Sunday, February 2, 2014

Why, oh why, would anyone take food from hungry children?

One of my Facebook friends, Sara Peterson, reminded me this morning about the Stanford Prison Experiment, a psychological experiment conducted in the early 1970s at Stanford U. The wikipedia article does an excellent job of summarizing the experiment:

Twenty-four male students out of seventy-five were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond Zimbardo's expectations, as the guards enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, readily harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. The experiment even affected Zimbardo himself, who, in his role as the superintendent, permitted the abuse to continue. Two of the prisoners quit the experiment early and the entire experiment was abruptly stopped after only six days.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

In discussing the Stanford Experiment with Sara, I was in turn reminded of another set of experiments conducted at Yale University in the early 1960s by Stanley Milgram. Again, the wikipedia entry summarizes Milgram's experiment well:

The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures was a series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. They measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. Milgram first described his research in 1963 in an article published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, and later discussed his findings in greater depth in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.
The experiments began in July 1961, three months after the start of the trial of German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised his psychological study to answer the popular question at that particular time: "Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?" The experiments have been repeated many times in the following years with consistent results within differing societies, although not with the same percentages across the globe."
. . . .
Milgram summarized the experiment in his 1974 article, "The Perils of Obedience", writing:
The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.
Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.
The Milgram Experiment 
My friend Sara concluded that, based on the Stanford Prison Experiment, "there may just be something innately cruel in the human animal when it is in a position of power." I did not think to mention to Sara at the time that there is a wonderful line in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure when Isabella complains about the Duke's abuse of his powers: "Oh, it is excellent to have a giant's strength. But it is tyrannous to use it as a giant." That great humanist Shakespeare understood quite a bit about human nature and how power can corrupt, but even he probably would have been shocked at the actions of the Uintah Elementary School officials in Salt Lake City who took food away from children without adequate funds on account to pay for it.

As Sara reminded me today, "
The real problem is trying to figure out why that happens."

Milgram found that most people will become Eichmanns given the right set of cultural cues. In Milgram's case, those cultural cues were in the form of a supposedly scientific authority issuing orders in the name of science. In this case, a culture that says that money is more important that feeding young children combines with a culture that says employees must never under any circumstances challenge or question the orders of their superiors to produce a vignette from which all but the least squeamish recoil in horror.

And yet I would challenge my readership to ask themselves this. When is the last time that you yourself were faced with an order you considered morally reprehensible with which you nonetheless held your nose and complied? If you are being honest with yourself, I'd wager it has been far more recent than you would care to admit. Our culture behaves with the utmost brutality and scorn to those who, like Melville's Bartleby, would simply "prefer not to." And thus, we come full circle to that very wise 17th-century epigrammatist La Rochefoucauld's observation that 'Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.' After we have paid our tributes, perhaps we can use the Uintah episode as an opportunity for self scrutiny, an opportunity to resolve that we shall never henceforth take food from hungry children.

No comments:

Post a Comment