Who Knows What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men?

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Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney does: His one-hour movie The Human Behavior Experiments, which has been airing on Sundance, surveys three of the 20th century's best known… uh… Human Behavior Experiments: The famous Milgram experiments on obedience to authority, the Stanford Prison Experiment, and Darley and Latane's studies at Columbia on bystander apathy in response to the Kitty Genovese murder. NPR and Slate both have reviews. It's re-airing on Sundance twice tonight.

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  1. hehehe….someone forgot to close his italics formatting….

  2. ARgh! You’ve left an italics tag unclosed!!!!

  3. Is there a behavior experiment that explains overreaction to open tags?

  4. How depressing. I really need Captain Kirk right now, to give one of his rousing speeches about how humans are basically good despite all our flaws.

  5. Saw the show. Made me mad. Especially the “McDonalds prank call” segment. They actually interviewed the people taken in by him, who said things like “you don’t know what it was like, you can’t say you wouldn’t have done it if you weren’t there.” Disgusting. If you don’t know better than that, you are a contemptible human being.

    I’ve never been an advocate for stringent citizenship/voting tests, but if you fail a Milgram-style experiment (i.e. anyone who pressed the “kill” button just because someone in a white suit said to) then you can’t be considered a functional adult. You can’t be trusted to vote, or to drive a car.

  6. You know, the Stanford Prison Experiment is what really turned me off to the whole incarceration as a punishment. It’s one thing when the prison guards are overagressive guys and they actually have to worry about being killed by hardened criminals. However, if a bunch of college students can cause this sort of cruelty to each other, what does it say when you’re dealing with guards that truly find their captives despicable?

  7. Ummm, was there more than one Kitty Genovese murder? Was she a part of some clone experiment?

  8. Brian,

    You sound just like a sadistic teacher in the Milgram experiments!

  9. …only The Shadow knows!

  10. So, can you get away with public murder if you wear a labcoat and act extremely calm while doing it?

  11. 76: It might be mistaken for a “happening” under the right circumstances.

  12. I’m not sure why the Slate writer implies that feeling disgust at human nature after seeing the results of those experiments qualifies as an “undergraduate” mentality.

  13. The Stanford prison experiment has been severely criticized on methodological, as well as ethical grounds. Zimbardo introduced several factors into the experiment in order to increase the dehumanization and degradation of the prisoners. With no control group and arbitrary modifications of the typical prison environment, calling it a scientific experiment is stretching the term beyond its breaking point.

  14. So, how many people who are disgusted with incarceration as a result of the Stanford experiment also oppose the death penalty? Doesn’t leave many options now, does it?

  15. The guy who went to jail for going along with the McDonald prank caller had an IQ of 83. I don’t know the IQ of his girlfriend (the assistant manager of that McDonald’s), but I think it’s safe to assume that a fifty-something woman, who’s working at McDonald’s and dating a guy with an IQ of 83, isn’t too bright either.

  16. I’m not sure why the Slate writer implies that feeling disgust at human nature after seeing the results of those experiments qualifies as an “undergraduate” mentality.

    Because after the first year of grad school, all you can feel is hatred for humanity.

  17. I always thought Milgram was naive, not realizing many of his test subjects had caught on and decided to play along.

  18. The movie is entertaining, but it really takes Milgram and Zimbardo at face value. Zimbardo by his own admission lost any semblance of control over or detachment from the experiment, and the best you can say is that he came up with interesting but not conclusive results.

    Anybody interested in Milgram should read Ian Parker’s story “Obedience” in Granta 71. If you’re good at beating search engines and have the patience for a piecemeal read, you can read the whole article using Amazon’s Look Inside function. It’s well worth it, and includes commentary from subjects of the experiment, Milgram’s assistant, his widow, and many others. Plenty of interesting points about Milgram’s own predispositions (He was an ardent fan of Candid Camera and something of a hipster and was into Happenings of various types), about stuff that didn’t make it into the final report (e.g., nearly half the subjects claimed in the exit interview that they never believed the shocks were real; one guy said the experiment was the biggest laugh he’d had since he first saw the Marx Brothers), and wonderful variations that never were (Milgram wanted to have husband-and-wife teams play the shocker and the learner, but knew the results would be too hot to handle). A really brilliant and creative guy, whatever the scientific value of his experiment may turn out to be. If you have any interest in Milgram, you should read it.

    As for the McDonald’s strip search fraud: Why is everybody focusing on the manager and the fiancee instead of asking “What were you thinking?” to the dingbat who agreed to take off all her clothes and blow the guy with the 83 IQ? I’m not a big believer in victims’ guilt, but hell’s bells…

  19. Tim,

    Interesting that Milgram gets knocked for the experiment being unethical – harming the subjects with the exercise – and for the same experiment being so flimsy that nearly half knew it was a joke.

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