The little question of human nature

I loved studying psychology and would have continued to do so and become A Psychologist, if only you didn’t have to do statistics or research or anything like that. I just wanted to learn about people, and then use what I’d learnt to help people somehow. But I ended up a bureaucrat like everyone else in Canberra. No matter.

I loved lots of different bits of psychology but one of my favourites is social psychology, especially the famous experiments that everyone’s heard about like the Milgram and Stanford prison studies that get covered in first year. Almost anytime I am aghast at something terrible that has happened, something that might have been prevented or different if normal people had behaved like normal people, I just have to think about all those experiments. Whose results beggar belief. They might not explain why people behave the way they do, but there is some comfort in knowing that they just do. They aren’t bad people, the world is not full of bad people, but unusual and difficult situations make people behave in ways they wouldn’t normally. Without this truth, wars would be fought differently, every ex-wife and ex-husband would be an angel, people would come out of prison better than they went in, and so on.

I recently listened to a Freakonomics podcast which considered weird theatre in the context of Stanford prison study, namely, that odd situations make otherwise regular people behave in odd – even criminal – ways. The theatre performance was one of those modern experimental ones where all the audience members wear masks and it’s really dark and you basically hang out in a bunch of different rooms with the actors. I think in this case the ‘play’ was Macbeth. The audience is expected to interact with the cast – Lady Macbeth is frequently ‘helped’ in the bathtub by people who can’t just stand by and watch a woman bleed to death, people read letters left on desks or try on coats hanging on the walls. But some people aren’t happy with this level of interaction. Sometimes it’s not enough to read the letter or try on the coat, they have to steal it. Apparently someone has sex at every show. One actor told a story of a scene in which she’s dancing in a glass box and one night an old lady started throwing stuff at her that she found on the set. Just a nice old lady who usually acted like a nice old lady but something about the mask and the darkness meant she suddenly decided she wanted to throw things at strangers. Apparently she was as surprised as anyone that she had behaved that way. So that was an interesting discussion.

But then the podcast moved on to a discussion of criminal behaviour and the Stanford results and featured an economist who, not to exaggerate or anything, rocked my little amateur psychologists’ world. Namely, he doubts the results of the Stanford study. He just doesn’t think people do that or are capable of such behaviour. The economist said he has found in the past that his own subjects behave differently in his studies designed to replicate those that have previously been undertaken by psychologists. Are people behaving differently because they think a psychologist expects different behaviour to an economist? Were the original results wrong somehow? Are his results wrong? Are people that unpredictable?

Unfortunately the economist can’t replicate the Stanford study because it would never get past an ethics committee these days, so he can’t prove his own doubts. He just has them.

Listening to this I felt my own fragile grasp on human behaviour starting to unravel. Does this mean people are bad?! Or are they really, really good at doing what’s expected of them, whether it’s from a psychology researcher or economist or whoever? Do we really not think about expectations and whether we agree with them and base our behaviour on our own moral compass? Are researchers bending the truth a bit about their results?! Was my entire psychology degree based on dubious results from dubious studies that tell us nothing about human nature and now I just have to go back to believing that if people act in criminal or strange or appalling ways that it’s because that’s just the way they’re wired and the situation they’ve found themselves in has absolutely nothing to do with it?

The whole thing just made me want to go home (I was out running while listening to this podcast, natch) and curl into a ball and never un-curl.

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