[Link] Can We Reverse The Stanford Prison Experiment?

by daenerys1 min read14th Jun 201246 comments

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Social & Cultural DynamicsWorld Optimization
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From the Harvard Business Review, an article entitled: "Can We Reverse The Stanford Prison Experiment?"

By: Greg McKeown
Posted: June 12, 2012

Clicky Link of Awesome! Wheee! Push me!

Summary:

Royal Canadian Mounted Police attempt a program where they hand out "Positive Tickets" 

Their approach was to try to catch youth doing the right things and give them a Positive Ticket. The ticket granted the recipient free entry to the movies or to a local youth center. They gave out an average of 40,000 tickets per year. That is three times the number of negative tickets over the same period. As it turns out, and unbeknownst to Clapham, that ratio (2.9 positive affects to 1 negative affect, to be precise) is called the Losada Line. It is the minimum ratio of positive to negatives that has to exist for a team to flourish. On higher-performing teams (and marriages for that matter) the ratio jumps to 5:1. But does it hold true in policing?

According to Clapham, youth recidivism was reduced from 60% to 8%. Overall crime was reduced by 40%. Youth crime was cut in half. And it cost one-tenth of the traditional judicial system.


This idea can be applied to Real Life

The lesson here is to create a culture that immediately and sincerely celebrates victories. Here are three simple ways to begin:

1. Start your next staff meeting with five minutes on the question: "What has gone right since our last meeting?" Have each person acknowledge someone else's achievement in a concrete, sincere way. Done right, this very small question can begin to shift the conversation.

2. Take two minutes every day to try to catch someone doing the right thing. It is the fastest and most positive way for the people around you to learn when they are getting it right.

3. Create a virtual community board where employees, partners and even customers can share what they are grateful for daily. Sounds idealistic? Vishen Lakhiani, CEO of Mind Valley, a new generation media and publishing company, has done just that at Gratitude Log. (Watch him explain how it works here).

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From Dr. Zimbardo in his recent IAMA on Reddit:

Mawkish asks:

If you could conduct any human [sic]bahaviour experiment, without risk to those participating, what would it be? What is your hypothesis for how it would turn out?

Zimbardo:

The answer to this provocative question is given in the introduction to chp 16 in my Lucifer Effect book (2007) where I invited anyone to perform a Reverse Milgram experiment. Milgram was able to demonstrate the relative ease with which ordinary people, 1000 of them, could be systematically led to administer increasingly dangerous levels of shock to an innocent victim by means of gradually raising the shock level with each trial by only 15 volts, until by the end of 30 shocks the voltage was raised to a near lethal 450 volts. At least 2 of every 3 participants went all the way down that slippery slope.

Now can we demonstrate the opposite, that ordinary people can be gradually led to engage in increasingly "good" socially redeeming deeds up to a point of engaging in extremely altruistic, heroic actions, which initially they assert they would never be willing to do?

It would have to be well crafted with early assessments of the prosocial value of each target action on the way up the slippery slope of goodness. It might have to be individually tailored to the values and interests of the target person, thus for some giving one's time is precious, for others it would be money, or working in undesirable conditions, or with an unattractive population of people, etc.

It would be sad to conclude that it is easier to get ordinary people to do evil, than to do heroic actions, so I personally welcome someone to systematically take up my challenge, and I will serve as free consultant.

If you are in experimental psychology, taking him up on this promise sounds like a good way to make your career.

(And perhaps do some good along the way.)

"What are the important problems in your field? Why aren't you working on them?"

yes, getting this done and associated it with lesswrong could be very high visibility and status raising. Must one be affiliated with a psych dept at an academic institution to have any hope of being published?

Before worrying about getting published, there is the problem of securing the people and the funding required to design and execute a large experiment.

Still, no reason a professor of Economics or, uhm, practical ethics or something shouldn't be able to do it, given the right team. The Reverse Milgram experiment is a pretty sexy idea given the history and fame of the original study. Shouldn't be a hard sell to the appropriate university department.

Gandhi seems to have been unusually successful at kindling the hero in the common man, using appeal to authority, appeal to personal responsibility (Inverse Milgram) and some other ingredients. Perhaps an attempt to dissolve and emulate Gandhi's social experiments in a proper experimental setting could make a candidate for a Reverse Milgram Experiment.

The social experiments of Gandhi, I believe he referred to them as such, do perhaps serve to show that something like the Reverse Milgram Experiment should be possible, even if he did so before the Milgram Experiment was even conceived of.

One problem that comes to mind is that there would likely need to be a significant perceived cost or threat to the subjects, in order to get interesting, publishable results. Heroic actions don't often come at no cost.

[-][anonymous]9y 0

Gandhi seems to have been unusually successful at kindling the hero in the common man.

Using appeal to authority, appeal to personal responsibility (Inverse Milgram) and other ingredients.

Perhaps an attempt to dissolve and emulate Gandhi's methods in an experimental setting could make a candidate for a Reverse Milgram Experiment. I guess there is a problem in that there would likely need to be a significant perceived cost or threat to the subjects, in order to get interesting, publishable results?

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

It bothers me that much of the focus on the "high ratios of positive to negative feedback lead to improved performance" hypothesis doesn't seem to even mention, much less rule out, the much more obvious "improved performance leads to higher ratios of positive to negative feedback" explanation for correlations between the two. It seems like it would be quite easy to go overboard if that first interpretation were believed to be more widely true than it actually is...

I'm slightly scared for the state of psychology.

And given Luke_A_Somers' and Eliezer's reactions, I'm more than slightly scared for the state of LessWrong. But maybe I missed something.

I think that Eliezer's reaction is more along the lines of "changing your behaviour when your beliefs change because of new evidence is a good thing!" rather than "this is definitely strong evidence of the given conclusion!"

If you believe that updating on new evidence to be virtuous, it's easy to fall into the trap of overdoing it without checking whether your new evidence is any good.

Whee, I'm scary.

More seriously, when am I allowed to update?

  • It's highly consistent with my actual real life experience, but I hadn't noticed it before.
  • The Canadians weren't able to do a controlled experiment, but the results remain suggestive, because we know that the feedback was something that was changed in an intervention.

Just because something changed at the same time as you did something to change it isn't proof, but it is evidence.

And given Luke_A_Somers' and Eliezer's reactions, I'm more than slightly scared for the state of LessWrong.

Not to mention the state of SIAI.

Eliezer seriously needs a second LW account, so that he can say "Yay!" without increasing existential risk.

Upon which I feel obligated to point out that the fact that he used his main account to say 'Yay' is only weak evidence against him already having a second account.

Have each person acknowledge someone else's achievement in a concrete, sincere way. Done right, this very small question can begin to shift the conversation.

Take two minutes every day to try to catch someone doing the right thing. It is the fastest and most positive way for the people around you to learn when they are getting it right.

The "sincere" part of this is incredibly important. If you don't actually mean it, or if you are of the opinion (even subconsciously) that people shouldn't be praised for the thing you're praising them for, it will come across, and with greater impact than the words themselves. Likewise, if you are surprised that a person has done something positive, this also comes across.

This may be the reason why higher Losada ratios become counterproductive -- when everybody feels the need to be positive, the net sincerity goes way down, and people might end up experiencing more implied negative messages, like "Hey, you did that... (finally)" or "Wow, great job on (thing I think is a stupid waste of time)".

It is quite easily possible to use what is overtly praise in ways that actually lower people's self-esteem, and it probably becomes attractive in an environment where positive expression is required and/or overt negative expression is censored.

Not to mention that if I believe I'm in an environment where positive expression is required and/or overt negative expression is censored, I will recalibrate accordingly. The meaning of particular combinations of words is rarely preserved across changing social contexts.

The meaning of particular combinations of words is rarely preserved across changing social contexts.

Right - good point.

Is sincerity isomorphic to raising someone's status?

Is sincerity isomorphic to raising someone's status?

I'm not sure I know what you mean, or whether it relates to what I'm talking about. I'm just saying that if you're self-consciously trying to find things to praise that you don't genuinely value or don't genuinely believe people should be praised for, then you will certainly convey that you think you are of higher status or that your target is gullible, or other negative things (e.g., via perception of condescension).

It's entirely possible to connote pleasure with an achievement, team pride, or other sincere positive emotions that do not raise anybody's status; not everything in human interaction is status-based.

Does that answer your question?

My hypothesis is that when people give insincere praise, they are saying things that would ordinarily raise someone's status, but subtle cues related to tone or body language betray the fact that they are not in fact assigned the person a higher status.

To disprove the hypothesis, we could try to think of a scenario where someone gives insincere praise while simultaneously assigning the person higher status with that praise. I can't think of any such scenario but maybe you can.

Note that achievement and team pride both basically amount to status.

Note that achievement and team pride both basically amount to status.

Note that you left out the word "pleasure", which I explicitly used to denote something different from "achievement" per se. I can be really pleased that somebody did something because now it's less work for me, for example, and this has zero to do with their status. Appreciation != status.

Thought experiment: I'm your boss, and you make me some coffee. We are working together on something in my office and another employee comes in to visit. "This is really good coffee", I say to the employee who came in, but I make no mention of the fact that you made it.

Do you feel appreciated? I'm indicating pleasure for something you did, but I'm not assigning you any status for it.

That doesn't correspond to what I am thinking. It would be more like me flashing a smile and saying thank you for you holding the door open while I am carrying a large package. I appreciate your effort, but no relative status message is given.

Or, if you absolutely must insist on making it about status, you can say that I'm sending the message we are equals, which might be either status-raising or status-lowering, depending on your perception of the situation. However, since the original context concerns peer feedback, the point is pretty irrelevant: we are talking about people who are at least in theory, already status equals. And I am making the point that, if you communicate status changes with your praise, then you have failed the point of the exercise of providing peer feedback.

In contrast, your straw man scenario contains a deliberate omission of relevant information, which is an explicit negative message, not merely the absence of an implicit positive. Again, you are confusing "there are status-neutral positive messages" with "it is possible to convey pleasure in ways that negate status"... a proposition which I never disputed.

I simply don't think it's pertinent to the question, and certainly doesn't offer any more evidence for a "status is everything" hypothesis than it does for a "humans value lots of things" hypothesis.

That doesn't correspond to what I am thinking. It would be more like me flashing a smile and saying thank you for you holding the door open while I am carrying a large package. I appreciate your effort, but no relative status message is given.

I wouldn't describe that act as predominantly about status but even so a relative status message is given. Specifically it signals that the difference in status that you claim is below the threshold at which you would take their effort as your due and their obligation. That you smiled, rather than just saying thank you gives a further message - thanking without smiling would, all else being equal, give a message of somewhat greater relative status in your favor.

And I am making the point that, if you communicate status changes with your praise, then you have failed the point of the exercise of providing peer feedback.

That seems false. The communication of the status change is a largely unavoidable side effect of the providing of peer feedback. Distorting the peer feedback such that no net status change is implied by the feedback will potentially corrupt the feedback, not sanctify it.

As long as we're arguing, I'd be curious to hear what you think of my article 6 Tips for Productive Arguments. (I've just reviewed my own recommendations...)

That doesn't correspond to what I am thinking. It would be more like me flashing a smile and saying thank you for you holding the door open while I am carrying a large package. I appreciate your effort, but no relative status message is given.

I suspect saying thank you is a way of assigning higher status to someone. Sure, you don't feel like you're assigning substantially higher status to a friend by saying thank you, but what if your friend repeatedly bailed you out of sticky situations without you ever reciprocating, and with you saying thank you more and more profusely each time? Who would have more power in this friendship?

What if your friend bailed you out of sticky situations repeatedly, but your thanks did not get more profuse? That would be incongruous, I suspect, and your friend might begin to resent you.

This may be why people who don't say thank you are considered "entitled". They fail to assign others high status in certain situations where it's generally considered appropriate to do so.

So far I assign high credence to the hypothesis that appreciation is about status, because every case of genuine appreciation I can think of involves assignment of higher status, and every case of less than genuine appreciation doesn't involve it (basically, tone/body language/etc. is incongruous with the assignment of higher status implied by the appreciative remark).

You're welcome to explore this hypothesis with me or come up with your own hypothesis.

your straw man scenario contains a deliberate omission of relevant information

I'd argue that the information of where the coffee came from is not inherently relevant. If I had gotten the coffee from Starbucks, it would not be especially odd for me to fail to mention this fact.

there are status-neutral positive messages

Let's think in terms of reinforcers. Humans are reinforced by tasty food, sex, accumulation of material goods, flow, laughter, love/empathy, status bumps. What category of reinforcer does social approval constitute? I suspect in most cases it constitutes a status-type reinforcer, especially between people who only have weak ties.

If I explained to my grandparents what I actually used their Christmas gift for (as opposed to thanking them for it), this reinforcer is probably more along the lines of love/empathy than status. Depending on how we define "appreciation", this would probably constitute appreciation. But it seems outside the sphere of concerns one worries about when one is worried about making one's appreciation sufficiently "genuine".

Humans are reinforced by tasty food, sex, accumulation of material goods, flow, laughter, love/empathy, status bumps

This is hardly an exhaustive list. We're also reinforced, for example, by people we like being happy, especially in relation to us. This is the type of reinforcement I'm talking about.

When my wife smiles because of something I did for her, the warm feeling I get does not resemble the feeling of status elevation. This is even more relevant in the case of, say, a stranger thanking me for holding the door -- I don't know them and don't really care what status they assign me.

Finally, I really don't understand what you're arguing for here. Specifically, I fail to see where you are offering any different actual advice for people to carry out, and we agree that insincere appreciation equals status-lowering.

We only appear to disagree on whether status-raising is a requirement for appreciation to be reinforcing... and there, you seem to have retreated to the position that any sort of positive appreciation affords a status grant, even if no increase in relative status results.

But it does not appear to me that your argument is other than definitional: that is, I do not understand why it's important to you to assume that all actions either generate or consume status points, as opposed to say, viewing some actions as being status-neutral. Which way you look at it strikes me as being merely dependent on how you choose to frame the math, and that there is no strong reason to prefer one framing over the other.

Actually, if I were to follow what seems to be your model, where people need to be repeatedly filled with status-giving gestures in order to merely maintain their current status position, then I would either have to have a model for how status deflation occurs, or else assume that everybody's status is always increasing in the absence of any actions taken to decrease status. This seems incoherent to me, especially since it would imply that older people would nearly always have higher status than younger people, a correlation which doesn't hold much past adulthood.

At this point, unless you clarify your model of status and what it is exactly that you think we differ on, I don't see much point in continuing this thread. (Honestly, I'm not sure why you started it in the first place.)

When my wife smiles because of something I did for her, the warm feeling I get does not resemble the feeling of status elevation.

The fact that she chose you as her partner, instead of other potential candidates, gives you some status (not relative to her, but relative to all other real or imaginary candidates). Could this play some role in your feelings from her smile?

This is even more relevant in the case of, say, a stranger thanking me for holding the door -- I don't know them and don't really care what status they assign me.

A stranger thanking you for holding the door confirms that you belong to a set of polite people. Not everyone is in this set, and people in this set have higher status than people outside of the set.

You are right, a clear definition of status is necessary, otherwise pretty much anything can be "explained" by status. But I suspect that if a meaningful definition is made, it will allow transactions of type: person X is increasing status of person Y without decreasing their own status (by decreasing status of someone else, for example an unspecified absent person).

a stranger thanking me for holding the door -- I don't know them and don't really care what status they assign me.

The "really" in that statement hides a lot of ambiguity. Here, the status assigned to you fails evolution's consequentialist calculation, so one might say that evolution shouldn't care what status strangers in a big city assign you. Your psychological adaptations might still care, in the sense that they get activated, not having recognized absence of evolution-relevant consequences.

On the other hand, the psychological drive may be seen as representing a terminal value, preference for accumulation of status for its own sake, irrespective of its effect on other people's behavior or of the impact of their behavior on you. In that case, one may say that you should care. It would still be the case that you should care even if the relevant psychological adaptations don't in fact activate, so that you happen to not care in the psychological sense.

The "really" in that statement hides a lot of ambiguity.

Not really. ;-)

It specifically meant, "I don't care as long as they don't assign me low status", i.e., threaten my status with their response. That's not a lot of ambiguity.

  1. Create a virtual community board where employees, partners and even customers can share what they are grateful for daily. Sounds idealistic?

Sounds like a nightmare. Imagine being The Employee Who Didn't Say Something Positive Yesterday!.

(Disclaimer: I was primed by reading http://kotaku.com/5484581/japan-its-not-funny-anymore right before this.)

That was my first thought too. Does it mean that I am a negative person? Does it mean that I would be fired?

By the way I do agree with some of the assumptions. Giving positive feedback is good, and people who don't provide it regularly should learn it. It's just... when someone is forced to behave positively way above their "natural" level (which can also change day to day), it can be a painful experience. But where the positivity is mandatory or a strong social norm, even admitting that this kind of pain exists is in a strong conflict with the social norm. A social norm of positive thinking also opens door to different kinds of abuse, where saying "no" can be framed as negativity and punished.

Basically: humans will find ways to hurt each other real bad and will produce vicious cycles of misery no matter how you frame their interactions; there's no magic bullet of human social organization. If we want Eutopia - after we make our common shithole a little less bad within the limits of our nature (otherwise we'll slide into dystopia real easy, no UFAI needed) - we have to rewire stuff on the biological level. Transhumanism of some kind is logically inevitable and ethically neccessary no matter your objections to it.

For most types of morals, it's not possible to get into a state of moral satisfaction while remaining ourselves.

we have to rewire stuff on the biological level. Transhumanism of some kind is logically inevitable and ethically neccessary no matter your objections to it.

Weren't you trying to argue in another thread that merely using sufficiently strong social pressure to change someone's behavior constitutes torture?

Well, some people find execution more humane than prolonged torture! Me, I'd rather, say, be implanted with a chip that makes me want to sodomize cattle than "persuaded" to do the same thing by endless "kind" speeches, guilt-tripping, Dark Arts pontification, etc.

And, hell, if it takes a CEO to decide what "modification kits" to produce, and a scientist to produce them, it might turn out slightly better than any random people with random ideas trying to impress those upon their social lessers and dependents. I'm still afraid of technocratic rule, but ordinary everyday cruelty can be even worse, especially when it's not understood to be cruelty.

And, hell, if it takes a CEO to decide what "modification kits" to produce, and a scientist to produce them,

This is different than what you seemed to be implying in the grandparent since in this scenerio no one's forced to apply the modification kits to themselves.

it might turn out slightly better than any random people with random ideas trying to impress those upon their social lessers and dependents.

Well, that depends, is the CEO subject to market pressure with respect to the kind of "modification kits" his company produces?

If so, then this basically amounts to self-modification, and has all the associated benefits and problems, e.g., wire-heading.

If the CEO isn't subject to market pressure and the modification kits are forced then I would find this much worse than mere social pressure.

I agree completely but downvoted for ranting with dubious pertinence as an ideologue.

Wow. I'm going to change how I do some things...

Yay!

(consider all further recursion already implied)

Did you read this comment before making that decision?

Me too. This has clear applications to my job. The details will require some thought, but the meeting suggestion seems easy to implement.

Aaargh. This is so hard!

I had a recent flash of inspiration about the Stanford Prison Experiment. Would it be reasonable to generally consider the exercise of power over others as somehow toxic?

There are many, many examples through history of pathological behavior resulting from the exercise of power absent feedback mechanisms to safeguard the desires and wellbeing of the ruled. To define behavior resulting in the loss of human dignity and human life as pathological seems reasonable to me.

It can be shown that feedback loops in the brain can malfunction given stimuli they weren't designed to handle, leading to addictive behavior and overstimulation of these mechanisms to such an extent that this results in measurable changes in brain structure. I wonder if the exercise of power in contexts far removed from those in village or family groups also results in such changes in the brain? There's certainly a great deal of anecdotal evidence indicating stress involved in the exercise of power.

Perhaps exposure of individuals to the exercise of power should be limited, in the way modern armies try to limit an individual's exposure to combat stress? Also note that modern armies take steps to mitigate combat stress soldiers are exposed to. In the same way, perhaps there should be a study of the toxic effects of the exercise of power, and organizations which must expose individuals to such stressors should take steps to mitigate the toxic effects of power.

A power available in modern environment = superstimulus? That makes sense. At least it would explain why powerful people sometimes do things that don't give them an evolutionary advantage (such as killing most of their relatives, and having the few remaining ones predictably killed after their death by opponents).

Question: What position in a modern society is a power equivalent of an ancient chieftain? (The highest non-superstimulus power level.) I don't know how exactly to measure it, because the environment is so different. Even using Dunbar's number, should we define it as "1:150 power level" or rather "power over 150 people"? Which components of power are emotionally most relevant: is it the ability to give commands to others, or not having to obey others' commands (a distance from the bottom or from the top of the society)?

I think social distance is key here. But perhaps it has more to do with feedback mechanisms supplying information to those wielding power. A village chieftain would have more direct channels of feedback than a general in the Pentagon, say.

Institutionalized power relationships would also create stimuli that didn't exist in the past. For example, prisoners wouldn't remain prisoners for years on end in hunter gatherer societies. They'd either be killed, exiled, or absorbed into the community.

The number of people seems a very likely factor. That could be involved with feedback. It's probably a lot harder to process feedback information from 50,000 people than for 50.

EDIT: A metric might combine the number of people over which one has power, with an economic measure of social distance and social feedback. It's the confluence of these which seems to be the problem, not just the number of persons ruled.

It's probably a lot harder to process feedback information from 50,000 people than for 50.

Probably?

Thanks for sharing this!