Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Looking at Two Social Experiments

There are two experiments that psychologists undertook in the 20th century that can explain the problems we are having in society and how it will only get worse as the years go by. The first one took individuals and placed them in the position of electrocuting a victim because a supervisor told them to do it. The second one took a group of people and divided them into security guard roles or into prisoner roles and watched them react.

The electrocution experiment took everyday people who applied for the job of helping in a social experiment. The individuals who applied for the job were told that the test subject would memorize a sequence of words and then they would be tied into some type of electrocution device. The recruit would then ask for the sequence of words in their proper order. If the test subject forgot a word or said the wrong word then the recruit would push a button to give a tiny jolt of electricity and then upgrade the voltage for the next jolt. This means each wrong answer would result in receiving an electric shock, and each shock received would be worse than the one before.

About one or two jolts before it was getting in the red zone (approximately 100 or so volts), the test subject would manage to free himself from the restraints. The supervisor would instruct the recruit to re-attach the test subject. The supervisor was there with a lab coat and a clipboard writing notes as the recruit questioned the test subject and pushed the button. The recruit would then walk in the next room and re-attach the test subject back into the electrocution device. The test subject would plead and beg to be released.

Now the reality of this entire experiment was not to test how electrical shocks can improve our memory or how to torture someone with electricity.... No, the one being electrocuted was really an actor and the recruit, well the recruit was the test subject. The experiment was to see how far we would go in a morally ambiguous instruction. The shocking results (pun intended) were that most people followed the instructions and kept pushing the button. Many protested the right and wrong aspect of what they were doing but kept pushing the button because the authority figure told them to do it. On a variation of the experiment, there were two test subjects.... One would ask the question while the other would push the button. Can we see specialized labour here? On those occasions, there were less protests and more compliance.

When asked why they kept pushing the button, the answer was generally because they assumed that the authority figure was the one ultimately responsible.... As for the variation, the button pusher was only pushing a button, he wasn't asking the questions so he detached himself from any responsibility. The job was simple, push a button when told to, someone else would judge the legitimacy of this. The one asking the questions would be happy that he did not push the button. The job was simple, ask a question and instruct the button pusher to push a button if the answer was wrong.

Can we see how our bureaucracy in the name of efficiency and blind reaction to crisis has created a culture of specialized and compartmentalized work force? Department A does not know what department B is doing and very few people have an idea of what the whole is supposed to be doing. Each bureaucrat does the job he is instructed to do as efficiently as possible and is rewarded for compliance.... thinking is not encouraged unless it is to increase efficiency in the immediate task at hand.

Here is a fictitious example which could be real: Department A advertises that their shoes are the greatest in the world. Department B sells the shoes they receive to customers. Department C is the legal team that finds ways to prevent bad publicity from being broadcast to the world. Department D has an efficient distribution system to move the shoes from where they are made to the actual retail stores. Department E hires the children in the third world nation to keep costs down. Department F does the accounting to show to the shareholder how they are making more profit than their competitors. Department G donates money to a women's shelter in a rich community to show that their company is community oriented. Department F makes sure that the child workers don't steal the shoes they make and give out harsh penalties if the children don't work as hard as they should or try to sneak out during work hours.

The second experiment, is where a group of volunteers are divided into either a security guard or a prisoner. They will enter a building which has been set up as a detention centre and the goal is to see what will happen under specific circumstances. This experiment was supposed to last a certain length of time but it was cut short because people's lives were at risk. Once the role was assigned, security or prisoner, they played that role and forgot who they were. The security saw the prisoners as shifty and deceptive and conducted abusive behaviour against them. The prisoners saw the security personnel as overlords to be overthrown and tried to resist their imprisonment as best as they could manage and they would become deceptive and uncooperative. Remember, these are not security guards or prisoners (but they got into that role and forgot that their former compatriots were just like them a week ago).

Combine the results of both experiments and see how we act in our current jobs. We take on the role given to us, almost without question. We don't contemplate to see if what we are doing is morally correct because that is not what we were hired to do and we see the other team as the bad guys. Ask yourself this question, you see a television report showing corruption in a government office or a food poisoning scandal or a hospital who neglected some patient to death or even a scandal where a police officer shot some citizen for illegitimate reasons. Your reaction is probably one of disgust of how these other people are immoral and something should be done about it. Now ask yourself this question, you find out on the news that the employer you are working for has just lost a court case on issue X and must pay back to society for their mistake, you find out that one of your departments is being blamed for corruption. Or imagine what it was like for the Enron employee to find out that his corporation which had great financial success immediately decided to declare bankruptcy or for the retired auto-worker who will lose his supposedly guaranteed pension because the owners mis-used the pension money and are still receiving their bonus at the end of the year.

In our current positions at work, we are encouraged to do the best we can in our immediate circle and to ignore what other departments do. We are isolated in our work environment, we are rewarded if we push that electrocution button without question and we identify ourselves with whatever team we happen to be in and we mistrust other teams. The media is not to be trusted if they investigate us, but we definitely believe what the media say when they report on other people's corruption.

These two experiments are not hidden from public record but no one seems to be doing anything to prevent the negative aspects from affecting us. Quite the opposite, it seems that we are encouraged to blindly follow instructions and to be part of a "team" whether you are the prisoner or the guard, it does not matter because you will be occupied in following instructions from your immediate supervisor and complain about the opposite team..... How can democratic participation be promoted if we are manoeuvred into compliance?

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