments have been criticized for various infidelities, and alternative interpretations have been proposed. His data has been reanalyzed and criticized (but there have also been successful replications). And of course, there are grave ethical problems with those experiments. But I don't understand what this criticism is about:

    Only in the name of science is Stanley Milgram’s experiment possible ... In any other situation, the students would have punched Milgram in the face… — Latour

    For me the larger lesson is that ordinary people are quite capable of doing horrible things in circumstances that are not even that extraordinary - the banality of evil, as Arendt famously put it. Of course, as @Bitter Crank points out, we already know this, or should know, if we pay attention to what has been going on around us. A scientific experiment is intended not to prove the point, but to tease out the mechanisms behind this phenomenon, and that is what Milgram attempted to do. Whether or not he was successful, that is a matter for careful analysis and replication, not breathy rhetoric. It is easy for Latour to sit there and speculate about what the students would have done "in any other situation." Milgram meanwhile conducted a number of variations of the experiment to see just what they would do in which situations. And indeed, in some setups he saw "obedience rate" plunge all the way to zero (the widely circulated figure of 66% was obtained in only one of the experiments).
  • SophistiCat
    1.2k
    A different question about Milgram and Zimbardo: By the time they began their research, we had been through 2 world wars, a brutal regional war in Korea, and were in the middle of a second brutal regional war in Vietnam. Much research has been published on the behavior of the SS, the Gestapo, Jews, Aryans, et al in Germany during the years of National Socialism. Was there something that history wasn't telling Milgram, Simbardo, et al about manipulation, brutality, dehumanization, submission, studied ignorance, and so forth that wasn't available in the histories?Bitter Crank

    As a side-note, while reading the SPE article in particular, as well as some of the others, I was struck by the choice of historical examples that journalists used to illustrate the relevance of their stories: the Nazis, the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. (The choice was not entirely subjective: the latter two events also marked a spike in the public interest in the SPE study with its promise of rationalization.) OK, so Nazi crimes are a common reference. But why the My Lai massacre and not any of the atrocities perpetrated by other sides of the conflict? Why Abu Ghraib abuses and not the torture and abuse in Iraqi-ran prisons that went on since well before the US invasion, and continues uninterrupted to this day (not to mention numerous other places around the world)?

    There is, of course, the famous American insularity, obliviousness to anything that does not directly concern them. But I suspect that there is also a kind of racism at work: it is one thing when some swarthy Orientals do something horrible - that's the sort of thing they would do, wouldn't they? It is only when our American boys are doing it that the incidents cry out for an explanation. And the effect of this attitude is that such incidents appear to be very rare and atypical, and can after all be dismissed as freak occurrences, while the people involved can be dismissed as a few bad apples that just need to be sorted out. That is probably why experiments like Milgram's are found to be so disconcerting, as if the facts themselves, rather than their interpretations, were something new and unexpected.

    I want to circle back on a point made in the OP article:

    The appeal of the Stanford prison experiment seems to go deeper than its scientific validity, perhaps because it tells us a story about ourselves that we desperately want to believe: that we, as individuals, cannot really be held accountable for the sometimes reprehensible things we do. As troubling as it might seem to accept Zimbardo’s fallen vision of human nature, it is also profoundly liberating. It means we’re off the hook. Our actions are determined by circumstance.

    “You have a vertigo when you look into it,” Le Texier explained. “It’s like, ‘Oh my god, I could be a Nazi myself. I thought I was a good guy, and now I discover that I could be this monster.’ And in the meantime, it’s quite reassuring, because if I become a monster, it’s not because deep inside me I am the devil, it’s because of the situation. I think that’s why the experiment was so famous in Germany and Eastern Europe. You don’t feel guilty. ‘Oh, okay, it was the situation. We are all good guys. No problem. It’s just the situation made us do it.’ So it’s shocking, but at the same time it’s reassuring. I think these two messages of the experiment made it famous.”Ben Blum

    I rather see a danger in a different kind of self-satisfied complacency: Such terrible things happen rarely, and with people that are not like us. Surely, I am not capable of this, people I know are not capable of this. It can't happen here!

    Open your eyes! It has been happening everywhere, all the time! That's not a reason to put all the blame on the situation, of course. But neither should we delude ourselves in thinking that we and the people around us are immune, that we have progressed, learned our lessons, became finer, kinder creatures. The fuck we did.
  • SophistiCat
    1.2k
    I was surprised to find that by the end of the paragraph I was writing about Snyder I was once again addressing the issue supposedly raised by Zimbardo, the responsibility of individuals in situations. Snyder is not a psychologist, but he works as an anti-Zimbardo.Srap Tasmaner

    Yes, I think I understand what you mean. It's hard to say just what Zimbardo aimed to prove - his 'experiment' was a mess and the legacy of his activism appears to be mixed. There is this view that he and the likes of him attempted to shift the responsibility from individuals to situations, circumstances. I don't know. The question of responsibility is a difficult one, and the answer won't come from facts alone. Like with all ethical questions, ought does not follow from is.
  • Bitter Crank
    8.7k
    So, what were the building blocks that had to be in place to enable otherwise good German people to do horrible things?

    The drive of National Socialists (Nazis) to capitalize on discontents

    a) An open subculture of deviance (the Wiemar period)
    b) A perceived national humiliation after TKO in WWI
    c) A collapsed economy (post-WWI hyper-inflation in Germany, followed by global depression)
    d) Intense conflict between Communists and Nazis for ideological dominance
    e) A very intense and long propaganda drive to demonize Jews as a contaminating other
    f) Traditions of authority and obedience in family, school, church, work, and society
    g) Long-standing and strong antisemitism in Germany, Poland, Baltic area, Ukraine, and Russia

    The French, Italians, British, Scandinavians, Hungarians, et al didn't have share the circumstances and history of Germany.

    The atrocities and dark decades of the Soviet Union didn't spring from the same conditions as did the atrocities and dark decades in Germany.

    Neither did the American Experience. We too perpetrated world-class atrocities (extensive slavery and genocide). These practices began when we were still part of the British Empire, which went on to produce a few of it's own atrocities and dark decades. But we can't blame the British for our persistence after independence. From the standpoint of blacks and native Americans, we never did sincerely cease and desist. That's why they are where they are in American society.

    So, Mai Lai may have been a relatively isolated event as far as American troops were concerned, but it didn't seize the public (at least as far as I can remember). The anti-war groups and others were properly appalled, but they (we) were pretty much appalled all the time anyway. The Vietnamese were effectively an "other" group. Outré. Not like us. They were important only because they were perceived as a domino piece that would lead to a wider more Communist Asia -- and of course, the cliché, "If we don't stop them there we will have to fight them on the coast of California".

    The Anti-war people didn't know much about Vietnam either. They were the abstraction of "victims of U.S. militarism" -- not real people, for the most part.

    What were the conditions which enabled Milgram and Zimbardo to coax American college students into behaving badly?

    Reasonably well educated Americans (not just college graduates) tend to view science and scientists favorably. What scientists do (SCIENCE!) is a good thing, by its very nature.

    Participating in actual scientific experiments has a positive status value. Plus, it is usually at least moderately -- and sometimes very -- interesting.

    While we do value life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the Republic for which it stands, we also tend to be ardent individualists with a strong (sometimes residual) streak of a Calvinist and Roman Catholic theology which considers us to be fallen and prone to sin. It's a fatalistic streak in a generally positive outlook.

    College students almost never live in a "total institution" -- colleges are pretty porous socially -- but colleges are somewhat 'set aside', and students do tend to be away from their home and childhood community for the first time and may not behave quite the same in college as they would back in Peoria or Brooklyn or San Diego.

    TO MAKE A LONG STORY SHORT, SS troops didn't guard Auschwitz for the same reasons American troops killed peasants at Mai Lai, and American college students didn't participate in Milgram's experiments for the same reasons that Germans calmly watched Jews being shipped off "to the east".

    The lesson is that we can perform very bad acts when the situation is properly (even if not deliberately) set up.

    Right now, almost certainly normal, good people--American ICE agents--are separating crying toddlers from horrified parents and keeping them separately, well out of sight of each other in custodial detention. They are doing this because it is part of a national policy which many Americans agree with (limiting immigration, especially illegal immigration across the border) and maybe feel that separating parents and children for a while will be sufficiently traumatic to discourage another attempt at entry, after they are deported.

    Extreme political statements, intense media coverage over the last decade or two, economic dislocation, declining standard of living and declining income among working class people, immigrant waves moving around elsewhere in the world, etc.--all contributes to the ability of ordinary people to perform this separation of children and parents.
  • SophistiCat
    1.2k
    It beggars beliefunenlightened

    That kind of describes my reaction to your posts here, U. I don't know what to think of your exaggerated slippery-slope appeals. I am afraid there is not a sufficient common ground for us to have a discussion.

    I take your point about honesty, or what you call authenticity in relationships. At the end of the day it all boils down not to formal, factual criteria, like whether some deception or some manipulation is taking place, but to an ethical valuation of the entire action, which is itself not reducible to any matters of fact or to any labels. The question thus posed becomes simple to formulate but not always simple to answer.

    Is a researcher conducting a psychological experiment on other people acting ethically? That was the actual question behind this side discussion. And after all is said the answer does not become any more obvious than it was at the beginning of the discussion. If I feel that a psychological experiment is ethically acceptable, then pointing out that this experiment involves manipulation and deception won't change my mind. Without even appealing to counter-examples, like I did before, I could just turn the argument around and say that, since clearly this experiment is ethically acceptable, then some manipulation and deception can be ethically acceptable.
  • SophistiCat
    1.2k
    TO MAKE A LONG STORY SHORT, SS troops didn't guard Auschwitz for the same reasons American troops killed peasants at Mai Lai, and American college students didn't participate in Milgram's experiments for the same reasons that Germans calmly watched Jews being shipped off "to the east".Bitter Crank

    Well, that is what motivates studies (or "demonstrations") like Zimbardo's and Milgrams on the one hand, and serves as the main target for criticism on the other: the idea that there are some elements, some psychological mechanisms that these seemingly very different actions have in common, and that those elements are key to understanding them (and perhaps for affecting positive changes).
  • unenlightened
    4.7k
    I don't know what to think of your exaggerated slippery-slope appeals. I am afraid there is not a sufficient common ground for us to have a discussion.SophistiCat

    Trop Kantian pour vous?

    If I feel that a psychological experiment is ethically acceptable, then pointing out that this experiment involves manipulation and deception won't change my mindSophistiCat

    Are you saying that manipulation and deception are morally neutral? It does not seem possible that you think truth and falsehood are morally equivalent, for then indeed there is nothing to be said worth anything. But if not, then deception must be justified by an utilitarian argument of greater good. This surely, is the positive argument put before the ethics committee and the justification presented in defence of all the experiments we are talking about. Deception is justified in terms of the search for truth, and manipulation in terms of the prevention of malign manipulation.

    So one says that the deception is temporary and minor, and the truth will be important and permanent, and so on. And decades later, it starts to appear that gold standard world-famous experiments do not result in truth. This is not a slippery slope argument at all, but a biting critique of the ethical justification presented by the experimenters on their own utilitarian moral terms. And this is your topic, so it seems that your mind is after all open persuasion on the matter.

    But I won't rehearse here the detailed critique I have made elsewhere of experimental psychology, and the central role it has played in what I see as destructive social forces playing out in current affairs.
  • Bitter Crank
    8.7k
    I am inclined to favor experiments like Milgram's and Zimbardo's, as long as they are well designed, have some level of institutional oversight, consent is informed, and so on. (Trouble is, getting all that in place can be very difficult to impossible these days). Can you imagine the outrage that would overwhelm a researcher who proposed Milgram's experiment on today's hypersensitive campuses?

    On the one hand, there are lessons to be learned from history, but on the other hand, granular level studies of behavior have to be set up in labs for close observation, or be derived from extensive interviewing and fact checking.

    There are many real-life behaviors that could, possibly, be researched in a lab set up: What leads to failure to practice safer sex (an important issue in HIV reduction programs)? What are the factors that enable ostensibly honest upright people to steal (shoplift, skim cash, cart off company goods...)? What are the factors that enable serious, ostensibly honest politicians (at local and state levels) to heed the blandishments of lobbyists? and so on...

    We know that "brute force" can change behavior. For instance, employees can be very intrusively monitored to make sure they don't steal anything. As it happens, though, people fortunately live most of their lives in settings where they are not (so far) intensively or intrusively observed. A Kansas state senator goes to lunch with a constituent, and ends up changing his mind, quite contrary to how he normally thinks. It might have been a crude payoff that swayed his vote, but it might have been a much more subtle approach. What is it that works, in these settings? (My interest here would be in helping Kansas state senators resist manipulation, rather than finding more effective ways of subverting democracy).

    Military and authoritarian governments deploy brute force routinely -- it goes with the territory. We understand how that works, at least I think we do. It is in situations where brute force isn't being applied to an individual that things get interesting.
  • Moliere
    1.7k
    Is a researcher conducting a psychological experiment on other people acting ethically? That was the actual question behind this side discussion. And after all is said the answer does not become any more obvious than it was at the beginning of the discussion. If I feel that a psychological experiment is ethically acceptable, then pointing out that this experiment involves manipulation and deception won't change my mind. Without even appealing to counter-examples, like I did before, I could just turn the argument around and say that, since clearly this experiment is ethically acceptable, then some manipulation and deception can be ethically acceptable.SophistiCat

    I think at that point we'd have to ask -- what makes it ethically acceptable?

    Deception and manipulation are ethically accept in certain circumstances. The ax murderer is deterred from murder because of our manipulation, and that is more than acceptable but even good. I'd say that putting on your best face at work is a more everyday example of manipulation that is acceptable, because work is tied to survival. Protecting yourself and your loved ones from those who want to exploit them would be another ethically acceptable justification for manipulation, at least if our deceptions are directed at the people intending harm.

    I don't know if I buy that science is a justification. Science doesn't lead to progress. It leads to knowledge. And knowledge is value-neutral -- it can be used for good or ill.

    And then there is the question of whether or not said science does lead to knowledge. Here it seems that these stories at least challenge that, though under the auspices of accepting psychology as a scientific discipline. It's one of those things where if you're a scientist you'll say that we are perfecting knowledge and we can expect errors along the way, and if you are not you'll take it as evidence that the enterprise cannot deliver on its promise.

    Maybe it's better to put that aside though and just ask -- what fruits are born from said research? Do the circumstances we find our practitioners of science in justify manipulation, in a similar way to other cases of manipulation that we find ethically acceptable?
  • SophistiCat
    1.2k
    Are you saying that manipulation and deception are morally neutral? It does not seem possible that you think truth and falsehood are morally equivalent, for then indeed there is nothing to be said worth anything. But if not, then deception must be justified by an utilitarian argument of greater good.unenlightened

    I think at that point we'd have to ask -- what makes it ethically acceptable?Moliere

    I want to challenge this presumption that an action can only be given an ethical valuation by sorting it into some preexisting categories - or more generally, reducing it to something else. And if I answer Moliere's question, i.e. point to something else as a reason for my moral valuation, wouldn't the next question be "What justifies the valuation of that thing?" And why choose this reduction and not some other? Now I admit that reductive ethical analysis of particular situations is a very practical thing to do, and in many cases the analysis can be made straightforward by making use of heuristic shortcuts (e.g. "do no harm"), but in contentious cases we should not just blindly assume things.

    And we should be especially wary of simplistic formalism, such as two legs deception = bad.

    I am skeptical of all formalism when it comes to ethics, i.e. I am skeptical about a priori ethical theories and principles, be they based on utility or virtue or something else. As descriptions of our ethical reasoning they can work more-or-less well, but not as justifications in themselves.

    The way we often approach ethical problems is by finding resemblance with iconic cases, about which we have strong moral opinions. But this reduction base of iconic cases is itself not given to us at birth, once and for all. It grows and evolves, and a case that was once in question can in time join the store of iconic cases, while another iconic case may be judged to be insufficiently indicative or altogether deprecated. Thus I am not being flippant when I say that the argument that says that the Asch experiment (say) is unethical because it looks suspiciously like gaslighting can be turned around. If I take the Asch experiment as a paradigmatic example of an ethical experiment that nonetheless has some parallels with the nightmarish scenario described in the play "Gaslight," then my takeaway is that not every case that can be loosely characterized as gaslighting is ethically unacceptable.

    I'll meet @unenlightened half-way in conceding that deception and manipulation is prima facie ethically suspect, so we should take particular care in such cases. But that's as far as I'll go. How can we take care? Well, if the case is not obvious, we can try weighing the good against the bad (whether utilitarian or otherwise). For example, many competitive games involve deception and manipulation and other adversarial tactics, and if that was all there was to such games, then playing them would be hard to justify to oneself. But many people see some good in playing games (with certain reservations, obviously), and that must outweigh whatever qualms they might have about tactics. (For a more controversial example listen to this This American Life story about one man's experience playing Diplomacy.)

    I don't know if I buy that science is a justification. Science doesn't lead to progress. It leads to knowledge. And knowledge is value-neutral -- it can be used for good or ill.Moliere

    In my book seeking knowledge is a good in and of itself, irregardless of whether it leads to progress and whether progress itself is good. It is not such good that can override any other consideration, but it is good. I generally approve of science, although not being an expert, I cannot really gauge the quality of psychological theories and experiments qua science.
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