On the Art of Meat Puppetry

If you’ve ever taken an introductory psychology class or read a collection of psychology’s greatest hits, you’ve probably heard of the Milgram Experiment.  In case you haven’t, the Milgram Experiment was comprised of a series of tests, devised by Dr. Stanley Milgram of Yale University, to determine to what extent human beings are willing to do whatever a guy in a lab coat (or an army uniform or just a really nice suit) tells them to do.  The experiment proceeded this way — the test subjects were invited (each one alone) into a room where a man, dressed like a scientist, instructed them to administer increasingly intense electric shocks to another man, on the other side of a window, by flipping switches on a machine and cranking up the voltage. Of course, the man whom they thought they were shocking was, in reality, an actor, and the electric shocks were fake.  At any rate, Milgram discovered that the majority of people will shock someone to death if you ask them to — they’ll cry and wring their hands, but ultimately, they’ll kill someone just because the person who’s asking them looks important and serious.  The number of people willing to administer lethal shocks to the groaning actors ranged, depending on the particular set of experiments Milgram conducted, between 61% and 66%.  Milgram and his team performed this study in the early ’60s, so we (unfortunately?) can’t reproduce them today for ethical purposes — at least, not in the United States.

My thoughts have turned to this study recently, especially after the child-sexual-abuse scandal at Penn State.  I read a column by David Brooks shortly after the event where he said that one shouldn’t be quick to condemn Joe Paterno and the other coaches and administrators who either actively covered up or were simply indifferent to so horrific an offense as the rape of a child.  Brooks wasn’t defending the Penn State administrators, and I assume he believes that losing their positions was the least that should’ve happened to them.  But, Brooks made a good point : since social psychology increasingly shows that we are all prone to shirk moral obligations (something called the “by-stander effect”) when we encounter an evil as a group of witnesses (no one acts because everyone expects everyone else to act) we shouldn’t use this as an opportunity to congratulate ourselves for what we think we would’ve done in the same circumstances.  The Penn State administrators and coaches were not exceptionally bad people (unless most of us are exceptionally bad — which is a point that various religions have often made, and which is, arguably, true enough — at least, at times.)  They were just average people — and studies increasingly show that the average way of responding to externally induced madness (a demand to not go to the police about sex abuse or a command to electrocute someone), over and against the pressures of conscience, is simply to go with the flow.  Conscience loses out to circumstances most of the time, and this insight is what ties the “bystander effect” and the Milgram Experiment together.  But that mild qualifier — “most of the time” — is important and instructive, as I will attempt to argue.

Social psychology frequently functions to make us more cynical and disgusted by human behavior — though, of course, the majority of people who end up feeling cynical and disgusted are probably still people who would, in the last deduction, flip the final switch at the behest of a Gestapo, be it a real or a fictive Gestapo.  It’s disheartening to contemplate this fact, of course.  I usually hear the Milgram study — or the Stanford Prison Experiment (another experiment which went to show that people will act abominably if given the license to do so) — cited as evidence that we’re really a bunch of meat puppets, totally at the behest of external forces.  We’ll pretty much do anything if we think that there will be a reward at the end of it or that it will advance our careers in some way.  We’re not different from the rats and pigeons that behavioral psychologists routinely trick and divert, provoking them in search of the hidden food pellet, and our complex sense of a more interesting emotional and intellectual landscape ultimately breaks down to the same basic principles of stimulus and response.

I couldn’t disagree more with that last sentence — though, obviously, that is the way things play out most of the time.  It is surely quite easy to be borne along by the tide of circumstances, as every war and genocide in history attest.  But, I’ve never heard a psychologist — in any of the psych. classes I’ve taken or in any of the relevant literature — comment on a fact that’s almost just as interesting as the fact that 66% of people (or so) will electrocute you on short notice: at least 34% of people would not.  Now, I’ll be the first to admit that that’s a modest figure — but still, one out of three people.  One could do worse.  Not only have I not heard anyone comment on this fact, but I’ve never heard anything anecdotal about the backgrounds of the people comprising this 33%.  What was their level of education?  Their family environment?  Their religious training?  We can’t know, now, because we don’t dare reproduce such a boldly un-ethical experiment (though it seems like such a study would still be possible in more authoritarian countries, like Singapore or China.)  In reality, that information is the really crucial data — we need it more than we need a confirmation of our essentially damaged moral character.  That is to say, we need information as to how to repair that essentially damaged moral character.

I don’t doubt that when Milgram and Limbardo (the scientist who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment) performed their studies, they probably weren’t totally surprised by the results.  I don’t know if this was the case or not, but when I enter into the scientific mind-set, I find myself expecting human beings to be controlled by quantifiable external causes: “This fake scientist was wearing a lab coat: a lab coat means authority: everyone listened to him for that reason.”  But a scientist would find it virtually impossible to study the people who somehow found the moral fortitude within themselves to decide not to shock an innocent person to death.  Whatever propelled them to resist unjust authority clearly came from an internal source, inaccessible to the laboratory’s instruments and measuring sticks.  Thus scientists pass over it in silence. And yet, it is the most interesting thing because it is that which most carries the scent and the sense of our humanity.  I would not be surprised that, if we could repeat the Milgram experiment, we would discover that education was the crucial factor in determining who did not flip the switch — and by that, I don’t mean that whoever has an M.A. would be more likely to act humanely than a someone with a B.A.  The mere level of education couldn’t be less relevant.  It is the quality of the education — the forces with which one is associated in the form of teachers and classwork — that is crucial.

Education cannot be about giving you a new set of circumstances to control you.  The tactic of saying “Be good or you get sent to prison/ burned in hellfire” is an example of merely introducing a new set of circumstances to replace the old set.  The former set said, “Yes, steal, because you need that cupcake, because you’re hungry.”  The new set, which takes hell and prison into account as new geographical features, says, “Don’t!  You’ll never get cupcakes again!”  This is simple stuff — I’m not pretending to be profound or to say anything that no one already knows.   But the function that education should provide is to give you the means of overriding your circumstances and choosing new ones.  Yet, as it is, it mainly does transform a slave of the passions into a slave of duties, his or her routine made tolerable by the few passions and natural inclinations left uncurbed: drink, tobacco, strip clubs, and marijuana (this last one increasingly).  Obviously, an education should do more than this, but even at the collegiate level one only finds that one studies the different kinds of slavery — one learns that the Victorians all behaved so, and that people in the 1950s all behaved so, and that we today all behave so.  But no one ever exposes a chink in the labyrinth’s walls.  The walls just wind on to new chambers — one after another.  We get a wider perspective, surely — but only on the corridors of a prison and on its watch-towers.  We never see what lies outside of the prison — unless we’ve had a particularly unusual educational experience, whether secular or religious in nature .

The trend of reducing human behavior to broad and easily definable external causes goes from social psychology to harder forms of science.  For instance, “Evolutionary Psychology” continually reminds us of the baseness of our nature, of our caveman roots.  Scientists specializing in this field typically reach conclusions in the following manner: “Men like big boobs because boobs are good for feeding babies and we all just want to reproduce.  That’s why we’re wired to like boobs.”   That’s probably true enough, but try on a new formulation: “Some people are religious because they all want better food than they’re able to have in their current social circumstances and they hope they’ll get better food in heaven.”  This strikes one as being more than a little inadequate in terms of critique (though it’s probably true for some people) — yet it is the kind of thing esteemed researchers in sociology and psychology say all the time.  They perform too-severe reductions on the human psyche — and yet we continually confirm the validity of those reductions, those tight measures making us less than we are.  That’s the true lesson to be taken from Milgram, the Stanford Prison, and Penn State.  The lesson is not that we are base — it is that we allow ourselves to be abased.  It is not that we are controlled by circumstances: it is that we allow ourselves to be controlled by circumstances.  And we submit ourselves to these things only to retain  the merest wages of our existence — for career, for esteem, to save face (paradoxically, in the case of Penn State and any other examples you want to mention, considering that the end-result for the complacent parties was universal condemnation and absolute shame .)

Politically and scientifically we’re always going to need to ask, “How do we nudge the mob into behaving better?”  That is, how do we tweak the social and the innate psychological tendencies of human beings in order to get a desired effect — more peace, more sanity?  And broad policies with new crime fighting tactics and various deterrents can no doubt be proffered as the occasion merits.  Yes, on the one hand, we are bound to treat the group as an instrument that we can play, provided we know all the notes and the theory.  But we would be wrong — and we continually are wrong — to treat individual human beings in such a manner — and it is because we treat them in such a manner that they routinely disappoint us.  We say, “seek to make your way in life, within the confines of the law” — and then we give them no other tools to break a path through life save for their own bodily appetites.  We don’t assert that an authority should be obeyed because it is just or a source of wisdom — we assert that we should obey it simply because it is an authority.  And the teachers’ unions continually affirm that this is the way things should be, since every teacher is an authority — a mini-representative of the President, God, and any of the greater authoritative figures in the world — and no teacher can be fired on the basis of his or her performance!

Thus progress is made impossible at any level except at the broadest level, at which we treat humanity as a mass to be grossly manipulated, like an enormous mound of putty.  This does and should aid society: “The Broken Windows Theory” is one example of this — it states that cracking down on vandalism leads to a reduction in more serious offenses like sexual assault or armed robbery.  But it does nothing to better life at its most essential unit — the personal unit, the individual being, the only unit in which any of us are able to have access to any of the larger units (family, religious community, the nation, and on).  Thus, while we are enriched as a society, we are impoverished as individuals.  And while the wider social life grows more peaceful and more prosperous over time, the individual life becomes uniform in the lack of its contact with culture, its continuous forced prostration before social idols and before authorities who are authorities merely because they bear a title.  The question asked of education, in an ideal future, will not be, “How do we manufacture a satisfactory human being?”  It will be “How do we give people the tools to create themselves?”  And such self-made people — though self-made through the aid of the surrounding society (somewhat paradoxically) — will, in my view, be far less likely to submit to the groupthink and subordinate mindset characteristic of those involved, on the one hand, in the Penn State scandal, and, on the other, in the Milgram Experiment.


3 thoughts on “On the Art of Meat Puppetry

  1. The struggle of the 33% (and argument for the most noble end of an education) might be best laid out (best meaning most lyrically, lucidly) in David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech.

    The speech was later published (print) under the title “This is Water.” The layout of the book is horrendous: some editor chopped his speech to bits to increase the number of pages. You can find a functional copy of the speech at link below, or I can send a gorgeous .pdf that a h.s. student of mine created using LaTeX.


    • Hey Camille,

      I think it’s definitely true that DFW’s speech is strongly related to this topic. I read “This is Water” awhile back and really enjoyed it… though I also found it heart-breaking, in light of Foster Wallace’s suicide. But all of the advice in that speech is totally worth-while, I believe.

      I like how simple DFW’s advice is — I’ve just been looking it over again — and yet, strangely, despite the fact that it deals with the most basic fact of all (just being, from day to day) it isn’t the sort of thing anyone talks about at all frequently (least of all in school.) I was reading this book, recently, “A Confession” by Leo Tolstoy, which, while much more overtly religious in design than DFW’s speech, struck me as having a similar sort of message. Tolstoy talks all about how when he considered himself only as being a tiny fragment, trapped in his own finite self, he felt suicidal and close to madness… but when he decided to genuinely relate to the totality of everything around him he suddenly found it within himself to continue living. I’d recommend giving it a look, if you ever have a chance.

      Also: thanks for commenting! It’s interesting to discover that people are actually reading this stuff.



      • I do think DFW’s suicide is related to what he describes in his speech. He was so very perceptive, but also relentlessly self-critical. A couple of his short stories, though not (strictly) autobiographical, suggest a mind that ate itself alive (“The Depressed Person” and “Good Old Neon”).

        My h.s. students were captivated by the ideas in his speech, but a large number of them (especially boys who have led difficult lives) were enraged when they found out he committed suicide. I realize that, for them, his words gave some comfort, but his reality negated their sense of hope; as one boy said, “If this guy who seems so smart and all can’t handle life, then why should I listen to him about how to live it? Fuck him.”

        I came across your blog in the comments section of a NYT article on Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.”

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