Sunday, March 28, 2010

Fear and the Prison of the Mind

In Basic Composition right now, we're reading a section on "Obedience to Authority" in our textbook, so we've boned up on Milgram's shock experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment. If you aren't familiar with these, they're psychological/sociological studies (one at Yale, one at Stanford) conducted that looked at how people respond to stress situations in which their own morals and values are challenged. In Milgram's experiment, the subjects were instructed to "shock," with increasing voltage, learners who answered incorrectly. To the surprise of the researchers, the subjects overwhelmingly were willing to blindly follow orders and shock people with (they thought) as many as 450 volts, despite the learners' screaming, thrashing, and pleading to be let go. In the Stanford experiment, a group of volunteers was arbitrarily divided into prisoners and guards in order to study the effects of loss of liberty (prisoners) and the effects of gaining social power (guards). A two-week study had to be cut short after only six days when the guards turned into sadists and several prisoners had to be excused because they were cracking under the strain.

What lessons we can glean from these experiments differs with your viewpoint, your opinions about how the experiments were conducted, and other factors, but one thing remains: given certain environmental conditions, people will act in ways contrary to how they think they might act. And often those ways are horribly destructive. Then we have to learn to live with ourselves.

I'm thinking about all of this because the end of the write-up of the Stanford Prison Experiment connects the results to the "prison of our own minds." Readers are asked to consider to what extent their own thinking might keep them in a prison of their own making. Milton said this too, when he wrote in Paradise Lost that the mind can make a hell of heaven or a heaven of hell. And in Alcoholics Anonymous, we read about the fear-based thinking that results constantly in our being frustrated, angry, and resentful--the things that drive us to drink.

What horrible things have you done in your life that were born of fear, of selfishness, of rationalizations?

I think, for example, of lies I've told. There are the little ones: "Yes, that's a great haircut!" when it does you no justice whatsoever. Am I being kind, or am I just afraid I'll hurt your feelings and I'll wind up feeling uncomfortable? There are bigger ones: "I won't tell anyone that you cheated on that paper." What am I afraid of? Losing your friendship? Coming off as a tattletale? And bigger ones. A company I once worked for published and distributed a nationally standardized test in which some test items had been altered after the norming so the items would "perform better," instead of tossing them and going to the expense and time of re-norming new items. Why didn't I blow the whistle? What was I afraid of? Losing my job, losing my income, getting other people in trouble, bringing the company bad press. Or a yet bigger lie, some time ago: "Yes, it's okay if I have an extramarital affair without telling my partner." What am I afraid of? She might not say it's all right. She might leave me. Or, she might leave me anyway. I'm afraid I'll be alone.

But the most destructive lies here weren't just the lies, but the lies I told myself. "Eh, it's just a term paper. She knows the material, but so much is going on in her life right now. English lit isn't her major. She doesn't need to know Macbeth inside out. What's the big deal?" Or, "It's only an admissions test. They consider other indicators for admissions decisions beyond test scores. A few items on a test is not going to make a difference." Or, "She said when we first got together that it would be an open relationship, as long as the other woman doesn't represent a threat to ours." (Yet there she was, clearly having a big problem with this idea.) "But that's her fault! She can't just go changing the rules on me! That's not fair."

Yeah. It's rationalizing the lies that are the real brain-killer. Fear = rationalization = acting out, blaming others, self-loathing, the whole she-bang. Out comes the bottle of tequila. Some part of yourself, deep down, even though you think your conscious mind is persuaded by your rationalizing, knows better. You know you've made some kind of selfish or fear-based choice to justify behaving badly. You've constructed for yourself a mental prison. There's no way out. You're trapped. Out comes the tequila bottle again, so you don't have to think about it.

I used to make fun of the simple-minded people who see the world in black and white. There are bad things and there are good things, and never the twain shall meet. Oh yeah? I thought that was ridiculous; the ethics of a situation depend on the situation. I still believe that, but I also have come to believe that yes, despite that, you can still have rules that can be prioritized. What's the greatest good for the greatest number of people? How do you know this? What are your motives here? Are they selfish or fear-based? So rules are less obstacles now and more of a roadmap, a kind of moral checklist. If you're going to break one, you'd better be sure you're doing it for a good and selfless reason. And it's probably a good idea to run it by others to make sure, because we're not always conscious of our own agendas.

I'm sure each and every prison camp guard in Nazi Germany had talked himself into believing he was doing right by standing by as Jews were executed, just like the bureaucrats rubber-stamping policies in their "banality of evil."

Interestingly, Stanley Milgram's experiment was recently recreated in France, except the laboratory setting was replaced. Instead of a researcher directing the subject to shock learners, the subject was placed in a television game show setting and was directed by the host and audience to shock the learner. The 60% percent compliance rate in the original Milgram experiment turned into a whopping 80% in this context. One thing's for sure. When we don't learn from our mistakes, we're doomed to repeat them.

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