The Human Behavior Experiments

The Human Behavior Experiments

The Human Behavior Experiments is just under an hour, and thus barely counts as a “short.”

For someone who never took a psychology class in his life, I’m very familiar with the Milgram experiment on obedience to authority, the Zimbardo Stanford prison experiment, and most of the other experiments (and real life situations) discussed in this documentary.

Besides having come across them in various readings and conversations, I took a community college class as an adult where we watched a documentary about the Milgram experiment. (It was nominally a course on the 1960s, but the three instructors team teaching it pretty much treated it as an opportunity to teach whatever miscellaneous things they thought were most interesting and important, regardless of how closely or tenuously they could be related to the ’60s.) I wrote a paper for that class about the Milgram experiment, slightly critical of it, basically explaining why I wouldn’t draw quite as strong inferences from it as people are apt to do.

I more recently read Zimbardo’s book The Lucifer Effect, which explains the Stanford prison experiment in detail from start to finish, and then relates it to Abu Ghraib among other things, and was inspired to write about it at considerable length.

So I’ve thought about these things a lot. The subject matter of this film is clearly of significant interest to me.

Then again, the material is also kind of “old hat” to me, and so I wasn’t able to enjoy this movie as much as I could have if the material were fresh. That’s especially true since I think this film works best as an introduction to these experiments and the topics they raise for someone new to them.

As such, it does a good to very good job presenting the experiments. Of course it’s limited by the fact that it’s a film, so it’s more impressionistic than I might like, and makes what points it makes in scattershot fashion rather than as part of a coherent, well-developed argument. But if anything these flaws are less in evidence here than in most documentaries.

Still, I’m never happy contemplating people obtaining their knowledge of something solely from even a good documentary. If people new to this subject matter who watched this responded: “You know, this raises a lot of interesting questions in my mind that are worth exploring. I need to read up on these experiments, all the details of how they were conducted, the results describing how many of the subjects did what, critical discussions of the experiments and their implications, and so on—maybe take some relevant psychology classes to learn more,” then that would be great. Unfortunately that’s less than 1% of viewers. The remainder will just add to their worldview the highly misleading bottom-line notion that “Scientists proved a long time ago that people pretty much do whatever authority figures tell them to.” Maybe that’s better than not having been exposed to this material at all, but not by much.

One good point Zimbardo makes here, and of course in his book I read and elsewhere, is that given the right circumstances, it’s not just unusually evil people that do things that revolt us. It’s perfectly normal people too. That’s a point that, he argues, a lot of people still don’t get when they discuss a case like Abu Ghraib (or My Lai, or numerous other examples one could cite). Many people still respond to such cases by claiming that they’re the work of a few “bad apples,” that given the fact that there are a certain—thankfully tiny—number of truly evil people in the world capable of doing terrible things, it’s to be expected that occasionally stories like this will crop up.

But no. As Zimbardo points out, it’s the situation. Had there been other people at Abu Ghraib, something roughly similar would have still happened, because those specific individuals weren’t in fact unusually evil.

One thing that occurred to me as I was watching this film is that this type of thing—facts, theories, speculations about human behavior and how people react to certain things and why—is hugely relevant to every human being and how we live our lives. As such, it should automatically be a part of schooling from an early age.

You know, I’m not real hard core about everything taught in school having to be “useful” in some direct and obvious way. Still, is there a reason I spent year after year after year of my childhood, from elementary school through high school, going deeper and deeper into the xy axis system (which no one except a tiny fraction of the population that ends up in heavily math-oriented professions will ever give a thought to after their schooling), and yet got as far as a Masters degree without having been taught about these social psychology experiments that could be so valuable in helping us make life decisions and assess the decisions that others make? I know it’s a common topic in even introductory level psychology classes, but not everyone goes to college, and not everyone takes even one psychology class. (I didn’t, as noted.)

Odd priorities, to be sure.

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