Reading List: Just One(ish) Thing.
Darlings, this morning you have just one thing to read, which is fine because, according to Medium, it’ll take 29 minutes and I know you’re all so busy :)
Ben Blum: The Lifespan of a Lie (Medium) - Sweethearts, I’ve written about “The Lucifer Effect” and Philip Zimbardo many times in this here Missive, as well as in a piece in the Sacramento Bee. Zimbardo’s work, built upon his infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, has greatly informed my approach to the banalities of evil, namely how the worst can be brought out of people merely by the environment and organizational structures they find themselves in. During my WWII/Holocaust in college, I never cared - and still don’t - about the figureheads, the officials, the generals. I cared - and still care - about the middle managers, the everyday folks, the "normal" people whose moral choices are sharpened by the whetstone of totalitarianism, whether that be acquiescing, collaborating and supporting a regime, or standing up, speaking out and resisting. Zimbardo’s work supposedly demonstrated the impact a mere organizational structure and situation can have on human moral behavior. Namely, that it doesn’t even take direct orders from a higher-up to compel horrific behavior, which hit me hard as I was doing senior thesis research into Hannah Arendt’s "Eichmann in Jerusalem". The study dovetailed well with my fascination with the “what ifs” of warfare - what would I have done in that situation? And what would my loved one, my neighbor, my colleague, have done?
But Zimbardo’s seminal work is (again) being scrutinized, with methods dissected and results questioned. In the piece, Blum utilizes newly unearthed documentation related to the experiment, as well as an interview with Zimbardo himself, to focus on the amount of direct influence ZImbardo and his grad student assistants had over the “guards,” perhaps even telling them how to behave. This is important, because if there were indeed instructions of cruelty, we're not seeing supposedly spontaneous sadism, which changes the meaning of the study's results.
Why does this matter? Because the basic legacy from the SPE, and from other disputed psychological studies like Milgram’s experiment, is that humans just need an excuse, whether that be a person or a situation turning the tap, for all forms brutality to pour out of us. This simple framework has been used to explain the My Lai massacre, abuses at Abu Gharib, and the Rwandan genocide, in part because Zimbardo’s “experiment” is held up as a science-approved example.
Now, does this calling-to-question of Zimbardo’s methods suddenly mean that situations IRL do not influence whether a person’s deepest and darkest is revealed under pressure? No, it doesn’t. But it does require us to examine the experiment itself through a new lens, one of the power of researchers and “people in charge” on the actions of their subjects, not just the independent actions of the subjects under duress.
And do I think we need to be hyper-vigilant about the impact of top-down rhetoric and organizational pressures on everyday folks, in the age of Trump? Fuuuuuuuuck yes, most definitely, absolutely - the questioning of this study doesn’t change that in my mind. But it does force us to look elsewhere for academic validation.
So once you’re done with the piece above, give these semi-related ones a whirl:
Brian Resnick: The Stanford Prison Experiment was massively influential. We just learned it was a fraud. (Vox) - a good explainer as to the importance of correcting scientifically-invalid studies prominently featured in intro psychology textbooks.
Ira Katznelson: What America Taught the Nazis (The Atlantic) - this piece from 2017 goes into the Nazi fascination with American race laws. So the next time someone tweets “this isn’t our country,” you can ruefully sob into your macchiato.
Jordana Horn: Here's how to help immigrant children separated from parents at U.S. border (TODAY)
I order you to be kind to each other. Please.