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.

Olivia Sulistio (@candrakirana)

I love this podcast especially the part about "Sleep No More". I hope one day I have a chance to see it. Thank you.


Saw Sleep No More. It did freak me out.

I do believe people get drunk with power. Check out some of the fraternities.


As an Orthodox Jew, what I get out of this is the wisdom of the Torah in commanding us to live in a very specific way so that we don't put ourselves into circumstances like the prison experiment where our basest natures would rear their ugly heads.


Shostakovich Piano Concerto #2. Nice!

Dan Jordan

In listening to some past Freakonomics podcasts I heard this one, Fear Thy Nature. Featuring a discussion of the Stanford Prison experiment overseen by Zimbardo, Steve Levitt stated that he didn't believe it. In fact his final comment on his rejection of the findings of that experiment was a statement that his comments were based on *intuition*. Levitt was introduced as someone who had run and observed a lot of experiments, and yet his comments were not based on any examination of the *rigor* of the experiment but simply on his intuition. Perhaps Zimbardo's findings were not valid, perhaps they were; but to find that they were invalid Levitt must identify elements of the experiment which were not done according to the rigor of the scientific method. He did not seem to do so; instead, his best evidence is indicated by things he said such as, "...that's one result I don't *believe*"; "I've *never tried it* but I just don't *believe* that it's real"; "I *think* [that] to get it [these conclusions] you have to manipulate other things"; "it just doesn't *seem* right to me that people are like that. Maybe that's what so amazing about it, that it really happened"; "*I don't know*..."; "I have come to *believe* that the people in the study are so keen to do what the researcher wants them to do..."

Belief isn't adequate, as someone suggested by the host to be an expert in experimentation should well know.

Further, these are unsupported opinions he claims to have had *prior to* any evidence he may subsequently have come upon that might buttress his beliefs. In fact he cited an example regarding a BBC movie director that seemed to support the Zimbardo findings and still Levitt was having none of it. Levitt seems *determined* not to believe; that's poison in matters of rigorous scientific experimentation.

Intuition is a legitimate basis for *formulating* a scientific hypothesis, but it cannot be considered as a fact that helps support or undermine conclusions regarding that hypothesis, conclusions based on fact-finding experimentation regarding that hypothesis. It was quite surprising to hear such intuition-based criticism from a person said by the host to have a strong background in experimentation.



I know it's been an age since this posted, but I'm just listening back through the podcast archives.

I adore Sleep No More. I've gone three times. And a large part of that is how incredibly freeing it is--because you are given permission to do things you would never do elsewhere: rifle through someone's things, stare straight into a strangers face, chase them, read over their shoulder. One aspect of the experience you don't talk about, though, which I found key to it is consent. In that, because it is self-directed, though it can be intense, you consent to every part of it because you stay. As do all the other audience members. So what would be, I think, very uncomfortable for me in a normal audience set-up isn't because I know everyone is choosing to remain part of this experience. Those who don't consent go hang out at the bar. There's also the knowledge that if you do something out of bounds, the stage hands will stop you. Which makes everything in bounds until you are stopped.

I found all this fascinating, particularly the interviews with the actors about their experience on the other side. More! More!



Oh man. I totally loved the soundtrack used in this episode. I wish the sound credits were available for this one. Because it's so totally mega-awesome.