A disturbing psychological experiment involving secrecy, small boys and sharp knives

28 April 2018

9:00 AM

28 April 2018

9:00 AM

Gina Perry is the eminent psychologist who blew apart Stanley Milgram’s shocking revelations from his 1961 research. Milgram had caused a sensation by alleging that 65 per cent of volunteers had been willing to inflict painful, dangerous electric shocks on others. He drew direct analogies between this ostensible blind obedience to commands to inflict pain/harm on others and that of Nazi functionaries.

Perry found that Milgram had misrepresented his results: in fact, 60 per cent of his subjects had disobeyed instructions and refused to continue; while those who had, were pressed into doing so despite protests, sometimes being ordered 25 times to keep going, or told lies, such as that the recipient of the shocks was fine. Others had suspected throughout that the experiment was a hoax. It was: no one was hurt.

In her mesmerising new book, Perry investigates another psychological experiment that turns out to have been less than honest in its published findings, and unethical in its treatment of subjects. Disturbingly, the subjects were children — boys, aged between ten and 12, who, through the course of three summer camps in Oklahoma, between 1949 and 1954, were manipulated into conforming to behaviour that would verify the theories of the chief researcher, an enigmatic, volatile and obsessive psychologist called Muzafer Sherif. Results that did not corroborate Sherif’s findings were discarded, and intrusive and disturbing adult interventions were introduced covertly to engineer the behaviour Sherif wanted to see in the boys — even when that was distress, anger and violence.

Sherif’s theory was that when different groups are competing for limited resources, animosity and conflict break out between them, which frequently erupt into violence. Within each group, behaviour tends to echo that of the leader, whether autocratic and cruel or democratic and calm.

Neither parents nor boys were ever told the true aim of the camps. They were presented with euphemisms, such as that their child had been selected for a project looking for leadership qualities.

Boys were driven hours away, with strict instructions to their families not to visit. Often, the boys made close friendships initially, only for these to be brutally torn apart by the researchers, who separated friends in an effort to demonstrate that team loyalty overrode previously close friendships.

The researchers then sought to establish that there was conflict and animosity between the two groups when competitions with a prize (sharp knives — for ten-year-old boys!) were introduced. Often, when there was no acrimony between the two teams, the researchers would engineer interventions to cause conflict — for example, vandalising the possessions of one team, and persuading them that the other team was responsible. The adult researchers also blatantly fixed results of competitions to maximise dissent.

After three attempts, and many objections about ethics from his more principled researchers (who were subsequently dropped), Sherif obtained the results he wanted, albeit not objectively or fairly.

Perry is a deeply thoughtful and empathetic writer. Rather than fulminate about scientific fraud and the possible long-term effects on the children, she looks at Sherif’s history to see what might have motivated this compulsive desire to prove his theory.

And what traumas she finds. He was a child when, in 1914, Greek troops arrived at Smyrna, near Sherif’s school. They murdered hundreds of Turkish civilians who refused to swear allegiance to the Greek prime minister. In 1922, nationalist Turkish forces retaliated. The city was obliterated by fire. Hundreds of Christians, Jews, and non- Turkish Muslims were murdered. The mass slaughter of Armenians followed soon after.

Despite escaping Turkey, where he was prosecuted, Sherif never felt accepted by the US, where he was in turn investigated by the FBI for pro-communist leanings. His labile personality didn’t help.

It seems that Sherif had, at heart, a deep desire to explain warring factions with different identities, in order to resolve the terrible violence he had witnessed as a child. Although that doesn’t excuse his unethical behaviour, it goes some way to explain it. And it is a sad irony that he probably justified his own casual cruelty in order to try to elucidate those greater atrocities. Auden’s words ‘Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return’ were seldom more apt.

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