The Rules of the Game

Studying inhumanity in Human Behavior Experiments.

A participant in the Stanford Prison Experiment

It’s extremely tempting to say that Human Behavior Experiments, which debuted last night on the Sundance Channel, makes a compelling argument for Thomas Hobbes’ view of the state of human nature. With its focus on three notorious psychology projects that demonstrate man’s inhumanity to man, its array of woolly profs brought on as talking heads, and its general air of earnest undergraduate indignation, the hourlong film gets you thinking like a college student. This effect is further encouraged by the snippets of actual kids in actual psych classes. One young woman, her seminar-room smile on high-beam, debates which of two equally horrifying stories of blind obedience is, in fact, more horrifying. The director is Alex Gibney, creator of a previous study of the psychology of venality called Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Though Gibney is eager to link up the studies—the Milgram Experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment, and a Columbia University study of the bystander effect—with wrongdoings ripped from the headlines, his film is less a polemic than a pulpy survey.

That is, Human Behavior Experiments is serious, but it’s also unembarrassed to schlock itself up. Sundance co-produced it with Court TV, and something of the latter channel’s tabloid panache has seeped into the tone. There are grainy re-enactments and a close-up urgency to the interviews. It gets into gear with file footage of long-hairs in love beads dancing in the sun. “In a unique period from the early ‘60s to the early ‘70s, a group of social scientists conducted a series of experiments examining the dark side of human nature,” goes the voiceover as Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” buzzes in the background.

The earliest of these scientists was Stanley Milgram *, a Yale professor with an Abe Lincoln beard and a prophet’s stare. In 1962, curious about how the Germans could have permitted the Holocaust, he devised an experiment to see, as he says in an old clip, “under what conditions would a person obey an authority who commanded actions that went against conscience.” He corralled some upstanding citizens of Connecticut and led them to believe that they were acting as “teachers” delivering electric shocks to other men in another room as punishment for giving incorrect answers in a word-pair test. The conclusion, as one of the teachers says in a new interview, is that “you could staff a death camp with the middle class of New Haven.” Gibney goes on to link the Milgram Experiment with a recent and perverse scam in which a man pretending to be a police detective phoned up managers of fast-food restaurants and ordered them to strip-search an employee. Perhaps 100 people across America fell for it. In keeping with the show’s tone, we get a faux-eerie glimpse of a McDonald’s drive-through menu splashed with film noir rain.

Gibney goes on to give the same treatment to the Columbia experiment, John Darley’s response to the infamous Kitty Genovese case, in which a Queens woman was stabbed to death while 38 people listened. (The notion is that, had there been fewer witnesses, she might have survived.) And his movie is at its most chilling when drawing lines between the Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment and Abu Ghraib. Out in Palo Alto in 1971, two dozen normal young men signed up to play a game of prisoners-and-guards that degenerated into an unspeakably vicious spectacle in about 48 hours. That’s apparently what tends to happen when one group of people is given some power and some uniforms: The photographs documenting the experiment are nearly identical to the souvenir snapshots of Lynndie England and company. Clothes make the man, and maybe also the inhumanity.

Correction, June 5, 2006: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Yale professor Stanley Milgram. Return to the corrected sentence.