Hello, friends! If you’re listening to this on the day of release…Happy Halloween! In this episode, I re-release a Halloween special I recorded 100 episodes ago! I take a look at some spooky and very creepy social psychology experiments from the past and talk about the darker side of the human condition. It’s an episode I love to listen back to and I hope you enjoy it just as much!
For this, I wanted to get in the Halloween spirit and do something a little more spooky. If you are a listener of the LORE podcast, you can probably tell that this episode is heavily influenced by the style of that show. If you have not, please do check out the LORE podcast.
But before I talk about these experiments – the content of this episode will deal with things like murder, racism, obedience to authority, and unethical experiments. Please be advised if these are sensitive subjects for you. With that said, let’s begin…
Humans are interesting creatures. Evolution has provided our brains with massive frontal lobes meaning we are capable of profound empathy and altruism. We have the ability to plan ahead and act on intellect rather than impulse. However, humans are not perfect. It’s not difficult to find examples of humans committing egregious acts of violence or blindly following an authority figure. The reasons behind these darker aspects of the human condition have long presented a challenge for psychologists. In this episode, we will dive into 4 social psychology experiments that help us to understand the darker side of what it means to be human.
Experiment 1: The Columbia University Bystander Effect Studies
On march 13 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered in cold blood in front of her home. She parked her car just feet from her apartment when out of nowhere a man chased her down and stabbed her in the back twice. Kitty screamed in pain from the vicious attack sure that someone would help her in this public area. One neighbor yelled down and told the man to “leave that girl alone” – which caused the man to flee.
Kitty was left crawling toward her apartment on her own and 10 minutes later, the man returned to the scene and finished his job. He stabbed her several more times, stole her money, and even sexually assaulted her. A neighbor did phone the police and an ambulance arrived, but not soon enough. Kitty Genovese died from her injuries.
From the moment she initially yelled for help to the moment of her death over 15 minutes later, it is estimated that 38 of kitty’s neighbors had witnessed the murder…yet none of them chose to help or rescue the girl beyond yelling or calling the authorities.
Psychologists and laypeople alike were shocked at how such apathy and apparent indifference was possible. This prompted two social psychology researchers, John Darley and Bibb Latané, to develop a series of experiments to understand how something like this could happen. They recruited university students and told them that they would be participating in a discussion about personal problems. Each participant would be talking to other participants of varying numbers in discussion groups, but each participant was in a separate room and the conversations would take place over microphones and speakers.
What they didn’t know was that the conversations that they were having were actually pre-recorded. In some conditions, they were having a 1-on-1 conversation. In others, they were one of 6 people in the “conversation.” Each person in the conversation had 2 minutes to speak during their turn while all of the other mics were turned off.
One pre-recorded voice stated that he was an epileptic student that was prone to seizures which could be life-threatening. During the second round of conversation, this voice stated that he had started having a seizure…
Oh my god, I’m having a fit, I can’t…help me…I can’t breathe….someone help please…I feel like I’m going to die if….
The student couldn’t see the person, only hear the voice. The experiment was measuring how long it took the participant to leave the room and look for the experimenters to ask for help.
…only 31% of subjects tried to seek help.
Pretty scary, right? Most of the students were anxious and worried, but the majority did not try to get help.
Here’s where it gets really interesting – in the one-on-one condition, actually 85% of the students did ask for help. On the contrary, in the bigger group, participants tended to do nothing. How could something like this happen? How could someone know that another person is in possibly mortal danger and choose to do nothing about it?
This represents a phenomenon known as the bystander effect. Humans have a tendency to experience a diffusion or lessening of individual responsibility that occurs when we think that another person will intervene.
Perhaps this has happened to you. Have you ever seen a domestic dispute at a mall or restaurant, but decided not to do anything because you assume someone else will in this public space? Ever see a car off the side of the road, but assume that someone else has likely called it in to the police or has stopped to help?
This research indicates that you are much more likely to intervene if you are the only person around. Otherwise, it’s much more convenient to just fade into the crowd. So next time you notice yourself fading into the crowd and assuming that someone else will take the lead in helping…you could be right…or you could be thinking the same thing that everyone else in the crowd is thinking…just like the more than 30 neighbors of Kitty Genovese, who’s diffusion of responsibility stopped them from potentially saving her life.
Experiment 2: The Milgram Experiment
Reading through a history book, it’s not hard to see examples of egregious violence and wrongdoing committed by masses of seemingly “normal” people. In the Nuremberg War Criminal Trials following World War II, the common defense was that soldiers were “just following orders.” But how could this be? How could a human commit such a blatant moral injustice just for the sake of following orders?
That’s exactly what Stanley Milgram wanted to investigate with his experiment in 1963. Milgram advertised in the newspaper looking for male participants to take part in a study of learning at Yale University. Participants for the study were paired off and one was assigned to be the learner and one was assigned to be the teacher. The draw was fixed so that the learner was always a confederate of the study, or pretending to be a real participant, and the teacher would be the real participant.
The learner was taken into a room and had electrodes attached to his arms and the teacher along with the researcher went into another room next door that had an electric shock generator and a row of switches that ranged from 15 volts (slight shock) to 375 volts (danger: severe shock) and 450 volts (XXX). The learner was then given a list of word pairs to remember and the “teacher” was supposed to test him by naming a word and asking the learner to recall the appropriate pair from 4 possible choices.
Every time the learner made a mistake, which was frequent, the teacher was supposed to administer an electric shock, which increased in voltage each time – there were 30 increments to these shocks. When the participant naturally refused to administer a shock, the experimenter would go through a series of prompts such as “please continue”, “its absolutely essential that you continue”, or “you have no choice but to continue.”
All participants in the study continued to 300 volts (just below severe danger) and 65% continued to the highest level, which was a lethal dose of electricity. The most troublesome part of this is that the confederate in the study was instructed to scream in pain, ask to be let out, and plead for the experiment to stop.
There were many variations of this test that lead to different conclusions about the participant’s behavior. For instance, in the normal condition, 65% continued to the highest level, which could possibly kill the other person. However, if the participant was asked to instruct someone else to flip the lever, their obedience increased and over 90% shocked to the maximum voltage, indicating that obedience increase when there is less social responsibility. On the flip side, if the participant actually had to physically place the confederate’s hand onto a shock plate, obedience fell drastically because they were no longer buffered from their actions.
This experiment is troubling for many reasons. Mainly, it revealed that relatively ordinary people were capable of committing terrible acts simply because they were told to. It’s a slippery slope. Once authority is established and there are other people following along, diffusion of responsibility occurs.
Milgram’s findings were not all grim though. In a different variation of the study, there were two other participants who were actually confederates of the studies posing as teachers like the participant. The confederate teachers were instructed to stop at 150 volts and 210 volts. When the participants were in the presence of others who disobeyed the authority figure, their own obedience dropped to 10%. When others are unafraid to speak out and step up, blind obedience to authority can crumble. Perhaps this is why modern dictatorships work to isolate their people by removing access to the internet and other forms of influence.
Sometimes all it takes is one voice to speak up, to question the authority and to place that seed of doubt in the mind of others who are blindly following along.
Obedience is a powerful, but sometimes fragile force.
Experiment 3: Blue Eyed vs. Brown Eyed Students
Jane Elliot was a 3rd grade teacher born on a farm in Riceville, Iowa. She was of Irish-American descent, but despite her upbringing, she had a particular sensitivity to racial injustice. On the night of April 4th 1968, she was watching television and learned of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She reportedly stated that she recalled a white reporter tell a local black leader that “Our leader (JFK)’s widow held us together after he was killed. Who is going to control your people?”
She was frustrated by the inability of white people to see beyond their own experience. The inability to empathize with marginalized peoples, something that many would say still exists today. In an attempt to teach her class to internalize the understanding of racism and its effects, she decided to do an experiment.
She asked the class if they would like to feel what it is like to be a back boy or girl so they can understand what discrimination feels like and, they said yes. On the first day of the experiment, Elliot divided the class by eye color. She separated out the blue-eyed children and made it clear that they were the superior group.
She had them wrap brown fabric collars on their brown-eyed students to designate them as the minority group. They were easily identifiable. Easily separated from the superior majority.
The blue-eyed children received special privileges, not based on merit or effort, simply due to their superior eye color. They were given extra food at lunch, allowed special access to the jungle gym on the playground and allowed extra time during recess. They sat at the front of the class, while the brown-eyed children had to sit at the back. They were encouraged to stay with their own kind and the brown-eyed children were not allowed to drink from the same water fountain. Elliot would use the brown-eyed students as examples of negative traits and single people from this group out to make a point in class.
Reflecting the innocence of youth, at first the children were resistant to the idea that the blue-eyed children were simply better than brown-eyed, but then Jane Elliot provided proof. She lied to the class and told them that the genetic factors that determine blue eyes are also linked to higher intelligence and learning ability. That it’s just the facts of nature.
This is where things get interesting. After receiving this justification, the superior group began to fulfill their roles. They became more arrogant, mean, and bossy to their inferior classmates. They also fulfilled their role as the more intelligent children by scoring high on simple tests and actually rising to levels above their baseline ability on certain tests of math and reading.
But they weren’t the only ones. The inferior group of brown-eyed students also fulfilled their role. They became more timid and subservient. Their test scores declined and they often isolated themselves during recess. Presumably experiencing resentment along with their isolation. Even children who were outgoing and bright suffered socially and academically during the experiment if they were in the brown-eyed group.
The next week, the experiment was reversed. Interestingly, the brown-eyed students played along and mocked the blue-eyed students – it is reported that the level was simply much less intense and the students did not seem to internalize the experience as much, now that the dividing lines had already been established.
If this experiment seems unethical or shocking to you, you would not be alone in that sentiment. Jane Elliot was essentially ostracized by her fellow teachers following the simulation. She received wide coverage in the press and on talk shows, which brought along strong criticism from the public.
One infamous letter from a viewer of her interview on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson read:
How dare you try this cruel experiment out on white children? Black children grow up accustomed to such behavior, but white children, there’s no way they could possibly understand it. It’s cruel to white children and will cause them psychological damage.
The hate and backlash didn’t stop there. Elliot’s eldest daughter came out of the bathroom stall at her junior high school to see a hateful message directed toward her scrawled in red lipstick on the mirror. Clearly this experiment struck a chord with people. And it does make you think. It’s astonishing how simple it is to create an air of divisiveness within groups when simple rules and truths are enforced, regardless of their actual veracity.
The part that sticks out to me, though, is the behavior of the inferior group. It is well understood now that at least to some degree, self-fulfilling prophecies are true. I find it fascinating how in such a short time, a forcefully marginalized group could live up – or down as it were – to their role and begin to struggle on basic academic tasks. The internalized sense of helplessness that no matter what they do, they are probably in the wrong, so why bother trying, breaks my heart.
It makes me reflect on the experience of marginalized groups in the world today. Much like the experiment, the behavior that majority groups internally fear from groups that have been marginalized likely began from a seed of forcefully imposed separation and then people on either side simply began to fill their roles in a slippery slope that we have not found a way to reverse to this day.
The Stanford Prison Experiment
In the early 1970s the US navy and marine corps were becoming increasingly aware that something was wrong with the prison system. It was plain to see that poor conditions, violence, brutality, and dehumanization were normal occurrences within prisons.
They tasked Dr. Philip Zimbardo with discovering whether it was due to the unique aspects of the prison population – people who have demonstrated disregard for social order and are now held against their will, as a result of a “guard mentality” that engenders inhumane treatment of prisoners, or if it was function of the system itself.
The study was conducted from August 14th to 20th 1970 at Stanford University. Dr. Zimbardo and his research group gathered college student volunteers to take part in a prison simulation. The participants were randomly chosen to be either guards or prisoners. The participants were all male, relatively healthy and stable with no criminal background. They agreed to participate for a 7-14 day period and received $15 per day as compensation.
The experiment was conducted in a 35-foot section of basement in the psychology building. Each 6×9 cell only contained a cot for the prisoners. The guards lived in very different conditions. They were separated from the prisoners with rest and relaxation areas as well as a variety of other comforts.
Together, there were 9 prisoners (with 3 alternates) and 9 guards (with 3 alternates). Zimbardo took on the role of superintendent and a research assistant acted as warden of the prison. Guards were given guard outfits along with wooden batons and mirrored sunglasses to prevent eye contact. They were instructed not to cause physical harm or withhold food, but could otherwise make the prisoners feel uncomfortable, bored, or controlled by the system.
The prisoners were given uncomfortable smocks and a chain around one ankle. They were to be referred to by their assigned numbers on their uniform rather than their names. The prisoners went through ordinary booking procedures and were searched prior to going to the mock jail.
At first, the proceedings were fairly uneventful. The prisoners were bored and the guards played their role, but nothing really happened. However, on the second day, the prisoners in one cell blockaded their door and refused to follow the guard’s instructions. Guards from other shifts volunteered to work extra hours to quell the revolt. Without being told to do so, the guards even went as far as to attack the prisoners with fire extinguishers.
Of their own volition, the guards decided to use psychological tactics to better control the inmates as it was a challenge to manage them with only 3 guards. They established a “privilege cell” where prisoners who were not involved in the riot were given special treatment. After 36 hours, one prisoner began to exhibit altered behavior. Zimbardo described that:
8612 then began to act crazy, to scream, to curse, to go into a rage that seemed out of control. It took quite a while before we became convinced that he was really suffering and that we had to release him.
From here things continued to elevate. The guards began doing role call and having the prisoners recite their numbers as a means of harassment. They also began to enforce stricter rules by only allowing the prisoners to relieve themselves into a bucket in their cells. As punishment, the guards did not let them empty the bucket. They would also remove the prisoner’s mattresses and make them sleep on concrete or be forced to be naked as a method of degradation.
Some guards became increasingly cruel to the point of sadism during the experimental process. At one point, a stand by prisoner was brought in and expressed concern about the treatment of other prisoners. He was treated to a stay in solitary confinement: a dark closet, which the guards instructed the prisoners to repeatedly bang on and shout.
It wasn’t only the guards that internalized their role though. The prisoners also began to act in line with their assigned personas. They took the rules seriously and some began siding with the guards against other prisoners who broke the rules.
The experiment was terminated only after Christina Maslach, a graduate student and girlfriend of Zimbardo, objected to the conditions of the prison when she was brought in to interview the participants. Incredibly, Zimbardo indicated that of more than 50 people who had observed the experiment, Maslach was the only one who questioned its morality. When the experiment was halted after 6 days, the majority of guards were upset that the experience was over.
How could a university study get so out of control? How could these participants, who knew they were in an experiment, commit such horrendous acts toward their fellow students?
The results of this study support a situational attribution of behavior rather than a dispositional one, indicating that the circumstances and situation at hand are more influential over how someone acts as compared to their innate characteristics. Remember that these students were randomly assigned. The bad apples of the group didn’t naturally fall into the guard role. Rather it was the guard role itself that brought out the darker side of the participants.
While clearly unethical, this study did bring about some positive results. It influenced the way that prisons are now run and also established ethical standards for university research in which institutional review boards must review proposed research involving human subjects to protect their rights.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this special episode of the Hardcore Self Help Podcast as much as I enjoyed making it – Happy Halloween!
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