Most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and right place, they’re capable of anything,” says John Huston’s character, Noah Cross, in the movie Chinatown — dialogue that seems especially apt watching this engrossing docu collaboration to be simulcast by Sundance Channel and Court TV. Following up on their “First Amendment Project,” the cable nets tap filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) to craft this thought-provoking examination of three controversial psychological studies whose chilling results still resonate today.
For anyone who skipped their social science requirements: In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram famously explored how the Nazis could have found Germans willing to carry out their barbarous crimes through experiments in which ordinary guys remarkably obeyed an authority figure and inflicted ever-stronger electric shocks on test subjects. Inspired by the Kitty Genovese murder case — in which 38 neighbors sat idly by as a young woman was brutally killed — Columbia U. also determined that people are less apt to respond to a crisis in group situations, a phenomenon known as “diffusion of responsibility.” Finally, there is the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which randomly chosen students were divided into prisoners and guards in a mock prison environment, only to see the “guards” gradually subject their charges to increasingly cruel and shocking punishments — until the experiment was prematurely halted.
In each case, Gibney finds modern parallels, most obviously in the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, raising the question of whether those events were the work of “bad apples,” as the US military has maintained, or an example of what normal soldiers can do when cast into a rotten barrel. Two less showy examples illustrate the other studies: frat boys who ignored a pledge suffering what turned out to be a fatal episode, and store managers who complied with directions from an unseen caller falsely claiming to be the police and compelled employees to endure degrading strip searches.
At times, the grainy research footage almost humorously brings to mind the Dharma Initiative from ABC’s “Lost,” but the underlying issues — including the willingness to follow orders, even when people implicitly know what they are doing is wrong — remain as fascinating and significant now as when these experiments were conducted. As Philip Zimbardo, mastermind of the Stanford study, notes, certain environments “elicit the worst from good people” — a more complex and troubling scenario than the popular “monsters on the loose” image that dovetails with our collective desire for justice and retribution.
Gibney fleshes out the hoary video with interviews, including surviving test subjects and academics, creating a stimulating hour that would have made most of those college-level communications studies classes a lot less boring. It’s the kind of cerebral documentary programming that’s too rare, sadly, in the increasingly loud but not very bright basic cable space. Of course, human nature being what it is, odds are no one will watch it. – Brian Lowry, Variety
It’s extremely tempting to say that Human Behavior Experiments, which debuted last night on the Sundance Channel, makes a compelling argument for Thomas Hobbes’ view of the state of human nature. With its focus on three notorious psychology projects that demonstrate man’s inhumanity to man, its array of woolly profs brought on as talking heads, and its general air of earnest undergraduate indignation, the hourlong film gets you thinking like a college student. This effect is further encouraged by the snippets of actual kids in actual psych classes. One young woman, her seminar-room smile on high-beam, debates which of two equally horrifying stories of blind obedience is, in fact, more horrifying. The director is Alex Gibney, creator of a previous study of the psychology of venality called Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Though Gibney is eager to link up the studies—the Milgram Experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment, and a Columbia University study of the bystander effect—with wrongdoings ripped from the headlines, his film is less a polemic than a pulpy survey.
That is, Human Behavior Experiments is serious, but it’s also unembarrassed to schlock itself up. Sundance co-produced it with Court TV, and something of the latter channel’s tabloid panache has seeped into the tone. There are grainy re-enactments and a close-up urgency to the interviews. It gets into gear with file footage of long-hairs in love beads dancing in the sun. “In a unique period from the early ’60s to the early ’70s, a group of social scientists conducted a series of experiments examining the dark side of human nature,” goes the voiceover as Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” buzzes in the background.
The earliest of these scientists was Stanley Milgram, a Yale professor with an Abe Lincoln beard and a prophet’s stare. In 1962, curious about how the Germans could have permitted the Holocaust, he devised an experiment to see, as he says in an old clip, “under what conditions would a person obey an authority who commanded actions that went against conscience.” He corralled some upstanding citizens of Connecticut and led them to believe that they were acting as “teachers” delivering electric shocks to other men in another room as punishment for giving incorrect answers in a word-pair test. The conclusion, as one of the teachers says in a new interview, is that “you could staff a death camp with the middle class of New Haven.” Gibney goes on to link the Milgram Experiment with a recent and perverse scam in which a man pretending to be a police detective phoned up managers of fast-food restaurants and ordered them to strip-search an employee. Perhaps 100 people across America fell for it. In keeping with the show’s tone, we get a faux-eerie glimpse of a McDonald’s drive-through menu splashed with film noir rain.
Gibney goes on to give the same treatment to the Columbia experiment, John Darley’s response to the infamous Kitty Genovese case, in which a Queens woman was stabbed to death while 38 people listened. (The notion is that, had there been fewer witnesses, she might have survived.) And his movie is at its most chilling when drawing lines between the Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment and Abu Ghraib. Out in Palo Alto in 1971, two dozen normal young men signed up to play a game of prisoners-and-guards that degenerated into an unspeakably vicious spectacle in about 48 hours. That’s apparently what tends to happen when one group of people is given some power and some uniforms: The photographs documenting the experiment are nearly identical to the souvenir snapshots of Lynndie England and company. Clothes make the man, and maybe also the inhumanity. – Troy Patterson, Slate.com
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