Tuesday, January 11, 2011

is free will simply a myth?

Independent | The uncomfortable truth about mind control. In the Sixties, a groundbreaking series of experiments found that 65 per cent of us would kill if ordered to do so. We have vain brains; we see ourselves as better than we really are. We like to think that we exercise free will, that put into a situation where we were challenged to do something we thought unacceptable then we'd refuse. But, if you believe that, then you are probably deluded.

I make this claim, based partly on the work of psychologist Stanley Milgram. Milgram devised and carried out ingenious experiments that exposed the frailty and self-delusion that are central to our lives. He showed how easy it is to make ordinary people do terrible things, that "evil" often happens for the most mundane of reasons.

I first read about Milgram's work when I was a banker in the Seventies, working in the City. I was so fascinated by his ideas that I re-trained as a doctor, with the intention of becoming a psychiatrist. Instead I became a science journalist. Recently I got the chance to make The Brain: A Secret History
, a television series which reveals how much we have learnt about ourselves through the work of some of the 20th century's most influential, and deeply flawed, psychologists.

In the course of making the series we found rare archive and first-hand accounts of the many inventive and sometimes sinister ways in which experimental psychology has been used to probe, tease, control and manipulate human behaviour. High on the list of psychologists I wanted to learn more about was Stanley Milgram.

Milgram once wrote that we are "puppets controlled by the strings of society". Yet what is also true is that not all puppets jump when their strings are pulled. Many of the fast-food managers who were rung up the "policeman" refused to follow his orders. In Milgram's own experiment, although 65 per cent of the volunteers were prepared to give apparently lethal electric shocks, that still left 35 per cent who would not.

What no experimenter has yet been able to predict are the characteristics that mark out those who will rebel from the rest. The only way you will ever know how you measure up is when you find yourself tested. You have a one in three chance of passing.


nana kwame said...

We are much less place-based than we used to be.
Indeed, there is a growing sense that American businesses that don’t internationalize aggressively risk being left behind. For all its global reach, Pimco (run by a son of an Egyptian and French mother) is still based in the United States. But the flow of goods and capital upon which the super-elite surf are bypassing America more than they used to.

A society that has attacked science and reason (many of the best findings of the brain and mind is less than 50 years old) has set triggers and tipping points that leads to more dystopias. The level of mental illness and sheepishness in our nation is greater than we want to admit. Our so-called libertarian notions are leading to tyranny. The rich should be trailed for treason at a time where Americans who gave so much to the world wealth, we see today, is left to the most vulgar politics I have seen in decades. History repeats but never the same and creates greater possibilities of chaos.
"Merchants have no country. The mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains."
Thomas Jefferson to Horatio Gates Spafford, 17 Mar. 1817, cited in Papers 14:221 (1)
"Labour was the first price, the original purchase - money that was paid for all things. It was not by gold or by silver, but by labour, that all wealth of the world was originally purchased."
Adam Smith