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Barbara Oakley - Social Psychology, Genes and Human Evil
Posted: 05 September 2008 07:27 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Barbara Oakley, PhD, has been dubbed a female Indiana Jones — her writing combines worldwide adventure with solid research expertise. Among other adventures, she has worked as a Russian translator on Soviet trawlers in the Bering Sea, served as radio operator at the South Pole Station in Antarctica, and risen from private to regular army captain in the U.S. Army. Currently an associate professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan, Oakley is a recent vice president of the world’s largest bioengineering society and holds a doctorate in the integrative discipline of systems engineering. Her new book is Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hilter Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend.

In this interview with D.J. Grothe, Barbara Oakley shares her criticisms of the research of influential social scientists such as Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram, and explains why the biological sciences should be brought to bear on research about human evil. She addresses how her thesis in Evil Genes might be used as an excuse by some people in our society to do bad things, and details specifics from the life of her sister that serve as a window into her exploration of human evil. She also addresses the implications of her thesis for organized religion, arguing contra Christopher Hitchens that religion is not evil per se but that it might attract evil people to its institutions.

http://www.pointofinquiry.org

[ Edited: 05 September 2008 09:25 PM by Thomas Donnelly ]
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Posted: 07 September 2008 10:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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No offense to anyone but…

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

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Posted: 08 September 2008 04:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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robotaholic - 07 September 2008 10:18 PM

...
zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

I thought it was a good epsiode and will explain in a comment separately.

robotaholic—you might consider
(a) giving constructive feedback to POI on which sort of episodes you like {although they probably get your point}
(b) going to http://digg.com/podcasts/Point_of_Inquiry_4 and (i) voting for favorite episodes and (ii) reviewing the episodes with high scores and commenting.

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Posted: 08 September 2008 05:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Great episode. I found it enlightening with regard to certain sociological research popularized by the press.

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Posted: 08 September 2008 01:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Great episode! I am definitely getting Barbara Oakley’s book. Thanks.

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Posted: 08 September 2008 07:48 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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George - 08 September 2008 01:12 PM

Great episode! I am definitely getting Barbara Oakley’s book. Thanks.

I agree with George—I’m going to get the book.
I was interested in whether there was an audio book and couldn’t find one. So whenever D.J. puts in an ad for audible.com, I’ll put in a request for them to carry this book…  If it is available on audio CD etc. could you give us a link.

I was particularly interested in Barbara Oakley’s critique of the famous work of Zimbardo and Milgram—especially Milgram, whose famous book Obedience to Authority made an impression on me and can still be found assigned as reading in college courses.  I still think I believe certain parts of Milgram’s assertions (people tend to be susceptible to persuasion by appeal to authority), but Oakley helps to see that maybe they aren’t supported as scientifically as I had thought. 

The point that Zimbardo told people in his recruiting advertisements that he wanted folks for a ‘prison experiment’ is a strong rebuttal.  Those of us who have never had nothing to do with prisons or prisoners have a different perspective than those who know prison workers or prisoners.  But I hadn’t thought about it the same way before this audio.

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Posted: 08 September 2008 08:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I liked the episode.

I’d like to know more about her criticism about Milgram’s experiment. As far I see, she made strong points againts the prision experiment in the podcast, but I couldn’t see any good point againts Milgram in the podcast.

She said that some people who participate in the experiment, when they thinked they killed or badly injured someone went under severe stress. As far I understood, the point wasn’t that the people didn’t suffer, the point was that people tend to obey authority.

About the claim that people don’t expect that someone get injured in a experiment in a college, I must admit I don’t know where Milgram ‘harvested’ his subjects, but I’d say that this concept is not clear outside campuses.

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Posted: 09 September 2008 03:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Maybe I’m misinterpreting her thesis but she seems to be defining jerks out of existence. Does every self-absorbed ass need a scientific description to explain away their faults, can’t most of us inherently recognize them and act appropriatley? I also agree with the comments that she didn’t really get at the heart of the Millgram experiment

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Posted: 11 September 2008 01:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I was somewhat taken aback by her strong critisism of Zimbardo.  It’s been some time since I read his recent book, and I loaned out my copy so I can’t check myself, but my impression was that his book was hardly a defense of his own experiment.  While he certainly reached very different conclusions from Barbara Oakley, I think he was pretty critical of many of the same aspects of the study that she was. 

  Her assertion that the ads he placed would have attracted aberrant personalities may well have merit, but I think Zimbardo claims they tested out as pretty normal people using the standard tests available at that time.  The behaviors, admittedly through his own observations, occurred pretty universally among all the subjects, i.e. the guards became frightenly abusive and the prisoners submissive.  I would think it unlikely that any advertisement could attract such a specific group of such abberant personalities, and none would stand out, even if the tests available at that time were far less able to diagnose such personalities.  If Dr Oakleys assertions are correct you’d think he would have had to reject a large percentage of clearly unsuitable applicants, and perhaps he did.

  In addition, didn’t several members of the study, specifically some who were guards, go on to dedicate a significant part of their careers to understanding the prisoner/guard relationship.  That doesn’t seem to indicate a lack of ability among those subjects to evaluate, address, and change their behavior, which would seem to indicate they were not too far out on the scale.

  I suppose I’m coming on a little fiercly in Zimbardo’s defense and in oppposition to Oakley.  I in no way dismiss the idea that genetics play a large role in behavior, and I’ve met a few people who in retrospect were truly frightening,  but I’m pretty fond of the idea that most of us exercise some degree of ability to evaluate and modify our own behavior.  Perhaps it’s just to depressing and dire for me to believe otherwise.

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Posted: 12 September 2008 04:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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In my opinion, this was one of the weaker episodes.  Psychology is not one of the specialist fields of DJ Grothe (which is not his fault!) but I think it showed in the lack of critical questions.

Just a few comments:
- To my knowledge, Zimbardo never said that it’s *only* environment that has an influence. But he did want to make the point that given the right environment even “normal” people can be made to do horrible things, in other words, that the “bad apple in a good barrel” argument does not always hold.

- It seems a valid point to me that the base line of people who would apply for the experiment might differ from the normal population. However, another central point of his study still holds: there was no difference between the group of guards and inmates. In other words, because he assigned the people entirely randomly to the two conditions, and because personality tests showed no difference between the two groups, it could be safely argued that the difference in behaviour and personality throughout the experiment was entirely due to the allocation of the two groups.

- I find it harsh and inappropriate of Barbara Oakley to presume that Zimbardo is happy/“Was scraping the barrel” because his study can not be repeated. That to me seems to imply that he doesn’t want it repeated, not for ethical reasons but because he is afraid that the results won’t be supported. Given that real-life tragedies like the Abu Ghreib incidences still happen, his research and his results seem more valid than ever.

What really irked me throughout the entire interview was Barbara’s differentiation between “real” science and (social) psychology. Yes, I am biased because I am a psychologist myself. But she seemed to be of the position that only biology/genetics are hard/real sciences and psychology is not. There may be cases of individual studies or researchers that fail to live up to the standard. But Psychology as a whole is a valid, regular, real science and I didn’t like the dismissive tone of her.

Finally, when DJ asked whether her research couldn’t be used by “bad” people as an excuse for their behaviour, she launched into a very general quip about how everything in science has its advantages and disadvantages. That missed the point of the question, which I understood to be about predetermination and accountability, and I was disappointed that DJ didn’t pursue that question more.

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Posted: 12 September 2008 08:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Daniela Rudloff - 12 September 2008 04:13 PM

Given that real-life tragedies like the Abu Ghreib incidences still happen, his research and his results seem more valid than ever.

Not necessarily. It is entirely possible that those who committed the atrocities in Abu Ghraib were already genetically predisposed to behave the way they did. Since we are discussing “real-life tragedies” instead of science, I’ll add one of mine: my grandfather who was in the German army during the WWII escaped after being positioned at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. Abu Ghraib doesn’t add any validation to Zimbardo’s experiment because the same “experiment” didn’t work on my grandfather.

[ Edited: 12 September 2008 08:57 PM by George ]
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Posted: 13 September 2008 02:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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George - 12 September 2008 08:35 PM
Daniela Rudloff - 12 September 2008 04:13 PM

Given that real-life tragedies like the Abu Ghreib incidences still happen, his research and his results seem more valid than ever.

Not necessarily. It is entirely possible that those who committed the atrocities in Abu Ghraib were already genetically predisposed to behave the way they did. Since we are discussing “real-life tragedies” instead of science, I’ll add one of mine: my grandfather who was in the German army during the WWII escaped after being positioned at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. Abu Ghraib doesn’t add any validation to Zimbardo’s experiment because the same “experiment” didn’t work on my grandfather.

I am not quite sure I understand your point with the last example. Can you explain?

When Zimbardo talks about Abu Ghraib he is arguing that saying those people were alread “evil” is wrong for several reasons:
- It creates the illusion that you’re either good or bad, that being evil is determined
- Subsequently it creates the illusion of control, i.e. the feeling “Oh, that won’t happen to me, I wouldn’t do a thing lik this”
- It severely underestimates the impact of environment and chain of command

And that’s what I mean by saying Abu Ghraib validates his research, in a way, by showing that normal people can be affected by circumstances in such a way that they commit such atrocities. I’m using the example of AG because he writes about it at length in his book “Lucifer effect, how good people turn evil” and I find it very compelling, though also very scary.

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Posted: 13 September 2008 11:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Daniela Rudloff - 13 September 2008 02:12 AM

And that’s what I mean by saying Abu Ghraib validates his research, in a way, by showing that normal people can be affected by circumstances in such a way that they commit such atrocities. I’m using the example of AG because he writes about it at length in his book “Lucifer effect, how good people turn evil” and I find it very compelling, though also very scary.

I think knowing we might turn evil helps us guard against it, whilst complacently thinking we wouldn’t behave like that puts us in m ore danger.

I also think it’s important to rememeber “evil” people can turn good too. So I can imagine someone who did something absolutely dreadful when young, being very upset by the experience and what they did and changing for the better.

I think it’s important not to brand people as good or evil, we are all capable of both.

Stephen

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Posted: 13 September 2008 01:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Daniela,

Why do think my grandfather didn’t turn evil while serving at Mauthausen? How come the same environment doesn’t impact everybody in a similar way?

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Posted: 13 September 2008 01:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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StephenLawrence - 13 September 2008 11:12 AM
Daniela Rudloff - 13 September 2008 02:12 AM

And that’s what I mean by saying Abu Ghraib validates his research, in a way, by showing that normal people can be affected by circumstances in such a way that they commit such atrocities. I’m using the example of AG because he writes about it at length in his book “Lucifer effect, how good people turn evil” and I find it very compelling, though also very scary.

I think knowing we might turn evil helps us guard against it, whilst complacently thinking we wouldn’t behave like that puts us in m ore danger.

I also think it’s important to rememeber “evil” people can turn good too. So I can imagine someone who did something absolutely dreadful when young, being very upset by the experience and what they did and changing for the better.

I think it’s important not to brand people as good or evil, we are all capable of both.

Stephen

Stephen,

These are very weak arguments indeed. We are all capable of good or evil? Are psychopathic imbeciles capable of good?

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Posted: 13 September 2008 02:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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George - 13 September 2008 01:42 PM

These are very weak arguments indeed. We are all capable of good or evil? Are psychopathic imbeciles capable of good?

Yes, in two ways. 1) because somebody is a psychopathic imbecile for one period of their life, doesn’t mean they will be so for all of their life.

2) because even if given their circumstances, they remain a psychopathic imbecile, it’s still true that if they were in or had been in different circumstances, they could be good.

Stephen

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