Publicity image from Leni Riefenstahl's 1934 nazi propaganda movie Triumph of the Will.

Publicity image from Leni Riefenstahl's 1934 nazi propaganda movie Triumph of the Will.

ASCH EXPERIMENT

The class gets off to a lively start with a version of the Asch conformity experiment that took place in the 1950s. The test consists of sets of 3 lines and an original reference line. An innocent victim must identify the only one of the three lines that matches the original. There is trickery is here! Five other fake responders have been told in advance to give wrong answers in order to exert peer pressure on the subject. 

When an opponent declares, “I will not come over to your side,” I calmly say, “Your child belongs to us already... What are you? You will pass on. Your descendants, however, now stand in the new camp. In a short time they will know nothing else but this new community.” 

Adolf Hitler: from a speech in November 1933.

Obviously the activity involves some preparation beforehand. One student named X must be briefed in advance. X will always be the first to respond giving mostly incorrect answers. Four more conspirators are told to always respond exactly as X does. The innocent victim will be positioned so that he or she always responds next to last. 

The test also requires a coordinator to introduce the experiment and display the 8 test variations without giving the game away. A scribe should record results in a table on the whiteboard for all to see. The remainder of the TOK class who previously had been asked, as an audience, to maintain absolute silence, are now invited to deconstruct the results and explain what they think might be going on.

INITIAL QUESTIONS FOR CLASS DISCUSSION

Two polar bears are sitting in a bathtub. The first one says, Pass the soap. The second one says, No soap, radio! Jokes like this were used in variations of the Asch experiment. A victim is encouraged to laugh just because every body else in the group does. Describe a real-life incident where you found yourself conforming, or not conforming, to peer pressure or a herd mentality?

What is postural echo?

Why is it difficult to walk against the flow in a large crowd of people? 

Consensus gentium is Latin for “agreement of the people.” It refers to equating the majority view with the truth. To what extent are consensus gentium and appealing to authority reliable paths to knowledge?

TRIUMPH OF THE WILL

Next: students view short selections from the propaganda film Triumph of the Will; which chronicles the 1934 Nuremberg rally and reveals the Nazi Party aesthetic and theatricality. The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993) is an excellent alternative source for the same material.

What is the seductive appeal here? Is fascism as much emotion as it is ideology?

MILGRAM REVISITED

Finally, students see a YouTube video clip from Derren Brown’s reality TV show, The Heist, which reenacts experiments “on obedience to authority” which Stanley Milgram conducted at Yale University in the early sixties.

LINK TO: Milgram Experiment By Derren Brown

A few students may be familiar with experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram “on obedience to authority which he conducted at Yale University in 1961-1962. He found, surprisingly, that 65% of his subjects, ordinary residents of New Haven, were willing to give apparently harmful electric shocks-up to 450 volts-to a pitifully protesting victim, simply because a scientific authority commanded them to… [t]he victim was, in reality, a good actor who did not actually receive shocks, and this fact was revealed to the subjects at the end of the experiment.” 

Quotation source: StanleyMilgram.com hosted by Dr Thomas Blass

 


SPECIFIC GUIDING QUESTIONS:

Why were so many of Milgram’s research subjects willing to inflict severe electric shocks on their supposed victims? Why did other volunteers refuse to obey orders? 
Was Milgram’s experiment good science? 
Milgram tricked his volunteer subjects using actors into behaving extremely badly. Was his methodology itself unethical? 
To what extent can we trust “authority” as a source for knowledge? 
Milgrams’s parents were holocaust survivors. What is the significance of this? 
What do you think is meant by philosopher Hannah Arendt's phrase “the banality of evil”?