Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Why some people do bad things

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It can be because of the social construct they inhabit:

Why do human beings commit despicable acts? One answer points to individual dispositions; another answer emphasizes situational pressures. In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stressed the importance of individual dispositions in describing terrorists as “simply evil people who want to kill.” Situationists reject this view. They believe that horrible acts can be committed by perfectly normal people. The most extreme situationists insist that in the right circumstances, almost all of us might be led to commit atrocities.

The situationist view has received strong support from some of the most famous experiments in social science, conducted by the psychologist Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s. In those experiments, ordinary people were asked to administer electric shocks to a person sitting in an adjacent room. Milgram’s subjects were told, falsely, that the purpose of the experiments was to test the effects of punishment on memory. Unbeknown to the experiment’s subjects, the person in that adjacent room was Milgram’s confederate, and there were no real shocks. The apparent shocks were delivered by a simulated shock generator, offering thirty clearly delineated voltage levels, ranging from 15 to 450 volts, accompanied by verbal descriptions ranging from “Slight Shock” to “XXX.” As the experiment unfolded, the subject was asked to administer increasingly severe shocks for incorrect answers, well past the “Danger, Severe Shock” level, which began at 375 volts.

In Milgram’s original experiments, the subjects included forty men between the ages of twenty and fifty. They came from a range of occupations, including engineers, high school teachers, and postal clerks. What do you think you would do as a participant in such an experiment? What do you think that others would do? Most people predict that in such studies almost all subjects would refuse to proceed to the end of the series of shocks. The expected break-off point is the “Very Strong Shock” of 195 volts. In Milgram’s experiment, however, every one of the forty subjects went beyond 300 volts. A large majority — twenty-six of the forty subjects, or 65 percent — went to the full 450-volt shock, five steps beyond “Danger, Severe Shock.” Replications of Milgram’s experiments, with thousands of diverse people in numerous countries, show essentially the same behavior. And women do not behave differently from men.

Milgram explained his results as demonstrating obedience to authority, in a way reminiscent of the behavior of Germans under Nazi rule. Indeed, he conducted his experiments in large part to understand how the Holocaust could have happened. Milgram concluded that ordinary people will follow orders even if the result is to produce great suffering in innocent others. Asked whether something like Nazism could occur in the United States, Milgram memorably replied that “if a system of death camps were set up in the United States of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany, one would be able to find sufficient personnel for those camps in any medium-sized American town.”

Milgram’s experiments involved an authority figure, in the form of a professor explicitly asking people to participate in an apparently reputable experiment. In 1971, Philip Zimbardo conducted a different study of situational influences. The basic idea was to ask ordinary young men to act as either prisoners or guards in a mock prison for a period of two weeks. Zimbardo’s remarkable finding was that after just a few days, apparently normal people, acting as guards in the mock prison, turned cruel and even sadistic — not because anyone ordered them to act that way, but as a result of the role in which they found themselves. As a consequence of the cruelty of the guards and the disintegration of several of the prisoners, Zimbardo’s experiment had to be terminated after only six days.

In his new book, Zimbardo gives the full story of the Stanford Prison Experiment for the first time. Generalizing from that story, he suggests that dispositionism is a serious error, that good and evil are largely a function of our contexts and our roles, and that almost all of us are capable of real evil, given the proper situation. Zimbardo uses his experiment to cast light on diverse problems, including the conduct of American soldiers at Abu Ghraib, airplane accidents, human inaction in the face of evident cruelty, the mistreatment of patients in hospitals, and the behavior of suicide bombers and terrorists in general.

The Stanford Prison Experiment started with an ad in a local newspaper asking for volunteers for a study of prison life, lasting two weeks and paying $15 a day (about $75 by current standards). Seventy of those who answered the ad were called to Stanford for interviews and to take a series of psychological tests. All seventy were American college students; most had completed summer-school courses at Stanford or Berkeley. Twenty-four of them were selected on the ground that they were the most healthy and normal. Half were randomly assigned to be prison guards; the other half were randomly assigned to be prisoners. All of them indicated that they would prefer to be prisoners, in part on the ground that while they could not imagine being a prison guard after college, they could imagine being in jail, and they thought that they might learn from the experience. (Remember, this was 1971.) All of them agreed to participate through informed consent forms. They were also informed that if they were assigned the role of prisoners, they would suffer deprivations of their civil rights and have only minimally adequate diet and medical care. Those assigned to be prisoners were also told to wait at home on a particular Sunday, when they would be contacted to begin the experiment.

On that day, they were surprised to find…

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

24 May 2007 at 6:31 am

Posted in Books, Daily life

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