Fear Thy Nature (Ep. 92)

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Masked audience members lurk behind “Sleep No More” performer Matthew Oaks.  (Photo: Yaniv Schulman)

What do you do when you experience something — an immersive, interactive theatrical performance, say — and it scrambles your brain completely?

Make a podcast, of course.

The result is our latest Freakonomics Radio episode, “Fear Thy Nature.” You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript here.

The episode is about how profoundly human behavior is influenced not only by our inner bearings but by our outer circumstances. That sounds quite dull, doesn’t it? Hopefully the podcast is more interesting than this description. 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.

Felix Barrett, theatrical wizard and co-creator of “Sleep No More.”

Along the way, you’ll hear from Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist (and author of The Lucifer Effect) who created the Stanford Prison Experiment (see the documentary film Quiet Rage for more);  Sleep No More co-creator Felix Barrett, who more closely resembles a social scientist than most theater directors; and from a variety of Sleep No More creators, performers, and audience members.

You’ll also hear from Steve Levitt:

LEVITT: When I teach my class on the economics of crime to the undergraduates at the U. of C., one of the points that I stress over and over is that the puzzle is not why is there so much crime, the puzzle is just the opposite, why is there so little crime? Why does the average person who has literally hundreds of chances to commit crimes in a day not take advantage of those? 

This was a massively fun episode to make, and special thanks are due to producer Suzie Lechtenberg (who always does great work but in this case surpassed her own high standard); engineer David Herman (whose sound design and editorial feel are likewise always excellent but, again, super-excellent in this episode); and Jonathan Hochwald, who helped make our Sleep No More dream a reality. Hope you enjoy.

Jacob E

I've seen Sleep No More three times, once in Boston and twice in NYC, and I'm looking forward to seeing it again. I'm also involved in theater, improv, and live-action roleplaying, and my experience matches what I've heard here - costumes, masks, and otherworldly environments do allow me the freedom to become someone else. But returning to my own life is as simple as going home.

I study economics, so the crossover between putting on a mask and one's choices is very interesting to me.


There are two quite different things going on here, the displacement of authority in the Millgram experiment and the plasticity of people's moral framework with a role or anonymity in the Zimbardo experiment and the 'Sleep no More' play. I think people can have quite different degrees of susceptibility to these two things.

I recall an interview with Peter Brook about the filming of 'Lord of the Flies"; he said before the filming he thought the book a bit far-fetched, that a group of schoolchildren could descend into savagery in the course of a month. After the filming he said he thought all it would take was a long weekend.

Stefan Wrobel

Hey, how about a spoiler alert guys?!


I was skeptical of much of this podcast because the results of the Stanford Prison experiment are pretty much accepted without any questioning. There was the point where it was mentioned that others cannot get the same result, as well as mentioning others getting the same result. There was no critical analysis of the Stanford experiment, which in my opinion, is a seriously flawed 'experiment' with almost no useful results.

See the article "What You Didn't Know about the Stanford Prison Experiment" [http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4102] for some of the flaws of the 'experiment'.


Did you listen to it? Steven Levitt said exactly that, How it was flawed, how he bets if he conducted the experiment those results would not happen, that both researchers and participants engineered a system where such a result was likely and how if he did the experiment using better methodology and being an economist he would be a lot of money it wouldnt happen.


Just the other day I was asking a friend - what is it about the Internet that tends to bring out the worst in people? It's not limited to anonymous comments from people with names like La Boheme -- even fully signed comments can be unbelievably aggressive and over-the-top.

So perhaps "Sleep No More" is like a little Internet, all of us hiding behind our little computers and thinking we're anonymous, but we could be easily outed by anyone who recognises our names (or the outfits we're wearing)...

Thank you for the brain food...

Jeremy Hawkins

Regarding the validity of the Stanford Prison Experiment, I submit that the evidence is reasonably conclusive considering that we have a real-world example of the results being duplicated at Abu Ghraib. I would even go farther by presenting the possibility that the situation in Abu Ghraib was designed specifically to encourage the same results as were seen in the experiment by having it staffed by minimally trained troops.


but the difference is as you point out, they were in an environment where abuse was directly encouraged, people were not trained and didnt know the rules. You can engineer those situations but it probably wouldn't happen purely on its own.


I see what Levitt is saying about the experiment being somehow manipulated to produce specific results but that doesn't really change the fact it worked. People did still follow the rules, rules that despite manipulation people knew were completely arbitrary and artificial. Why should the guy who played a guard and said 'I was jus doing it to give the researcher something to work with' be excused? He was violent/brutal and used the research as an excuse to do so, or he saw the research as an incentive to behave that way. Also, what Levitt says about how weird it is that there is so little crime is of course intiutive, we're always amazed 'unchaotic' we are, but it has a lot to do with the incentives we have for not being chaotic, for working with other people for ourselves.
Nothing happens purely on its own does? Incentives are the things that shape situations and what the experiment proves is that given the right incentives, you will be an asshole.



Levitt has a really good point, replicability and the lack thereof in psychology is immense and the researchers often sway results. There are similar problems in economics but never to the same extent.

So many really famous and notable results simply fail to replicate but these failures to replicate never make the headlines.

There are certainly issues those studies seek to adress that are worth exploring such as the rise of Nazism and the Rwandan genocide (which is more disturbing as this was not the mostly disassociated from most people's lives it was in Germany it was people going around killing their neighbours).

ben leon

I wish that Phillip Zombardo had a chance to respond to some of the criticisms of the study just to hear his thoughts, other than that i really enjoyed the piece

Jacob E

Is there a list of the music that's playing under the talking? Is it all from Sleep No More?

Brian Hollenbeck

I'm very disappointed, and I'm docking Stephen Dubner some geek cred for this piece.

Ladies and gentlemen, Sleep No More is a game. A roleplaying game, to be more exact. And to be even more exact, its a sort of massive freeform LARP (live-action roleplaying game - http://nordiclarpwiki.org/wiki/Freeform) in the vein of Jeepform (http://jeepen.org/dict/), which is much more experimental. I know that it'd be hard to get tony New York audiences to pay big bucks to attend a LARP, but in listening to the piece, I'm pretty well convinced that there are enough game-like elements to qualify.

The audience is restricted in role (with the masks) and given rules to abide by - which are enforced by the stewards. There's a goal - to witness the play in one form or another - but the piece doesn't mention if moving though the space is enforced or not. Certainly there's a self-created goal to understand what's going on in the space - which, again, is a hallmark of a game: understanding not only the extent of the rules, but expressing yourself in terms of those rules to the extent allowed (the woman throwing things violated that rule).

If you sat down the creators of Sleep No More with Jane McGonigal, who has created several online and realspace alternate-reality games (ARGs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternate_reality_game), I'm sure she'd they'd have plenty in common.

Games are everywhere, and they need far more respect than they get.


Brian Hollenbeck

And I see after some research that Punchdrunk has done events in concert with videogames:



I want to take issue with the comment from Mr. Levitt about the Stanford Prision Experiment - whether or not it was caused by the psychologist professor's set-up, students delivery what they thought he wanted, etc. - the point is that it gook less than 48 hours for one set of students to abuse another. That happened. Just as the holocaust happened, and Rwanda and the Balkans - many otherwise rationale, reasonable people did horrible things. Lots of them did not, but enough did to make me think how tenuous is society's hold on law and order. Travel to another part of the world where rule of law is less well established and society's norms have broken down (the former soviet union countries, middle east) and you will see how easy it is for individuals to do things they would never have thougth they were capable of.

Brian Hollenbeck

Milgram's various experiments (there was more than the one) showed that it was the trappings of authority, _along_ _with_ being given the opportunity to choose (not saying 'you must do this') and to work for what the subjects thought was a noble goal (the pursuit of science) combined that made the people comply.

I think in the case of the Stanford Prison Experiment, since the experimenter was present, they just wanted to do their best - they wanted to prove what they thought the experiment was designed to prove - that motivated them to do what they did.

The only way to construct the Stanford experiment critically would be to have a group of people wind up in a similar situation and *not know* they were participating in a psychological study. Which, of course, has serious ethical problems all by itself.


So Levitt just decides Zimbardo is lying, in the face of the evidence, and the BBC (and the Holocaust, etc.). And two self-justifying quotes from rationalizing "guards" are supposed to be proof. Levitt just has his "gut" reaction.
Very scientific!
(PS -- I read the Skeptoid article, and find it just nitpicking, not undermining.)


Hello Freakonomics, love your podcasts so far; I'm a new listener. I was just wondering if you guys can talk about the Pros and Cons/Who benefits and who doesn't from PRICE DUMPING. I want to see what you guys think about that. Should Price Dumping be a BIG Global Market Concern?