Dark psyche: why we study what scares us

Photo credit: Elena Creed
Photo credit: Elena Creed

A conversation with Dr. Collin Barnes

By Ian Atherton

When the psychology majors start answering questions about their study, at least one clever individual always drums up the same quip: “So, does that mean that you’re psychoanalyzing me right now? Do I have a mental illness?”

The answer, of course, is no.

However, as misguided or insincere as this question can be, it reveals something important about the common man’s understanding of psychology. Many think of a patient sitting on a fainting couch, being emotionally probed by ink blot tests while a caricaturized Freud asks, “How does that make you feel?” This limited view of psychology stems from a morbid curiosity and leads to the heightened attention that clinical and abnormal psychology receive over other branches. There is a dark and vulnerable side to our psyche that, try as we may to escape it, captivates us without fail. In the deeper parts of a psychological education, this darker side of humanity rears its head.

Collin Barnes, assistant professor of psychology, spends a class or two  each semester lecturing on a landmark study conducted by Stanley Milgram in 1963. He prefaces this lecture with a bit of information about himself, telling his class that this study was critical in his own decision to pursue psychology. Dr. Barnes is not a clinician. Rather, he has a doctorate in social personality psychology and has devoted the majority of his post-doctoral career to its study. But as Barnes walks his students through Milgram’s experiment, it becomes clear why this study had such a profound impact: the study itself is hardly redeeming and the conclusions it draws are quite damning to our view of humanity. Perhaps it is this condemnation that makes this study so terribly fascinating.

The study took place twenty years after World War II, with the intervening years having done little to quell the bitter echoes of Hitler’s Germany. Milgram set out to study human obedience with the atrocities of the past in mind. He recruited a set of unwitting participants to be the “teachers”, telling them that they would help him study memory and learning. They would ask another participant, the “student”, a set of questions (the student was actually an actor in Milgram’s test). For every wrong answer, the teacher would personally deliver a painful shock to the actor. These shocks escalated over time, with the experiment concluding after the teacher delivered three shocks at a dangerous 450 volts. The shock generator was a fake, but the actor reacted as though it were painful, grunting and kicking, occasionally making mention of a heart condition and pleading to stop the experiment. After a while, he ceased to respond altogether, leaving the teacher fully convincedthatthey had just delivered a potentially lethal level of shock to another human being. If the teacher made any attempt to stop, they were asked to continue bytheexperiment’s administrator. After four such prompts, no other attempts were made to encourage the participantsto carry on with the experiment and the administrator remained silent.

By the end of the experiment, no teacher had stopped before reaching 300 volts. 65% carried on until they reached the limit of 450 volts.

In his social psychology class, Barnes shows a video of a middle-aged man participating in the experiment as a teacher. As the actor’s reactions become more dramatic, the man in control of the shock plate begins to sweat and stroke his brow in distress. At points, he yells at the experiment’s administrator, begging him to stop the experiment, or, at the very least, to check in on the actor. But with each bland, monotonous request to continue, the man returns to the shock generator and carries on. By the time he reaches 450 volts, he, like any number of other participants, has been reduced to near hysteria. When the true nature of the experiment was revealed and the man was asked why he did not simply stop, he was left nearly speechless—just as we may expect from a well-intentioned man who had entered the study unconsciously sure of his own morality and compassion, but who left with these conjectures in shambles.

The question that Milgram’s study raises is not new to psychology. It has been studied in a thousand different ways and worded in many more. It is a question of nature and nurture, of disposition and situation—of whether there is anything truly and universally constant in our thoughts and behavior. In the end, it boils down to the fundamental inquiry into how permanent any aspect of our psyche really is. If Milgram’s study has shown us anything, it is that, in a powerful situation, the principles by which we guide our lives may not have as much staying power as we would desire or hope. As Barnes puts it, “we’ve taken the college sophomore and shown him that he, too, is capable of terrible, terrible things.”

I recently had the chance to sit down and talk with Barnes about these darker sides of our psyche. Barnes’ study of these damning elements does not stop at Milgram’s study; he spent a large portion of his graduate education at the University of Oklahoma studying what psychologists have come to call the “culture of honor”, a phenomenon which occurs predominantly in the American South and West, where men are easily provoked by an affront to their honor—often nothing more than a petty insult—and react with unwarranted violence. When our discussion turned to honor culture and Milgram, I asked whether we should be dissuaded by what these studies may reveal about ourselves. In clinical psychology, there is at least a very clear goal: to cure whatever mental issues the patient has. With something like Milgram’s study, this goal is not necessarily as clear; Barnes himself admits there is something morally questionable about bringing a well-meaning, psychologically healthy person into an experiment and sending him away wondering what atrocities a bitter turn of fate may lead him to perform.

But the darkness of humanity is not the only draw for Barnes. The first thing that interested him in psychology was the way that his predecessors had taken the intangible—things like attraction, intelligence, and aggression—and quantified it. For Barnes, social psychology is something of an art form, incorporating the flawless replication of reality demanded by experiment design to the near-poetic interpretation of those intangibles which have inspired the writing, composing, and painting of man for millennia. Ernest Hemingway said that the writer’s job is “to tell the truth.” Barnes and his contemporaries, Milgram included, are doing just that. In revealing the vulnerabilities of our minds and morals, they have given us the opportunity to acknowledge our weaknesses and to better protect ourselves from them in the future.

This knowledge is not easily accepted. Just as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was unlikely to sway the opinions of a Jim Crow advocate in the 1920s, so too is Barnes’ research into the culture of honor unlikely to spare unlucky individuals from a fight in the neighborhood bar. But Barnes, like Mark Twain, Milgram, and countless others, lays before us a sad portrait of what the normal human being is capable of, and he has thus provided us an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others and to grow as a result.

“We have no problem thinking the best of ourselves,” Barnes says. “By pulling back that veil, do I think we’re arming ourselves? I hope we are.”

Ian Atherton is a senior studying English. Following graduation, he hopes to pursue a graduate degree and teaching career.

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