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Psychologist Dave Pizarro of the Very Bad Wizards joins us to discuss Stanley Milgram's "Behavioral Study of Obedience" (1963; read it), Philip Zimbardo’s "Interpersonal Dynamics in a Simulated Prison" (1973; read it), and John Doris’s "Persons, Situations, and Virtue Ethics" (1998).
Do difficult situations make good people act badly? Are there really "good" and "bad" people, or are we all about the same, but put in different situations? Situationism is supported by Milgram's experiment, where most subjects could be easily pressured into delivering shocks to an innocent person (really an actor… punked!). A more immersive example was provided by The Stanford Prison Experiment, where students took on the roles of guard and prisoner, and quickly became sadistic and passive respectively. John Doris argues that situationism is a direct attack on virtue ethics, that really there is no such thing as a virtue like "bravery" or "generosity" that cuts across all sorts of situations. While there are of course consistent personality traits, these don't map against the virtues as depicted by Aristotle and our common cultural notions. Rather, they're more context-dependent, specific to certain types of situations.
David and his pal Tamler Sommers (who previously appeared on PEL ep. 93 on free will) previously discussed situationism back in Very Bad Wizards ep. 9. By comparing the two, you can objectively compare the quality of the two podcasts and/or Dave's virtue at 2012 vs. 2017 and/or how he talks with many fewer listeners vs. a very large audience.
Watch the new version of the Milgram experiment as shown on the BBC. Read about the criticisms of the experiment on Wikipedia. This episode of The Psych Files podcast talks about the recent replication of the study at Santa Clara University.
Watch the documentary on the Stanford Prison Experiment. Watch Zimbardo's 2007 talk about The Lucifer Effect (the book that the recent film about the experiment is based on) and his experience defending one of the defendants in the Abu Ghraib torture case; he describes Milgram's experiment and those following it.
Netflix subscribers can see both studies dramatized in films from 2015: The Experimenter and The Stanford Prison Experiment.
Listeners may want to revisit PEL's three episodes on Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, staring with ep. 5.
Continues with Part Two. Get the full, unbroken, ad-free Citizen Edition. Please support PEL!
Milgram picture by Olle Halvars.
Jennifer Tejada says
You guys mention that people weren’t allowed to leave, but in other places I’ve read they said that two people left mid study. I didn’t get the same sense that Zimbardo was someone with an ulterior motive. In his paper he writes, “We were horrified because we saw some boys treat others as if they were despicable animals, taking pleasure in cruelty, while other boys became servile, dehumanized robots who though only of escape, of their own individual survival and of their mounting hatred of the guards.”
He also says, “I terminated the experiment not only because of the escalating level of violence and degradation by the “guards” against the “prisoners”…but also because I was made aware of the personal transformation that I was undergoing personally…I had become a Prison Superintendent, the second role I played in addition to that of Principal Investigator. I began to talk, walk, and act like a rigid institutional authority figure more concerned about the security of “my prison” than the needs of the young men entrusted to my care as a psychological researcher.” (Zimbardo 2005 A situationist perspective on the psychology of evil: Understanding how good people are transformed into perpetrators.) also (Zimbardo, P.G., Maslach, C., & Haney, C. 1999 Reflections of the Stanford Prison Experiment: Genesis, transformation, conseuquences.)
Also – perhaps I misheard in the podcast, but it seemed like you guys discounted the participants bc they responded to an ad for $15. There were nearly a hundred volunteers and he chose 24 and he said in an interview that he purposefully chose bright college students. He wanted to show it could happen to anyone. If anything he seems to have skewed the participants to being more intelligent than average. They also had a day when parents could come and visit and they did, so it’s not like these were poor, neglected, psychologically damaged people. I’m not saying that he did the proper screening. All I read was that it was “extensive”. I’m simply saying that it seems you are casting unwarranted doubt on this study. That may be totally justified, but I’m just not seeing it and wish you could have explained more fully why the extreme doubt was placed. Certainly it is unethical, but I don’t know if that equals flawed in terms of validity. If anything, I think it makes it more compelling.
Jennifer Tejada says
When you guys were discussing character over time versus just one instance, I thought this was the best part of the conversation. I don’t think these experiments can really determine character so much as capacity. As I read these (and I read them a long while ago) I thought the take away point was that we have the capacity to do things that we might believe we would never. It made me think about people who are labeled as sex offenders – who bear this Scarlet Letter their whole lives, and while I can never imagine doing what any one of them did, it is in essence pegging their character based on one action – which seems unjustified. Somewhere I read about Zimbardo saying that their were three types of guards: one that followed all the rules, one that did special favors for the prisoners, and the mean ones (I’m summarizing). I don’t know the break down was of those three categories, but that sounded pretty true to life to me and a whole lot different than what I originally thought which was that everyone was a mean guard and the whole experiment had to be ended because of that. It’s much more ambiguous of a finding IMO. To me this is the flawed part of his experiment. We don’t see that everyone can be cruel because not everyone was. They don’t stand up for the inmates because, perhaps, they know they are there by choice and might behave differently if it were a real prison and they saw injustices. It seems highly dependent on things that were not considered in the experiment. For example, I am a pleaser. I’m always going to do the right thing and always follow the rules. I often wonder how/if my own personal moral compass comes in because my drive to conform socially and to make sure I am doing what I am supposed to do is so strong. In this case, I could see myself thinking that I am supposed to be either a “good guard” or a “good prisoner” and never once step out and be bold and say HEY! this whole thing is wrong! This is unethical.
Jennifer Tejada says
*bare/*there (really wish you guys had an edit function that lasted longer than a couple minutes!)
One of the main factors in Nazi Germany was anti-semitism: Hitler channeled a pre-existing anti-semitism in the German population.
People generally seem willing to be act cruelly towards members of groups which they consider to be “not their peers” or inferior or their enemy. “Normal” white people in the U.S. did nothing about Jim Crow legislation against black people and were complicit in its functioning. “Normal” U.S. military personnel torture “enemy combatants” in Guantanamo.
I put “normal” between quotation marks because first of all, I’m not sure that being normal means being virtuous at all. Hannah Arendt says that “normal” people in Nazi Germany did not help to save Jews: those who did help to save them tended to have been outsiders of sorts, for example, Schindler, who was a “corrupt” businessman and a bit of a con artist. “Normal” people everywhere tend to follow the herd and if the herd hates Jews or blacks or gays, they go along willingly.