Two films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival take inspiration from now infamous experiments from psychology’s past. Experimenter, starring Peter Sarsgaard, centres on Stanley Milgram’s controversial obedience to authority experiments,
In 1961, social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted the “obedience experiments” at Yale University. The experiments observed the responses of ordinary people asked to send harmful electrical shocks to a stranger. Despite pleadings from the person they were shocking, 65 percent of subjects obeyed commands from a lab-coated authority figure to deliver potentially fatal currents. With Adolf Eichmann’s trial airing in living rooms across America, Milgram’s Kafkaesque results hit a nerve, and he was accused of being a deceptive, manipulative monster.
Experimenter invites us inside Milgram’s whirring mind, beginning with his obedience research and wending a path to uncover how inner obsessions and the times in which he lived shaped a parade of human behavior inquiries, including the “six degrees of separation” findings. Constantly subverting expectations with surprising structural and stylistic choices, writer/director Michael Almereyda transmutes the crusty period biopic form into something playful, energetic, and deeply satisfying—taking bold risks to yield profound insights, like all great experiments. —C.L.
The Stanford Prison Experiment, starring Billy Crudup, explores Philip Zimbardo’s study of the same name. The film is described on the Sundance site as follows,
It is the summer of 1971. Dr. Philip Zimbardo launches a study on the psychology of imprisonment. Twenty-four male undergraduates are randomly assigned to be either a guard or a prisoner. Set in a simulated jail, the project unfolds. The participants rapidly embody their roles—the guards become power-hungry and sadistic, while the prisoners, subject to degradation, strategize as underdogs. It soon becomes clear that, as Zimbardo and team monitor the escalation of action through surveillance cameras, they are not fully aware of how they, too, have become part of the experiment.
Based on the real-life research of Dr. Zimbardo (who was a consultant on the film), The Stanford Prison Experiment is a dramatic period piece that remains relevant over 40 years later. Along with an impressive cast, including Billy Crudup as Zimbardo, Kyle Patrick Alvarez (C.O.G., 2013 Sundance Film Festival) delivers an intense, visceral film about the role of power that plays to both chilling and exhilarating effect. —K.Y.
The May 2012 issue of History of Psychology is now online. Included in this issue are a number of all new articles, including pieces on the history of postpartum depression, a late-nineteenth century nerve training controversy, and the use of psychology by American ministers in the mid-twentieth century. Other items in this issue include an interview with Philip Zimbardo on the 40th anniversary of the Stanford Prison Experiment, the incorporation of cross-cultural examples in teaching, and a look back at the Holocaust interviews conducted by psychologist David Boder in the 1940s. Additionally, Frances Cherry, Rhoda Unger, and Andrew Winston comment on an earlier article by William Woodward on Jewish émigré psychologists and Woodward responds. Full titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.
“Can’t a mother sing the blues? Postpartum depression and the construction of motherhood in late 20th-century America,” by Lisa Held & Alexandra Rutherford. The abstract reads,
Popular depictions of 20th-century American motherhood have typically emphasized the joy and fulfillment that a new mother can expect to experience on her child’s arrival. But starting in the 1950s, discussions of the “baby blues” began to appear in the popular press. How did articles about the baby blues, and then postpartum depression, challenge these rosy depictions? In this article, we examine portrayals of postpartum distress in popular magazines and advice books during the second half of the 20th century to examine how the unsettling pairing of distress and motherhood was culturally negotiated in these decades. We show that these portrayals revealed a persistent reluctance to situate motherhood itself as the cause of serious emotional distress and a consistent focus on changing mothers to adapt to their role rather than changing the parameters of the role itself. Regardless of whether these messages actually helped or hindered new mothers themselves, we suggest that they reflected the rarely challenged assumption that motherhood and distress should not mix.
“Delsartean hypnosis for girls’ bodies and minds: Annie Payson Call and the Lasell Seminary nerve training controversy,” by John M. Andrick. The abstract reads Continue reading New Issue! History of Psychology
The December 2010 issue of History of the Human Sciences has just been released online. Included in this issue are nine all new articles. Among the topics addressed in these articles are, James and Durkheim on truth, Freud and Krafft-Ebing on sexuality, and the historiography of sexuality. Additionally, Janet Martin-Nielsen (left) writes of the emergence of linguistics in the United States during the Cold War. Titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.
“Durkheim, Jamesian pragmatism and the normativity of truth,” by Warren Schmaus. The abstract reads,
In his lectures on pragmatism presented in the academic year 1913—14 at the Sorbonne, Durkheim argued that James’s pragmatist theory of truth, due to its emphasis on individual satisfaction, was unable to account for the obligatory, necessary and impersonal character of truth. But for Durkheim to make this charge is only to raise the question whether he himself could account for the morally obligatory or normative character of truth. Although rejecting individualism may be necessary for explaining the existence of norms, it is not sufficient. I argue that Durkheim never succeeded in providing a full account of normativity. Of course, this is a problem that remains unresolved today. Nevertheless, Durkheim took an important step beyond James in recognizing the insufficiency of his individualist account of truth.
“Sexual science and self-narrative: epistemology and narrative technologies of the self between Krafft-Ebing and Freud,” by Paolo Savoia. The abstract reads, Continue reading New Issue: History of the Human Sciences
The Psychologist, the flagship journal of the British Psychological Society, has published an article by S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher that challenges what the authors call the “clear consensus amongst social psychologists, historians and philosophers that everyone succumbs to the power of the group and hence no one can resist evil once in its midst.”
Relying on a number of recent and soon-to-be-published studies, and re-analyses of old studies, they reject Hannah Arendt’s famous conclusion that Adolf Eichman and others like him are not immoral “monsters” who can be easily distinguished from the “normal” people but, rather, are entirely ordinary individuals caught up social currents beyond their ability to control or disengage themselves from. Arendt’s conclusion was instrumental in the famous experiments of Asch, Milgram, and Zimbardo, [SEE CORRECTION BELOW] Continue reading Is Evil Not So Banal After All?
The British Psychological Society (BPS) Research Digest Blog has reported that the new series of BBC Radio 4’s Mind Changers will begin airing tomorrow (Wednesday, November 28th). The episodes air Wednesdays from 11:00-11:30. You can listen to the programs online.
Tomorrow’s episode is on the Stanford Prison Experiment:
“Claudia Hammond presents a series looking at the development of the science of psychology during the 20th century. When Philip Zimbardo set up a mock prison, he had no idea that the resulting behaviour would be so extreme that he would have to abandon the experiment. Over 30 years later, when he saw photos of the abuse in Abu Ghraib, it was with the shock of recognition that he went on to testify in the defence of one of the accused soldiers.”
Continue reading Mind Changers