Fear Thy Nature (Ep. 92 Rebroadcast)

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(Photo: Robin Roemer for Sleep No More)

(Photo: Robin Roemer for Sleep No More)

This week’s podcast is a rebroadcast of a show about human nature and circumstance, “Fear Thy Nature.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) The episode is about how profoundly human behavior is influenced not only by our inner bearings but our outer circumstances. It centers on the fascinating show Sleep No More, created by the British theater group Punchdrunk; and the famous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which student volunteers were asked to play the role of inmates and prison guards. What do the SPE and SNM have in common? Give a listen to find out.


This may not be a slam dunk but honestly, when you look at the following:


You have to really ask yourself about what the Stanford prison experiment was trying to prove. For in the linked video, there are real paid employees treating US citizens almost as chattel and doing so under orders and with what they consider full permission even though it is totally non-constitutional.

steve cebalt

The military is a great natural experiment for this sort of circumstantial effect on behavior. I joined in June 1978 as a long-haired casual partier, cavalier and carefree, and very non-conformist. After a buzzcut, a drab uniform, and 6 weeks of basic training, I was the same person, but I behaved very differently. Put such a young person in combat, and his/her circumstances will dictate behaviors that would never happen again in any other circumstances in life.

Also, a study on drill sergeants in this regard would be instructive.


In prison, racial subgroup member are asked to "check" members of the same subgroup when they violate a rule of the greater community. The rule breaker need not have done anything against you, but as a member of the group you are asked to discipline the rulebreaker. If you fail to mete out discipline, you will be held accountable by being "checked" yourself.


I agreed with Steven Levitt that most of the results from the Stanford experiment came from the participants forcing behavior that they believe the psychologist wanted to observe. I read a little further about the experiment and feel part of this is due to the lack of information asymmetry between the guards and prisoners. I still believe that similar results could have been achieved given a few slight adjustments. First after randomly deciding who would be prisoners and who would be guards, both groups would be slit up and secretly informed different instructions about the experiment. This would create an environment where both sides felt like the others knew something that they themselves didn’t. Secondly you would create different levels of incentivisation between the two roles. Prisoners would secretly be told they would be paid at the end of the experiment and thus have no incentive to cooperate with the guards. The guards would be secretly told that they would be paid at the end of each day and only after all the prisoners have completed their daily tasks such as eating, cleaning, preparing for sleep, etc. thus creating a level of incentive to force the prisoners to comply. Finally inform both sides that all this would be supervised through cameras, and any conversation or acknowledgment of the experiment would forfeit their payment at the end of the experiment.
Great article as always, thanks!



Steve Levit doubts The Stanford Prison Experiment results because he says the undergrads were acting because they were manipulated by the experiment administrator and the test subjects were acting to satisfy the experiments wish that they act in a way the researcher wants them to. He suggests there was bias, but that was the point that one person could make others do cruel and inhumane things by leading people to expect they were supposed to do that. the study wasn't about would people spontaneously torture people because they had prison guard uniforms the study included that there would be a director telling them they were supposed to act in a cruel way. replace the word "experiment director" with "prison director" for the control group.

Julia Eccles

Maybe Steve Levitt has a really beautiful and optimistic view on human nature, but even if the students were trying to pander to the outcome their professor (supposedly) wanted, that still says a lot, because with or without his assumed persona, he was the figure of authority. Moreover, he never explicitly told them to torture the "prisoners", but they assumed they could or should.