Monday, April 12, 2010

It's All Fun Until Somebody Loses an Eye

I've long been fascinated by Stanley Milgram's 1960 obedience experiment, in which people administered what they thought were lethal electric shocks to another person, who was actually a confederate of the experimenter; and by Philip Zimbardo's 1971 Stanford prison experiment, in which male college students, divided randomly into "guards" and "prisoners," showed how easily people fall into scripted roles, the guards turning abusive and the prisoners mostly submissive within just a few days. (Zimbardo himself, who complicated matters somewhat by appointing himself the prison superintendent as well as the director of the experiment, played his own role to the hilt, probably as he'd learned it from old movies.)

Both these canonical explorations of human nature get dredged up whenever there's a crisis, such as Abu Ghraib, to be tutted over and explained away. I've seen references to Milgram, especially, in the wake of Wikileak's release of a military video showing an American helicopter crew slaughtering Iraqi civilians in 2007. I don't remember much of what I thought about Zimbardo's experiment when I first heard about it, but nowadays I find myself asking different questions, especially when I read Tamler Sommers's interview with Zimbardo in A Very Bad Wizard. I know that I need to read Zimbardo's recent book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (Random House, 2007), but it's over 500 pages long and I don't know when I'll be able to do that. Martha Nussbaum's review is here, though, and it raises some interesting points. For now, I'll have to trust that Sommers represents accurately what Zimbardo said to him.

Somewhere on the web I saw someone dismissing Milgram's work because his subjects were all college students, but this apparently is wrong. Zimbardo explained to Sommers that
His subjects weren't Yale students, though he did it at Yale. They were a thousand ordinary citizens from New Haven and Bridgeport, Connecticut, ages twenty to fifty. In his advertisement in the newspaper he said: college students and high-school students cannot be used. It could have been a selection of people who were more psychopathic. For our study, we only picked two dozen of seventy-five who applied, those who scored normal or average on seven different personality tests. So we knew there were no psychopaths, no deviants. Nobody had been in therapy, and even though it was a drug era, nobody (at least in the reports) had taken anything beyond marijuana, and they were physically healthy at the time. So the question was: suppose you only had kids who were normally healthy, psychologically and physically, and they knew they would be going into a prisonlike environment and that some of their civil rights would be sacrificed. Would those good people put in that bad, evil place -- would their goodness triumph? It should have! [33]
I'm a little less sanguine about the "goodness" of those people than Zimbardo is. He also says that "It was 1971 and a time of enormous social change in our country, especially in California, where a lot of social movements started. The hippies, the love-ins, the be-ins, the beat poets -- all of it was here. There was a strong antiwar movement; I was heavily involved in that ... And the question is: how much of that is rhetoric? Do we have a new generation of independent free thinkers?" [32]. That's all very well, but I wouldn't take for granted that "normal" college students got involved in the antiwar movement; I think Zimbardo is begging the question here, though I also doubt it makes a big difference. I'm just, you know, curious. If his recruits hadn't used any drugs beyond marijuana, they may well have been normal college kids of the day, but were they typical of the counterculture?

Zimbardo's account of the experiment, of his own paranoia as prison superintendent -- he became obsessed with the fantasy that a "prisoner" who broke down and had to be released "was going to lead a prison break-in" (36) -- and of the way that not only the students but the chaplain and the students' parents fell into line with the conceit of the experiment, is fascinating and chilling. In the end the experiment was only terminated because Christina Maslach, one of Zimbardo's graduate students, told him (as Zimbardo recalls it), "This is horrendous! This is dehumanization. This is a violation of everything that humanity stands for. And you're allowing this to happen, basically" (45). (As just about everybody, including Sommers, feels compelled to tell us, Zimbardo and Maslach got married the following year. Why do these heterosexuals always feel compelled to shove their sex lives down our throats?)

Given Sommers's interest in questions of free will and responsibility, it's not surprising that he asks Zimbardo about them.
TS: ... It seemed that in other interviews that people were worried about your work being a threat to moral responsibility and free will. And often, it seems, you assured them that it isn't. You say a few times in the book, "I'm not saying they're not responsible, this isn't 'excusology' -- they're still responsible for their immoral behavior." In one interview I think you even used the phrase "ultimately responsible." My take here is the opposite. It seems like your work does undermine moral responsibility. I mean, look at the Stanford Prison Experiment. It was a coin toss that led the guards to be where they were. How can we hold people responsible for bad luck, for a bad coin toss? [47]
This is a revealing distortion. The students were not responsible for the results of a coin toss -- they were responsible for what they did in the places they were assigned as a result of the coin toss. I say "students" there because this applies both to those who became "guards" and those who became "prisoners." I can't help thinking that a professional philosopher should be more scrupulous than this in his thinking, but hey, Sommers isn't responsible either, nobody is. Like Mongo, we are just pawns in game of life. Anyway, Sommers presses on:
TS: Let's talk about the free-will question for a moment. In the interviews I've heard, you seem to try to dodge questions about free will.

PZ: Yes. ... I mean, free will is something people really want to believe in. It's the inner individual control over his or her fate. Certainly individualistic societies want to believe in it. We want to believe -- that's the most fundamental motivation. I did it because I chose to do it. In fact, one reason the book [The Lucifer Effect] doesn't sell is that nobody wants to hear this argument. It's just alien to what it means to be a citizen, to be a person. ...

But I think it's an illusion. I just read a great quote this morning -- something like, "I don't believe in God, but I miss him." I don't know who said that, but it's like ... I don't really believe in free will, but I can't live without it. I can't live without the belief. I think it's about the dignity of individuals.

TS: But it's an illusion nevertheless.

PZ: I think I would have to say free will is an illusion. A lot of control is an illusion. Advertisers give you an illusion of control: You're choosing Kellogg's Corn Flakes over another brand because ... Or take all the tobacco companies. Their whole thing was freedom of choice -- that the anti-smoking fanatics are taking away your freedom of choice, and you have the freedom to choose to smoke whenever you want, wherever you want, So it's giving people an illusion of choice [49-51].
As I've said before, if free will is an illusion, then it's pointless to bitch about the illusion. Zimbardo ties himself in knots here: people can't help believing in free will, and they shouldn't, but they can't because they don't have free will. Maybe he's right, but I think it should be possible to be a bit more coherent about the matter if you've thought about it a lot.

But I think Zimbardo is wrong, partly because he doesn't understand the philosophical issues involved and partly because people often want to believe in free will and responsibility for other people, but not for themselves or people they want to excuse for whatever reason. When they get caught doing something they shouldn't, it's not their fault. When the antigay evangelist Billy James Hargis was caught coercing students of both sexes into his bed, he blamed his chromosomes. (But aren't adultery and sodomy choices, Reverend Hargis? Only when other people do them, I guess.) When Christian antigay campaigner Anita Bryant decided to divorce her husband and took flack from her fellow Baptists, she accused them of being a bunch of narrow-minded Bible thumpers. Many people complain about how bad television is, but they'd rather watch American Idol than read The Critique of Pure Reason. There are plenty of strategies for evading responsibility; those are just a few of them.

In the paper on free will that I mentioned before, Antony Flew cleared away a certain amount of deadwood that seems to have accumulated again since. When someone says, "I had no choice" (like Martin's Luther's "Here I stand, I can do no other"), we usually understand them to mean that they had no reasonable alternative. Flew gave the example of a bank manager, a gun held to his head, who gives the robber the bank's money as ordered. We understand "he had no choice" to mean that it is not reasonable to expect him to put the bank's money before his life -- he did choose, but his choices were limited. On the other hand, a man who is picked up by hoodlums and thrown through a plate glass window has no choice. When we channel surf, when we get a divorce, when we assume an odor of sanctity while secretly seducing our students, we are choosing, however much we want to believe that our freedom is on vacation at the moment. I suspect that The Lucifer's Effect's slow sales (which didn't keep it from going into paperback) could be due to people's not wanting to be reminded of the times they chose not to do the difficult thing. Not that I blame them, I'm no different; but I do insist that we chose.

Zimbardo planned the structure of the Prison Experiment carefully in advance, with familiar forms of coercion in place. Among his advisors was a prisoner on parole, whom he made head of the experiment's parole board (41-42). This guy was merciless in denying parole to petitioners in the experiment (which, remember, lasted only a few days). Sommers says, "You'd think that if anyone would be sensitive to the sort of suffering that goes with being in front of a parole board, it would be Carlo. And yet he jumped into the role with both feet." Zimbardo agrees: "He told me afterward, when the whole thing was over, 'When I think back it makes me sick.'" I find this odd. The point of the experiment, as everyone knew, was not to create a model humane prison, but to replicate an institution of coercion and unequal power. Carlo was playing the role he was supposed to play, and which had been played in real life by others who had real power over him. The same goes for everyone, including the prisoners and Zimbardo himself, who seems to have relished playing The Warden from a Jimmy Cagney movie while the game lasted.

Human beings have several thousand years of experience in creating coercive institutions: governments, prisons, schools, families, armies. I don't consider it remarkable or magical that, when someone constructs a replica of one of those institutions, that people in it fall into step with what is expected of them, especially when it was explained to them from the beginning what the plan was and what they were supposed to do in it. Plus, as my reference to old movies suggests, we've grown up seeing these roles played, even practiced them in "play" as children. (In a smart review of the 1990 movie version of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, an allegory of Original Sin and innate human depravity in which pubescent boys are stranded on an island without adults and turn into Savages, Gary Giddins pointed out that the boys were not blank slates: they knew from stories and TV shows and movies how Wild Indians and African Savages were supposed to behave, and followed the script.) By the time we are adults we've had two decades of training in exercising and submitting to authority. We are taught very little about disobedience, especially thoughtful disobedience, which takes as much practice as obedience. Despite that, people do disobey from childhood onward.

Zimbardo says that no one in his experiment rebelled, but that's not quite true. Some did, but they were punished and put back in their place. In Milgram's experiment, according to Sommers's summary, one-third of the subjects refused to obey when ordered to administer shocks to another person merely for answering questions incorrectly. I'd say one-third is a significant number when you consider how disobedience to authoritative-acting adults is discouraged, even in our supposedly individualistic society. Do we know anything about the people who disobeyed? (I'll have to read Milgram too.) Were there differences between them and those who obeyed? ... But any study of people who disobey would be co-opted by institutions of coercion to try to figure out how to stamp out the disobedient.

Near the end of the interview Zimbardo touches on this.
It's like the elementary school teacher who didn't let you get out of your seat unless you raised your hand to go to the toilet. And it didn't matter if you peed in your pants. I still remember in first grade, a little girl raised her hand and said, "I have to go to the bathroom." The teacher said, "No, put your hand down." The kid peed all over herself. Everybody laughed at her. We carry these kinds of heuristics and we never get trained to be wary of the exception to the rule. Because that's where the danger lies. Sometimes the majority is wrong. In Nazi Germany, the majority was saying, "We gotta kill Jews." ... [56]

Whenever you walk into a situation, the first thing you do is look for the exits, because you know if there's a fire, everybody's going to go to the exit they came in through, and you'll be crushed. And you're going to walk out the other one. It should be part of our basic training, of being situationally sensitive, situationally savvy.

TS: Basic training at the parental level or the school level?

PZ: The school level, because again, most people are good most of the time, but there's always a bad apple. Three's always the bully of the class. There's always the hustler. ...

TS: You can always stumble in a bad barrel [57].
Whoa! I know Zimbardo means well, but he's tripping. Schools are in a difficult position to begin with, because they are handed large numbers of children and not enough money, plus a cultural mandate to make those children behave, obey. Many parents want it that way. The structure of the school day is meant to teach "discipline"-- sitting in one place doing boring things, ruled by the clock, asking permission to go to the bathroom -- as preparation for the adult workplace. Zimbardo rightly singles out the abusive teacher who wouldn't let a first-grader [!] go to the bathroom when she asked according to the rules, but why should children have to ask permission in the first place? Partly it's to avoid chaos, but that can be avoided by other means. Mostly it's to teach them to obey authority. (Orwell's 1984: "‘How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?’ Winston thought. ‘By making him suffer,’ he said.") Many, maybe even most teachers don't want to do things that way, because they know that children don't learn well in a coercive environment. But the schools themselves, as they are designed, are a bad barrel to begin with. I agree that everybody needs to learn situational skepticism, but nobody wants it to start on their watch.

[P.S.: Notice Zimbardo's remark, "most people are good most of the time, but there's always a bad apple." In practice, in schools and in families, "good" means "obedient." The person who refuses to do what he or she is told, who questions authority, is a troublemaker, one of the bad ones. Again, shouldn't philosophers and psychologists think about such things?]

Finally, Zimbardo declares,
Most heroes, most heroic acts, are also done by ordinary people who aren't special in any way. They just happen to be put into a certain situation of emergency, or evil, of immorality, of corruption, that gives them the opportunity to act on it.

TS: Joe Darby, the Abu Ghraib whistle-blower, for example. You discuss him in your book.

PZ: Yes. Most people are ordinary people put in a situation, often only once in their lifetime, that gives them the opportunity to act. So what I've been trying to do has been to democratize heroism and demystify it. There're two kinds of heroes. There are impulsive heroes, and there are reflective heroes -- people who blow the whistle on Enron, Sherron Watkins and others. Christians who helped the Jews. But what I'm saying -- Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, they're exceptional. The reason we know their names is that they organized their whole lives around a sacrifice. And it's great that they did it. I'm not gonna do it. I'm not going to give up my whole life to any cause. But in fact, I think Obama said his grandmother was the unsung hero. Most people who do heroic things, sacrifice for others, they do it in silence. Every single person who's identified as a hero always says, "How could I not do it?" [58-59].
This is romantic, mystifying claptrap, which has the function (if not the deliberate intent) of devaluing the heroes it purports to celebrate. So many things are wrong with it that it's hard to know where to begin, but I'll start at the beginning. "Opportunities to act" are all around us, all the time. No special situation of "emergency" or (Cthulhu help us!) "evil" is needed, since such situations are commonplace. What is special is, first, that someone acts, and more important, that he or she finds a way to work with others to make the act effective. It's not accidental that most resisters "do it in silence", because the powerful want to make sure that people don't hear about successful resistance. But no "hero" acts alone: either he or she works in the context of an already-existing movement, or helps to build one. Concentrating on "heroes" is intended to ignore the collective context, and to aggrandize the "hero" so as to intimidate most people from acting. (Who do you think you are, little worm? Do you think you're Gandhi? Why, you probably think you're Jesus Christ. Go back to your seat and wait until a real hero comes along.) And Barack Obama isn't a hero of any kind.

Zimbardo's claim that most resisters "are ordinary people put in a situation, often only once in their lifetime, that gives them the opportunity to act", is hard to evaluate. But someone like Rosa Parks doesn't fit this mold. She was not in a unique situation, and she didn't decide to act out of nowhere: she was already an activist, an officer of her local NAACP, and she'd had to give up her bus seat before. I'd bet that the "situation," the "opportunity", usually recurs, especially in conditions of social oppression: African Americans who worked in the Civil Rights movement lived their whole lives in a racist system. They were heroic every day for years on end, never knowing when white thugs would come to burn down their houses with them in it, or walk up to them at a voter registration station and shoot them dead where they stood.

Zimbardo talks earlier in the interview about "collectivist" cultures versus our supposedly "individualistic" one (47). One thing I've been wondering about since I read A Very Bad Wizard is that so much resistance to oppressive institutions has arisen in societies which stress the collective over the individual, in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. We Americans with our fine individualism seem to be more afraid of standing alone than people in "collectivist" societies, though of course those latter also know that change doesn't happen because One Man stands up and whips the Bad Guy, but because people organize with other people.

How should we think about the people in the Civil Rights movement, the antiwar movement, the women's movement, the Democracy movements around the world? Were they sociopaths? Were they defective in some way? The rulers of our society and their media collaborators try to prevent a recurrence of the 1960s partly by portraying activists as lone crazies, weirdos, people with father issues, losers who rage against society because they know they have nothing to contribute to it. No doubt some were, but there's no reason to suppose such types are more numerous among activists than among corporate CEOs, Wall Street bankers, members of Congress, or the Roman Catholic hierarchy. But it appears that most democratic activists are as sane as anyone else. It's not that an opportunity comes along and lets them act -- that's just another excuse meant to deny their agency, to pretend that dissenters and resisters are just cogs who were directed by the "situation." Rather, they chose to disobey, not like a two-year-old who says "No!" to everything, but like adults who weigh the options, the danger, and the worth of the goal and decide to act.