Saturday, April 9, 2011

Why Good People Do Dangerous Things (Pondering Pearl and Lydia Schatz) Part V: Pondering the Atrocities of the Jewish Holocaust and its Relationship to the Study of Obedience

Because I have discussed a few psychological studies, I believe that it is necessary to address the nature of those studies and the motivation behind why they were done. They were birthed out of a desire to understand the reasons why a whole nation of good German people could be influenced so strongly that they were able to commit such atrocities during WWII.

[As an aside note, this post on “What Goes on in the Soul of the Abuser” which quotes material from The Nazi Doctors may be helpful in understanding the leaders of groups, but it is not my primary focus today.]

On this site, I talk a great deal about manipulative behavior in Christianity, but I often approach it from a position that is informed by both the Bible and from observations about behavior. Some of that information comes out the study of why both individuals and groups of people behave in the way that they do.

Conservative (traditional, orthodox, Evangelical) Christians believe that God is the Author of truth as it revealed to us in the Bible. All other learning must be “brought captive” or brought under the authority of Christ (the Word of God) and is subordinated to that truth. Personally, I aspire to exactly this goal that I might be ever more conformed and changed into the character that Jesus Christ modeled for humanity. Many Christians find my perspective to be troubling because I am willing to accept as “truth” a degree of information from the material world that is not explicitly defined in the Bible. I am sometimes wrongly criticized as someone who accepts everything that the world offers as truth, particularly concerning what human beings have learned about the way we tend to act, why we act that way, and how we go about acting in the best way.

With the right intentions of maintaining pure thoughts that keep one under the authority of the Word of God, many Christians teach that because many of the original individuals in the area of psychology were atheists, all areas of study of human behavior have to be flawed in the same way that men like Freud and Jung were. They believe that all ideas that fall under the grand heading of “psychology” must be rejected and resisted. Sigmund Freud certainly had some bizarre ideas and was fixated on sex in addition to his atheistic ideas, likely because he was sleeping with both his wife as well as his wife's sister who was living with them, for example. Carl Jung walked in his garden while talking to his spirit guide whom he called Philemon. 

Some Christians believe that if these men framed out the foundations of psychology, then all ideas about human behavior today can only be as flawed as these original ideas were. I agree that these men's theoretical ideas are flawed and their beliefs about who man was and why he did things (from an evolutionary model) must be noted. And though I'm sad that these men rejected the Christian perspective, I sometimes agree with some of their matter-of-fact observations about people. I generally reject their interpretations of what their observations mean because I don't share their beliefs about the nature of man.

I find the theoretical perspectives of some of these men to be only speculative, usually insignificant in comparison to the empirical, applied, and practical findings of social psychology today. I accept data and information that comes from observation of behavior after it has been empirically tried and tested. Exaggerating to make my point about more subtle matters, there are some Christians who would argue that it was raining outside or that the sun was shining if an atheist attested to it, or might deny that there was such a thing as DNA because DNA is not described in the Bible. There are also people today who reject data and findings from brain science and imaging that modern technology has provided us, because by suggesting that the physical aspects of the brain can affect behavior and the “soul,” they feel that the significance of spiritual matters becomes somehow diminished or denied. So I differ from some Christians in that I view the brain as an organ that is affected by not only spiritual practice, physical factors (disease, damage, health or function of the brain itself), and environmental factors. I also accept statistically tested, validated, and significant information about human behavior, and if approached through a responsible hermeneutic, I accept them as “common sense” truths.

Reframing the Findings of Social Psychology

In terms of the studies that have been presented as an explanation of why good people (Christian people, in particular) end up making dangerous choices and do things that seem to make no sense, I would like to talk a bit about some of the investigators and why they found the study of behavior so important. Some Christians believe that all psychology means to prove that human beings are only animals and that there is nothing about behavior that is influenced by intrinsic forces such as a fallen sin nature or by intervention and insight that is given to men through the Holy Spirit. (Some maintain that it is impossible to bring ideas classified as psychology captive to Christ.) Any information elucidated can only be flawed, because it is the misconception of some Christians that all those who study behavior and conclude meaning from those studies can only be in error because of the atheistic influence. Some conclusions drawn from ideas of psychology clearly are Darwinian (like those of B.F. Skinner who concludes ideas that are strikingly similar to those of Michael Pearl's). To those folks who reject all ideas related to psychology, I would like to offer this food for thought.

The Motivation Behind Social Psychology

Solomon Asch
I've made some passing remarks about the findings of the Asch Experiments, but I have said little about Solomon Asch himself. He was born in Warsaw and emigrated to the US in 1920, and while living in Manhattan, he learned to read English by studying Charles Dickens. He went to the College of the City of New York and Columbia, earning a PhD.

His own motivations were not to demonstrate that human beings were mere animals! In the wake of WWII, he was distressed and moved on a personal level about the atrocities that took place. He sought out to understand more about the effects of propaganda and how the Nazis and the Jewish Holocaust could have possibly taken place. He ended up elucidating very important information about conformity and fallen human nature's tendency to “sell the truth” in order to conform with a group.

Solomon Asch didn't set out to prove any atheistic principles so he could make men into animals. He studied human behavior so that he could figure out something about why a whole nation found it so easy to conform to inhumanity, essentially becoming animals themselves. He wanted to know how Germany could so easily dehumanize the Jewish people. He was a Jew who was born in Warsaw.

Stanley Milgram
As stated in a previous post, Stanley Milgram was motivated to design and conduct his study of conformity and obedience because he was disturbed by the findings that came out of the Eichmann trials in Jerusalem in 1961. In this video, Philip Zimbardo states that he knew Stanley Milgram from the Jewish ghettos in the Bronx where they both grew up. Both Milgram and Zimbardo graduated from James Monroe High School in NYC in 1950. After completing his training, Milgram studied with Solomon Asch at Princeton in 1959 and 1960.

He also wanted to understand in an even deeper way just how so many good, regular, everyday people could turn so evil. Hannah Arendt who wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem coined the term “the banality of evil” when she reported on the trials as she observed how dispassionately Eichmann described his own behavior, recalling unspeakable atrocities without an appropriate human reaction of disgust. (Hannah was a German of Jewish descent who was forced to leave Germany in 1933.) Adolf Eichmann described the horrors of the Holocaust as though he were describing a banal act of making coffee or combing his hair in the morning.

Stanley Milgram did not seek to prove that men were animals. He sought out to discover ideas behind the nature of men like Eichmann and those who followed his commands without questioning themselves. What happened to their consciences? How could committing the most evil of acts become banal and commonplace? He sought to understand the fallen nature of mankind and how on earth the Nazis could have convinced good people to commit acts of evil so that such a thing could never happen again.

Philip Zimbardo
“Dr. Z” (as he is known to his students at Stanford), friend of Stanley Milgram, also describes his motivation for his study of the psychology of evil as having been birthed in the days he spent in his “ghetto sandbox.” I wept as I first read this section in the preface of his book, The Lucifer Effect, and I weep again today as I read it. He describes the abuse he suffered at the hands of Gentile kids on the street, the antisemitic prejudice of the police, and even from the janitors who would kick them off their stoops.

“Urban ghetto life is all about surviving by developing useful “street smart” strategies. That means figuring out who has power that can be used against you or to help you, whom to avoid, and with whom you should ingratiate yourself. It means deciphering subtle situational cues for when to bet and when to fold, creating reciprocal obligations, and determining what it takes to make the transition from follower to leader” (pg xi).

Quantifying Evil

At some point in the future on this site, I would like to explain more about the rigorous process of testing data to see if the information elucidated by these an any such study really means something and what the statistical analysis of that information reveals to us. I have touched on this in the past in some sense concerning Vision Forum's stance ectopic pregnancy, but would like to expand upon it in an upcoming post. In defense of the studies I've referenced recently, it may be helpful if people could get a glimpse into how statistics are used to put observations into perspective. But that is a subject for another day. I will leave you with another statement that Zimbardo makes in the Lucifer Effect.

“Thus the Lucifer Effect has been incubating in me for many years, from my ghetto sandbox days through my formal training in psychological science, and has led me to ask big questions and answer them with empirical evidence” (pg xii).

Click here to read the entire series on the archive.