The Theories We Hold About Who We Are Influence How We Act: The Milgram Experiments

My high school students often asked: If it’s true that humans are (or can be) compassionate, why is there so much human-caused suffering and hurt in the world?


One scientific experiment greatly influenced, for decades, how many people thought about this question. This is the “obedience experiment” carried out by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s, just after the beginning of the Eichmann trial. In that experiment, a volunteer was asked to play a teacher to help educate another person, the “student,” learn word pairs. Each time the “student” replied with the wrong word, the “teacher” would give him negative feedback in the form of an electric shock. The voltage of the shock was increased with each wrong answer.


The “teacher” sat in one room before an electronic control panel and could see through a window into another room where the “student” sat hooked up to wires. A white-coated experimenter stood in the room with the “teacher” encouraging and instructing with comments like, ”Continue using the 450 volt switch for each wrong answer. Continue, please.” The experimenter repeated these instructions even as the “student” began to scream and later drop over, silent. The “teacher” raised objections at times; but as the instructions continued, the “teacher” continued with the shocks. The student was, in fact, an actor; the shocks to the “student” were not real. However, the effect on the “teacher” was real.


It was initially reported by Milgram that 65% of the “teachers” actually continued to shock their students even to a lethal level. But, according to author and researcher Gina Perry, that statistic was only true with one of the 24 versions of the experiment. There were over 700 people involved in the experiments, and the 65% represents only 26 people. There were some variations of the experiment where no one obeyed the authority. If she is correct, this drastically changes how we might understand the experiment.


The philosopher Jacob Needleman studied the visual recordings of the experiment and commented on the facial expression and speech of one of the “teachers.” When questioned just after the experiment was over, the “teacher” said, “I don’t like that one bit. I mean, he [the “student”] wanted to get out and we just keep throwing 450 volts…” The teacher was dazed, and under further questioning couldn’t let himself comprehend what he had done. He couldn’t comprehend his own feelings let alone allow himself to feel what the “student” might have felt.


A startling parallel to Milgram was a series of experiments by Daniel Batson who tested whether people would act compassionately to save others from suffering.  In one experiment, volunteer subjects, like Milgram’s teachers, watched people receive shocks when they incorrectly answered a memory task. The volunteer was told the person they were watching had suffered trauma as a child. They were then given the choice to leave the experiment or receive the shock intended for the supposed trauma victim. Many subjects felt such compassion for the other person they volunteered to take on their pain.


What is the message of these experiments? The first is often considered a revelation of the potential for evil in all of us. It is argued that the evil arises from our propensity to obey authority despite clear evidence of the wrongness of the act.


I would question or refine that interpretation. The psychologist, Philip Zimbardo, talks about the “fundamental attribution error” which is a failure to recognize just how much other people and the context influence our behavior. He says that we tend to overestimate the role played by people’s disposition or personality and underestimate the power of the environment or context. It is not just the authority figure that people follow but the whole situation.


Our understanding of who we are and what is real and possible is formed in tandem with our understanding of our situation with others. If other people, in this case the experimenter, act as if the only important factor in the situation is whether the “student” answers correctly and not their physical well being, then it is less likely that the “teacher” would act compassionately. The second experiment demonstrates that even one biographical detail, one thought about the subjective experience of another person, can allow us to identify with them and act compassionately toward them.


Maybe one conclusion from these experiments, as well as one answer to the student’s original question, is that we are such social beings that how we feel about ourselves is tied to how we feel about others. Our very sense of self is inextricably tied to how others relate to us. What we think is right is tied to the situation we are in. Thus, compassion is natural to us and can be developed and strengthened—or undermined—by the way our social situation (including school community) is structured. What we define as humane or appropriate behavior differs greatly by how we define what is human.


And whatever propensity for evil we experience is related to our theories of who we are and who others are. For example, when we are taught to believe we are a totally distinct self, independent and isolated from others and our world, with a personality that persists from situation to situation, we perpetuate a distorted view of who we are. We make possible a distorted and hurtful way of acting in the world, a way that makes all sorts of horrors possible.


**Also, you might be interested in a recent NPR, Invisibilia, program called “The Personality Myth,” which added another and very interesting perspective to the questions raised in this post.

This Summer: The Crucial Role of Joy and Love

This summer has been one of the most disturbing and anger producing I remember. I am sure many of you feel as I do. Between the killing of African-Americans by police, police being targeted and killed, the killings in Orlando, Nice, Belgium, Afghanistan, etc. and etc. and Turkey, Brexit. Then you add the weather and droughts, all topped off by Republicans chanting for the arrest or execution of Hillary and Trump’s incitement to violence, racism, etc. and attack on almost everything I consider truthful—What do you make of this?


It feels to me that too much and too many have been denied for too long. The last thirty years of increasing social-class inequity, concentration of wealth, and increasing environmental problems are fueling this state of affairs. The suffering from inequity between classes and nations has come front and center transmuted into religious warfare and nationalism. As one article in The Globe put it, too many people feel like they are losing out in this economic-political system that seems to favor the very few over the many and so are retreating into fear, anger, and a sort of tribalism.


I grew up hearing not only about the bomb and the Red Tide of Communism, but the menace of the Nazis, and was determined to do what I could so it would never happen again. Well, it is hard to believe but I feel like it might be happening again, and it’s time to put aside differences and oppose the menace.


This is a moment of challenge for all of us, to wake up to the threats we face and the necessity to greet it not so much with fear (although I feel fearful) but with awareness, understanding, compassion and some righteous determination, even anger. To resist, act and vote against not only the words and deeds of people like Trump, but the institutional forces that would separate us, send us into little camps of like-minded close-mindedness, where we can withdraw into our beliefs and build walls religious or otherwise. We must continuously praise our shared humanity even when we feel like kicking the “stupid example of humanity” standing next to us.


And what can we do to help our children and students deal with all of this in a way that is both healthy and mind-strengthening? Think about that. Do you want your children to see you as a perpetrator of hate? Or as running scared from a challenge, as awful as it may be? No way.


And keep this in mind, too: one aspect of the 1960’s rebellion was humor. Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and the Yippies, street theatre, etc.. We need people like Stephen Colbert as well as Bernie Sanders. When the situation is so serious, it’s difficult to find humor or enjoyment in life, and to feel the positive aspect of love as well as the fear and hurt of loss. But a little joy and love can help you see straight and resist the mind-numbing quality of fear and depression. When the world feels most scary, that is a time when all those lessons about the necessity for kindness most need to be remembered and acted upon.


This is my third summer writing blogs. Do we all grow up with a longing for summer? Even if we have no connection, as adults, to the school system, summer can remind us of childhood, the celebration of the end of the school year, warm weather, and vacations. And if we’re teachers and don’t have summer school or don’t have to work a second job, (or maybe even if we do) we can have free time once again.


The longing for summer is a longing for renewal. What does that mean? This morning, I woke up early and went outside. Two crows were screaming as they flew past. Our home is in a small clearing surrounded by trees, flowering bushes and flowers. The shade from the trees was vibrant, cool and fresh, the colors sharp and clear. The light so alive it wrapped the moment in a mysterious intensity. Time slowed so deeply that once the crows quieted, the songs of the other birds and the sounds of the breeze just added to the silence.


This is what I look forward to. Even now that I’m retired, I so enjoy summer. It doesn’t matter to me if it gets too hot and humid or if it rains (or if it doesn’t rain, sigh). This is it. I actually hear my own life speaking to me.


When I was teaching, summer was a time to fill up with life outside my classroom. A big desire was to visit beautiful places, to see an ocean, mountains, and forests. I meditated every day. I also took classes, at the Omega Institute, Universities, meditation centers, in whatever interested me. I wanted to learn something new and meaningful, feel like a kid again, and a student, open, fresh, playful. We all need this, so we can renew our ability see beauty even in winter; so even when there is too much to do, we can know moments of freshness and quiet exist. Not just as memories but reminders. Renewal can happen at any time. We can let go. Time can dissolve into silence.


Summer is a season, a rhythm of nature, a pulse of change. Because of the beauty of summer, it’s hopefully easier to notice and accept change, and thus ourselves, to see life in all its complexities. We are alive thanks to change. To breathe, our lungs expand and contract. To eat or speak, our lips change position. We can feel the pulse or all the different rhythms of life. There are biological rhythms. There is the circadian (around the day) rhythm, the 24 hour sleep-awake cycle. There is the ultradian (within or beyond the day) rhythm, a 90-120 minute cycle controlling things like dream cycles and which hemisphere of the brain is dominant. There are monthly cycles. What other biological rhythms do we have? Our blood has tides. Cells oscillate. And all around us, cycles of the moon and sun, cycles of trees and animals. Cycles within cycles.


Cycles help fit us together. Not just us, people to people, but everyone to everything. Our internal rhythms can, if we pay attention, link us to external ones like time of day (sun cycle) or time of month (moon cycle). The more in tune we are with nature, the more in sync with ourselves. So this is another part of renewal, to feel this pulse, rhythm, and move with it.


T. S. Eliot wrote: “…at the still point, there the dance is …/Except for the point, the still point,/There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” One rhythm is the breath. Between the inhale and exhale is a natural pause, a natural quieting of mind, a still point, a summer. You can take time throughout your day to notice this, especially if you feel upset, confused, anxious or you need to make an important decision. We can use the stillness to refresh ourselves, learn new things to share, learn how to let go and dance, how to better relate with others and our world, and how to teach our students to do the same.


P. S. One example of not being in tune with nature is the starting time of many secondary schools. High school students in this country are seriously sleep deprived. Their natural rhythm is to stay up later and wake up later than adults. Several studies show that starting schools at 9 a. m. instead of 7 or 8 a. m. would improve student alertness and performance and decrease absences and depression. Students at several schools, including the Lehman Alternative Community School where I used to teach, brought such studies to the school board and were successful in pressuring this welcomed change in policy.


*New Addition: I just saw this posting on Facebook, meditating on the pause by Erin Ramsay.

The Roots of What Distorts Our Thinking and Hurts Us: One Buddhist View of Evolution

Is it possible that the root of what distorts our thinking and what clarifies it, what hurts us and what might save us, are the same?


Over three million years ago a human-like species came down from the trees to live on African savannas. Anthropologists speculate the species was forced from the trees by environmental factors, but that is not clear. It is clear that they were relatively puny compared with the carnivores of the time and thus vulnerable. How did they survive? Maybe the ability to stand relatively upright and look off into the distance was extremely helpful. They learned the importance of cooperation, without which our species would have faltered or died out. They learned how to use their hands in new ways. They could hunt together, share food, and also signal to each other if good food or a threat was nearby. The engine of this complex cooperation was communication via language.


We physically evolved in ways to support these traits. For example, our hands reshaped into more delicate instruments capable of a precision grip. Our jaws became smaller, so we could speak a greater variety of sounds, but we needed tools to tear into some foods. Our brains grew in size and then complexity, neurons folding under and over each other, increasing the number of possible connections between brain cells. The bigger brain meant human babies had to be born before their brains were fully formed, which meant a longer period of dependency and vulnerability and a stronger need for care and loving attention. Yet, it also led to an increased ability to learn and adapt. The brain grew to be extremely social.


To be so social, the human brain developed a default position. When we’re not focused on a task, our brain switches into a social mode of thinking. This mode includes several abilities important to being human. For example, we can create simulations in our mind of other beings as individuals and what they think and feel. This also allows us to imagine all our memories and experiences as belonging to one distinct individual we call Me. We can distance ourselves from the present to inhabit other times and places. We can fly across continents in our imaginations, visualize implications of our actions or how to create things never seen before. We can imagine what might bring pleasure or pain, go wrong or right, how people might respond to what we say or do, or if they might like us.


But as James Kingsland, in Siddhartha’s Brain: Unlocking the Ancient Science of Enlightenment, (a great book, by the way) makes clear, we pay a price for this default mode of the brain. We can also see this in the violence of headline news. What we consider our greatest gifts can also be a source of our greatest destructiveness and suffering. The ability to leave the present, leave behind the reality of sense experience, can cause us to get lost in and obsess over our mental creations. We can spend a good part of our lives wandering in this default realm.


Our languages allow a great depth of detail to be added to our mental wandering and fantasies, making them enticing substitutions for reality. We can replace the real people standing before us with mental simulations not much different from characters created in a novel. Or we can do the same to ourselves, imagining we are awful people or monsters or that other people think us monsters. A delusion is the imagination turned up high and projected onto the reality before us. Paranoia is fear enhanced by distance and delusion. Creativity has always been the ability to imagine what doesn’t now exist so it could be made possible. Therefore, it can lead to wondrous visions and achievements, but also is never very far from mental illness.


Kingsland imagines hooking the Buddha up to our newest technology in order to discover how his brain might have worked to turn off the Default Mode Network (DMN) and end the ruminations and suffering the network can cause. For example, he describes recent experiments which show how meditation practices that develop a deeply focused attention can switch the brain from the default mode and its concern for how everything relates to one’s self, to a more objective, selfless attention created by what’s called the Task Positive Network. When we feel the sense of flow or being “in the zone,” this network is fired up and the DMN is turned down. Those engaged in meditative practice report and demonstrate a greater clarity of perception, a sense of well-being and less delusion about others, than people not so engaged, especially those who spend a good deal of time wandering in the DMN. They can switch more readily and appropriately from one network to another.


You might think of evolution as “survival of the fittest,” change leading to an improved species—but scientists point out this improvement is in terms of being better fitted for a specific environment. Our physical and social environment has changed greatly over the last one hundred thousand or so years. We adapted to fit in with groups of maybe 150 individuals, surrounded not by human built structures, but raw nature and many other mammalian species. In a way, our social environment has changed more quickly than our physical bodies could adapt to it.


So, as Kingsland points out, it shouldn’t surprise us that evolution might have burdened us with so many ills. But it also provided potential solutions. We have the relaxation response, which can turn off the fight-flight-freeze response and allow us to relax once danger or a tense situation is over. We have other-oriented networks and deeply focused modes of attention to counter the Default Mode Network. Hopefully, more and more of us will begin to use meditative and other practices to learn how to switch more smoothly from one network to another. We can learn how to replace delusion with increased clarity, selfishness and complacency with love, hate and prejudice with compassion, and thus understand better what we need to do in any situation.


*I wrote and scheduled this post before all the deaths of last week. If I wrote this today, I would be much more emotional.

“Compassionate Critical Thinking” Now Available to Pre-order

My book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, will be published by Rowman and Littlefield on September 30, 2016.


The book takes readers inside a classroom to witness an engaging way of teaching in tune with current neuroscience. In a time when education is under attack and teachers and students report high levels of stress and anxiety, the book offers a method to improve instructional effectiveness with increased student participation and decreased classroom stress. Using mindfulness and a Socratic style of questioning, the book guides teachers and readers in methods to help themselves and their students learn about their own emotions and develop critical thinking skills. Classroom vignettes capture dialogue between teacher and students illustrating how challenging questions stimulate and direct inquiry and discovery. Not only teachers, but administrators wanting to improve the relationship between teachers and students, students who want to develop their thinking skills on their own, parents, any reader interested in reducing stress and increasing clarity might be interested in the book. Many books teach mindfulness, but few provide a model for teaching critical thinking and integrating it across the curriculum.


My intention is to demonstrate just how insightful, open, and willing to learn students can be when presented with material they consider challenging and real, and classes are structured to relate to their inner lives. One year in a Psychological Literature class, we read an anecdote about a person putting his own life at risk to save someone drowning in an icy river. I asked, “How can a person do that? Does it show that humans are compassionate or altruistic by nature?” I was surprised by the response by many students. They said that the situation was unreal. Maybe a rare person would put their life at risk to help someone else, but most people—never. Altruism was a rarity. There was too much cruelty in the world for altruism or compassion to be natural.


So I asked, “Imagine you were standing by that river. What would you feel seeing the person drowning?” At first, there were some uncomfortable jokes. But then students said, “I’d feel awful.” Another said that he’d be haunted by the situation for the rest of his life. Another said she would have jumped in. “If the situation would haunt you, then were you feeling empathy? If you would have jumped in, then were you feeling compassion? Altruism?”


In the abstract, compassion might seem unreal, especially since many students grow up in a competitive environment and read about and feel so much violence in the world. But when questioned, their inner reality is uncovered. This is the nature of compassionate critical thinking. It incorporates the big questions into the curriculum. Assumptions are challenged. Discussions become mindfulness and compassion practices. This is the core of my book.


It can now be pre-ordered through Amazon. Available in September through your local bookstore.


**Next week, I plan to post a blog on an extremely interesting book called Siddhartha’s Brain: Unlocking the Ancient Science of Enlightenment by James Kingsland.