Sunday, May 31, 2009

Lecture with Philip Zimbardo - How good people become evil

I just came home from a brilliant lecture by Philip Zimbardo, a professor in social psychology at Stanford University, US (see picture). Rarely do I attend lectures that are as informative and above all inspirational as his, if you ever get the chance to listen to him, don't hesitate.

The lecture today which was held in Lund, where he is going to receive an honorary doctorate, had three parts in it. The first, and the most shocking was about evil and the psychology of evil. Zimbardo's hypothesis is that evil act are often a result of situational factors (rather than say the personality of the individual). He provided a detailed account of the Stanford prison experiment (SPE) that he conducted back in the 70s. In this experiment ordinary healthy youngsters were assigned to be either guards or prisoners in a fake but realistic prison setting. The original plan was that the prisoners would be incarcerated for two weeks, however, after six days the guards abusive behavior had completely broken down the prisoners and the experiment had to be halted (see video). 

In todays lecture more focus was put on another episode which lends support to Zimbardo's hypothesis, namely the horrendeous abuse that took place in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The night shift which was never supervised by superior officers abused prisoners in a truly creative and sadistic fashion. Furhtermore, as is evident when you look at pictures from this episode (you can simply google "Abu Ghraib" if you want to see them) the guards appeared to take joy in these acts. Some pictures shows smiling guards giving thumbs up over a pile of naked and tormented prisoners...

What are the situational factors that contribute to this type of evil? Well accoring to Philip Zimbardo one factor is deindividuation - making peope anonymous. In the stanford prison experiment guards were dressed in uniform and were asked to wear reflective sunglasses, and prisoners were referred to by number - never name. Also important was the absence of checks, which was especially evident in Iraq. No superior officers ever came to check on the night shift -  had someone done so it is likely that the abuse would have been reported. To further drive this message home, Zimbardo points out that anthropological studies show that cultures were it is custom to change the appearence of soldiers (normally assimilating them into some sort of standard), are much more aggressive and lethal than cultures were you are the same person when you are home with your familiy and when you are a warrior - such cultures show less aggression in conflict.  

Despite these insights into the darkness of humanity - Zimbardo wants to give us an optimistic message - namely that it does not take alot to become a hero. Forget about Batman, Superman and also forget about Ghandi, Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa (who may not have been a very nice woman after all). Sure, these persons and superheros are great, but according to Zimbardo most heroes are ordinary folks who find themselves in an extreme situation and then decide to act the way they ougth to. In Abu Graib the heroic act occured when Joe Darby saw the pictures and decided that he had to stop the abuse.  

Friday, May 22, 2009

Consciousness is a byproduct

Intuitively most people think that what we do is mediated by our consciousness. In other words, when I decide to raise my arm it is because I made some sort of conscious choice in my brain which then resulted in signals going down my corticospinal motor pathway and out to the muscles in my arm. 

I think that this is wrong. What is going on rahter, is that after the signal telling my muscles to contract have left my brain, then we become aware that this is the case. In other words being aware of what you do is merely a sort of byproduct, or epiphenomenon if you want to use a more academic language.

What is the evidence for this you might ask and I may answer what evidence do you have to support that our conscience can move an arm? However, I can do better than that because it turns out that there is indeed experimental evidence, produced by Benjamin Libet, suggesting that our consciousness is a byproduct. Benjamin Libet's subject were asked to do a very simple motor task, namely flex their index finger, they could to this whenever they wanted to. Libet wanted to measure the timing of three things, first when the muscle activity in the finger started, he did this using EMG electrodes which has high precision. The second variable he wanted to measure was when the brain activity leading to the action started, this was done using EEG scalp electrodes which like EMG has high temporal precision in the millisecond range. The third and perhaps most crucial variable Libet wanted to measure was when the conscious intention to flex the finger came. To do this he had a type of clock in which one arm would go a full revolution in 2,5 seconds. His subjects were told to report where the arm on this clock was when they first intended flex their finger. 

One would expect that if indeed we first intend to do something and then do it (which is a very intuitive scenario I will admit), if this is so then the flexing of the finger should occur subsequent to when the subject reported their intention. However, this was not the case, rather the flexing of the finger occured quite a while (approximately 500 milliseconds) before the conscious intention. The conclusion from this is that the brain knows that it is going to do something before the person does, or to be more precise, the part of the brain that handles motor initiation first do its thing, then after that the information is given to the part of the brain that mediates conscious awareness.

Many people when they hear this draw very radical conclusions, such as, why should we punish people if they do not have free will, or why should I care about anything, or do anything, what prevents me from becoming a nihilist. I one thinks about it, these conclusions are (at least in my opinion), unwarrented, but nevertheless interesting. I have touched upon these subjects before Perhaps they will be the topic of a later post...