The Human Behavior Experiments

Sunday, September 17, 2006
Flipping through the channels tonight I happened upon a program on CBC Newsworld called "The Big Picture". Tonight's documentary was The Human Behaviour Experiments by director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room). I wasn't planning on watching but I'm glad that I did - it was fascinating.

Here's a quick write up on the documentary from CBC:
Why would four young men watch their friend die, when they could have intervened to save him? Why would a woman obey phone commands from a stranger to strip-search an innocent employee? What makes ordinary people perpetrate extraordinary abuses, like the events at Abu Ghraib?
Answers to these contemporary questions can be found in past social psychology experiments. The Milgram obedience experiment shocked the world by proving that most people were willing to kill fellow human beings if an authority figure was held accountable. A famous diffusion-of-responsibility experiment sought to understand why 38 people who witnessed a brutal murder in New York did nothing to help. Finally, the Stanford Prison experiment showed how the world of the jail could transform a decent, moral person into a brutal, sadistic guard.
Documentarian Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) revisits these three famous behavioral studies to explore some perennial questions about why human beings commit unethical acts under particular social conditions. After seeing this film, you may never say "bad apples" again.

The film begins by looking at experiments conducted by Dr. Stanley Milgram during 1961-62. According to, he found, surprisingly, that 65% of his subjects, ordinary residents of New Haven, were willing to give apparently harmful electric shocks-up to 450 volts-to a pitifully protesting victim, simply because a scientific authority commanded them to, and in spite of the fact that the victim did not do anything to deserve such punishment. The victim was, in reality, a good actor who did not actually receive shocks, and this fact was revealed to the subjects at the end of the experiment.

What I could gather from the documentary was that the "victim" was asked a series of questions which they would occasionally get wrong (the victim, I believe the narrator, David Strathairn, said were in on the experiment, although at times I found this hard to believe). The result was an increasingly strong electrical shock. Despite many of the participants in the experiment voicing objections and disgust, and refusing to continue, when told by the person overseeing the experiment to continue in an authoritative manner, the participants invariably turned back to the control board and continued. Comparisons were then made to what happened in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. It was not difficult to see the similarities and to imagine that this is a large part of what happened.

These were everyday people. People like you and me.

The documentary, which I highly recommend if you can get your hands on it, also touches on the Stanford Prison Experiment during the early 1970s (very interesting to see how quickly human behaviour changes depending on the role played, the environment in which people are placed, and the amount/type of guidance or instruction given) and the case of Kitty Genovese in New York City during the 1960s.

Comparisons were made between the prison experiment and what happened (is happening?) at Abu Ghraib prison to try and explain the actions of the soldiers involved and their superiors who condoned it. As one former "guard" who stood up and spoke out said, they were trained to be soldiers, they were never trained to be guards. All they were told was to "break" them and that the prisoners weren't human, they were just "dogs". One of his fellow soldiers complained to him that he felt what he was being told to do was morally and ethically wrong. The 1st soldier told him to not do it then. The second soldier simply replied, I don't have a choice.

This raises an interesting debate on the unquestioning obedience to authority (as one of the after discussion experts called it). Why is it that most people simply do what they're told by persons in authority? Doctors, lawyers, teachers, police, soldiers, parents, supervisors, politicians. Most of us rarely, if ever question what we're told by people in these roles. It's true despite the fact that many people who might read this will leap up and say oh no, not me. I'd never do something like that. Frankly, you're lying, to yourself and to others. Unless you're put into that specific situation, you'll never know what you're reaction will be.

We'd all like to think we'd be the "hero". The person who stands up, defying the odds, and speaks out when everyone around us are silent. However, as Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, the person who conducted the prison experiment said in the documentary, it is likely that we would do what the people in the studies and the examples used in the film did. They were ordinary people and it is the extraordinary person who stands up and speaks out.

I'd like to think that I've been that person, that hero, that one unique independent thinking indvidual on occasion. While people in the parking lot stared up into my neighbour's apartment as he beat his girlfriend, and others in the building, including the neighbours across the hall and beside them listened and did nothing, I called the police. On three different occasions. It shocked and appalled me that my neighbours did nothing and that it could have been me screaming for someone to stop hitting me and yet no one around me would do anything. I've spoken up when people have made what they feel are "jokes" based on racial, sexual or religious stereotypes, and I found them offensive despite knowing that I would be singled out amongst the small group I was in. I've even questioned instructions from my boss. I'm sure we all have similar stories. However, these are rare instances. How many times have I, like everyone else on the street, walked by a homeless person on the street asking for help, walked by a dog left in a car on a hot day (it is irrelevant if the window is partially rolled down or not), or simply watched as someone in the grocery store slapped their children when they acted up. The fact is we all do it.


Candy Minx said...

Excellent review. I am totally going to look for this...I am fascinated by this stuff...

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I actually heard those experiments being discussed on CBC Radio last week. And you are so right when you say that we all think that we will be that exceptional person. Now I'm not so sure.

SME said...

I caught this too; excellent overview of these experiments. My high school psych teacher was heavy into this stuff because unethical medical experiments were also being re-examined around that time: feeding mentally disabled children and prisoners irradiated oatmeal, for instance. I wonder if some of the totally heinous "medical" experiments like the Tuskegee syphillis experiment were actually behavioral experiments, using the medical staff as subjects. "Hmm, let's see if nurses will let their patients die if we tell them it's for the advancement of science..." *shudder*

Andrew Meyer said...

The documentary can be seen here:
The Human Behavior Experiments

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