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Groupthink, Self-serving bias, Space Cadets and the Stanford Prison Experiment – “Don’t Get Fooled Again” at the Beyond Words book festival

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Earlier this week I had a very enjoyable afternoon discussing “Don’t Get Fooled Again” at University College School’s “Beyond Words” book festival, and looking at some of the more eye-catching bits of psychological research that I came across while writing the book. The audience had some challenging and wide-ranging questions, and I thought it might be interesting to post some more background links here.

I was about halfway through my research when I realised that a great many of the delusions I was looking at seemed to come down, at least in part, to what might once have been called “excessive vanity”: The conspiracy theorists who think that they alone are part of some special group with special knowledge about AIDS/the Illuminati/911 or the “great asbestos scam” while everyone else muddles along in their brainwashed ignorance. Or the crank who’s convinced that, just by using his uncommon “common sense”, he’s managed to find a fatal flaw in a well-established scientific theory that generations of world-renowned biologists have somehow contrived to miss.

But what I hadn’t known was the degree to which almost all of us seem to over-rate ourselves and our own abilities, at least to some degree. The average driver thinks that they’re a better driver than the average driver – and reason dictates that we can’t all be above average. Most people also seem to rate themselves at least slightly better than others in intelligence, and significantly better in warmth, generosity and – my personal favourite – likelihood of leaving the largest slice of pizza for someone else when there are only two slices left. The research link for that particular claim can be found here – and for a more general overview I’d recommend Cordelia Fine’s excellent book “A Mind of Its Own: How your brain distorts and deceives”.

Somewhat less academic but still very interesting was the case of a reality TV show called “Space Cadets” where a Channel Four production company managed to convince a group of contestants that they were being sent into space and put into orbit around the earth. In fact they were sitting in a Hollywood space shuttle simulator at a disused military airbase in Suffolk.

The programme-makers had set out explicitly to recreate a psychological phenomenon known as “groupthink”, where members of a close-knit social group become so focussed on a particular group belief or objective that they lose their ability to think critically. But what hadn’t been predicted was the effect that the experience would have on the actors who were in on the hoax, and whose job it was to pretend to be an ordinary member of the group.

“My poor brain is a scramble of half-truths, astronomical lies and unbridled lunacy”, Skelton wrote in the Guardian, shortly after the hoax was finally revealed.

“I’ve just scribbled a list of what I know for sure: I’ve been a mole on a fake reality show called Space Cadets; I have a Russian doll in my hand luggage; I’ve just spent the past five days in a flight simulator in a hangar on the Suffolk coast; and – last but by no means least – I’ve just spent the past five days in space.

My default brain position aboard Earth Orbiter One was that we were 200 kilometres up, travelling at about seven kilometres per second. Too many things were telling me that for me to think otherwise.”

The psychological manipulation had been so strong that even though Skelton knew, rationally, that
the whole thing was a hoax, he found himself believing it anyway.

The third case study I looked at was the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment, which took place in the early 1970s. Researcher Philip Zimbardo constructed a model prison in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department, and got a group of students to play the roles of prison guards and prisoners. Within days, a significant proportion of the guards, who just days previously had been seemingly normal college students, had been transformed into brutal sadists, who relished the power that they’d been given and the opportunities for abuse that it gave them. In the end, the experiment had to be terminated early. Full details about the experiment and its wider implications can be found at Zimbardo’s excellent Stanford Prison Experiment website.

Interestingly, when the soldiers implicated in the horrific Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal were put on trial, Philip Zimbardo was one of the key witnesses for the defence, arguing that the “situational pressures” on the guards, stemming from the way the prison had been mismanaged, made such abuses entirely predictable.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I argue that human beings are rather more vulnerable to delusion and manipulation than we are usually be prepared to admit – but that confronting these vulnerabilities, and doing our best to understand them, is crucial in reducing our risk of being fooled in future.

Don’t Get Fooled Again and Real England at the Radical Bookfair

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I’ve just come back from a brief but very enjoyable trip to Edinburgh, where I was giving a talk on “Don’t Get Fooled Again” at the Radical Bookfair, organised by Word Power books. I was speaking alongside Paul Kingsnorth, who talked about his excellent book “Real England”, charting the damaging effects of top-down economic development on local communities across the country.

Paul traces the problem, at least in part, to the dominant and still largely unquestioned assumption that economic growth must trump all other public ‘goods’ – particularly those which are less easily measured and enumerated – and the belief that any form of development constitutes ‘progress’ – even when this involves the destruction of longstanding local traditions.

I’m still getting the hang of book talks, so I kept mine simple (perhaps overly so, given the sophistication of the audience). I focussed on the bogus claims made by the UK government – and aggressively hyped by large sections of the media – in the run-up to the war in Iraq, and putting forward the argument I make in “Don’t Get Fooled Again” that we need a law to make lying in public office a criminal offence.

The event really came alive when the audience got involved – one of the first points from the floor came from a former Labour councillor and MEP, who identified the common thread between both talks as the lack of democratic accountability. The same political disenfranchisement that gave local people so little say over the changes being imposed from the ‘top down’ on their communities was at work even at the heart of the Blair government – where the full facts about Iraq were kept to a tiny circle of people around the Prime Minister, with other cabinet members often being kept in the dark.

Other contributors talked about the difficulty of knowing which parts of the media to trust, given that even peer-reviewed scientific journals are subject to a form of ‘selection bias‘. Where scientific research has been commissioned by a commercial enterprise, such as a pharmaceutical company, that company may have a vested interest in submitting for publication only the results which present their products in a positive light, while quietly shelving studies that tell a less rosy story.

In response to one question, I mentioned an excellent website where the UK government’s bogus claims about Iraqi WMD have been forensically broken down by the writer Chris Ames. As I couldn’t remember the full details, I thought it might be useful to post the link here. I also thought it might be helpful to give some links to three excellent media watchdog websites, the Center for Public Integrity, the Media Standards Trust, and Sourcewatch.

Paul Kingsnorth pointed out how ironic it is that so much sound and fury has been raised over the punishment to be meted out to two comedians leaving lewd ansaphone messages when so little has been done to hold to account the senior politicians who took us into a disastrous war on bogus grounds.

It was fantastic to be able to meet so many people who had read and enjoyed “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, and having spent so much time recently dodging brickbats in various online discussions, it was very refreshing to have a proper, civilised face-to-face discussion. My only regret was that I couldn’t stay for longer – due to family commitments I had to rush back to London that same day – but I very much hope to do more of this kind of thing in future.

But by far the most surreal moment – in a good way – came just before I was due to go on and speak, when I caught sight of the man who had been my boss’s boss’s boss many years ago when I was still working in London as a profoundly unsuited IT bod. It turns out that Peter Cox, formerly the systems director of a major UK retail firm, has now reinvented himself as a writer, first with a book about English cricket, and now with “Set into Song” – an in-depth look at the music of Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker, Peggy Seeger. Peter was due to give a talk about his new book later that evening, but unfortunately I had to head back.

On the way home I had a chance to read a lot more of Paul Kingsnorth’s fascinating book, which works both as an engaging portrait of many important – yet often ignored – aspects of England, and also has some interesting things to say about the current state of our political system. Best of all, the book got totally trashed – twice – by those fascinating folks over at Spiked Online, which (unless you believe that climate change science really is a racist liberal conspiracy to demonise the working classes) has to be something of a badge of honour. I’m looking forward to finishing it.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 2, 2008 at 6:30 pm