I recently watched a fascinating documentary jointly broadcast on the Sundance Channel and Court TV. The Human Behavior Experiments was directed by Alex Gibney (who also made the excellent Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room). Now I can’t stop thinking about it.
In the compass of an hour, Gibney and his collaborators touched down on many of social psychology’s most important formal experiments (and “accidental” learning experiences): Stanley Milgram’s famous early-sixties experiment in obedience, in which 2/3 of his subjects obeyed an authority figure even though they believed themselves to be administering near-fatal shocks to others; Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 experiment in which student “guards” quickly descended into brutality when placed in a situation of dominance over fellow student “prisoners” (this is one of the first things I wrote about when I started this blog just over two years ago); the 1964 New York murder of Kitty Genovese, where 38 witnesses stood at their windows watching her be fatally stabbed; and more recent events, leading up to the dehumanizing acts at Abu Ghraib, which perfectly reproduced the results of Zimbardo’s prison experiment.
A 1968 study by John Darley and Bibb Latané showed that when a lone test subject learned through a phone connection between the two that another person was in physical distress, the first subject generally sought help right away. But when several voices could be heard through the phone line, the subject delayed seeking help, sometimes forever. Darley and Latané discovered that how long a subject waited to offer help was in inverse proportion to how many others they believed to be involved. Some call this “the Genovese effect,” suggesting that it was the fact that so many people watched Kitty Genovese’s attack that stopped any of them from acting even by calling the police. Our will to action is clearest when we believe responsibility rests solely with ourselves.
All the experimenters interviewed agreed on one stark point: most people will go along with immoral or degrading orders or sit back while others are harmed. Even though you and I may think we would be the exceptions, time after time, the odds indicate that in such situations, the average person is far more likely than not to go along with the bad guys.
Philip Zimbardo pointed out that almost every general and Defense Department spokesperson commenting on Abu Ghraib made reference to the culpability of “a few bad apples,” but in truth, he said, it was the barrel itself—the social container of rules, authorities and expectations—that was rotten.
This seems like a pretty straightforward moral lesson, no? But I can’t say I ever saw it quite this way before. In my formative years, no one said to me, “Know that you will do this unless you take pains in advance, preparing yourself to withstand such pressure.”
Stanley Milgram was led into his obedience experiment by the Nazis’ attempted extermination of the Jews and others who deviated from their racial norms. He might as well have been inspired by slavery or the trail of tears or the internment of Japanese Americans. How could so many otherwise normal, good people do these things?
Like every other Jewish kid of my generation, I was taught about the Holocaust. I sat in on quite a few discussions of ethical questions framed in its image: were German soldiers justified in defending their actions by saying they were “just following orders”? What would you do if your commanding officer gave such an order? But even though such questions had a keen emotional intensity for my family, these thought-experiments were a little bit abstract. I would never be a solider, I was sure. I would never allow myself to be in that situation, so it was moot. Meanwhile, every day in school brought another lesson in obedience to authority; and every insubordination brought punishment. Sow these lessons and reap the result: biddable personalities like the young soldiers at Abu Ghraib, Haditha and Guantanamo.
I think it’s time to change the lesson plan.
Now I feel like running outside and corralling the kids I hear playing in the street. “Listen to me,” I imagine myself saying, “if anyone ever tells you to hurt or degrade another person, refuse, no matter who it is.” And when they say that will never happen to them, I see myself telling them about the experiments, just so they know: “This is the default setting,” I explain, “most people will go along with the boss or the crowd. If you want to be the exception, you have to start practicing now.”
All of us.