The best explanation for the recent tide of populist sentiment is the self-propelling dynamics of the social desirability bias and irrational rationality. The social desirability bias in psychology is when survey participants shape their responses to make themselves look better. Elected leaders portraying themselves as champions of the people can conform their campaign promises to what makes them more appealing to voters. As candidates that consistently miss the mark on the opinions of their voters don’t stay in office long(p.21)! Even middle-of-the-road elected officials drift away from the median to keep their heads above water in political waves of populism (p.4). The unmoored and amorphous qualities of populism; make it flexible to the changing tastes of the public. The malleable nature of populism makes a “thin ideology” (p.171) that political opportunists can easily manipulate. By definition, a populist candidate must pander to the interests of regular people, regardless of how detrimental the consequences are. Hence, populist candidates typically support raising the minimum wage and import tariffs; superficially, these policies sound beneficial. There is ample evidence that both suggestions do more harm than good. Most of the “majoritarian” solutions to economic issues are predicated on emotional appeals rather than solid facts.
Professor Bryan Caplan’s Rational Irrationality not only dovetails today the social desirability bias in populist politics but forms a symbiotic mechanism for perpetuating these policies. Rational Irrationality is when voters have intense biases and disregard evidence contrary to their strong beliefs. The reason for illogical rationalization is that as long as the individual costs are low (per Alex Tabarrok political decision-making lowers the individual costs of policy). Caplan surmises that there is a demand for irrationality in the political process (p.7), as the voter will barely notice the costs of the policies they favor, providing clarity on why we people support bad policies. However, this can cause voters to adopt disastrous policies (p.152). Through tailoring attractive policies that lean into the concerns and biases of the typical voter, populist candidates can win the approval of their prospective constituents, generating a synergistic feedback loop of detrimental interventionism in the economy and other spheres of life.
The literature (p.93-94) paralleling conspiracy theory culture with the social dynamics of religious cults is starting to accumulate. In the post-factual world, there has been an explosion in the amount of research and commentary surrounding the psychological and sociological implications of conspiracy-mongering political sects such as the alt-right and QAnon. Outside of the grand edicts of Alex Jones being profane (non-spiritual in nature), there is another notable difference between the microcosm of conspiracy land and a religious cult; commitment costs.
In theory, a fan of conspiracy theory media can participate in this sphere without paying a dime (outside of the cost of electricity and monthly bills for internet access). Sure, our good friend Alex might be slinging some bogus supplements, but there is no requirement to purchase any Infowars products. Anyone with internet access can still access his web-based content. In contrast, a religious cult not only lays claim to all your earthly possessions and assets, the leader expects that future earnings are directed to the “church’s” coffers.
Beyond the differences in direct monetary costs, there are also drastic disparities in the nonmonetary costs of participation. In the conspiracy community, there is a large spectrum of various commitment preferences; no formal obligations to increase your level of commitment. The range goes from sitting consuming conspiracy media and frequenting conspiracy Reddit pages; even partaking in political activism predicated on conspiracy theories. Even if you are under the spell of the false prophet peddling tin-foil hat tomfoolery, there is still a degree of choice. To be a member of a religious cult, the costs of participation are extraordinarily high, and there is no gray area. A prospective member is fully obligated, or they are out. They must give up or share (their spouse or sexual partner), job, family, friends, hobbies, and contact with the external world. Alex Jones nor David Icke are not pressuring people to cut all ties with family to worship in their bugout bunker in rural South Dakota.
Essentially, conspiracy theories are opium dreams for the lost and disillusioned, like religious cults. But subscribing to conspiracy theories is the lazy man’s version of being a cult member. The commitment expectations and financial costs are much lower. Theoretically, a conspiracy theory adherent can live normally; hold down a square job, and raise a family. However, once they are off the clock, then their double life begins.
In the immediate aftermath of any tragedy, we often struggle to make sense of the situation. The senseless loss of life following a mass shooting is no exception. Various experts and media talking heads list all the potential antecedents that pushed a mentally unstable person to commit such an atrocity. The frequently cited causes of domestic mass murder include bellicose political rhetoric, violent song lyrics, psychiatric drugs, video games, disenfranchisement, mental health issues, and access to firearms (although the effect of gun control on preventing such events is inconclusive).
It would be rash to assume that any one of these purported preconditions for molding a mass murder is the sole reason for these tragedies. It is more likely that various environmental, genetic, and social factors drive a person to perpetrate such heinous acts. One potential cause of violence that often gets overlooked; is media coverage of such incidents .
Even when we take a cursory view of the incentives of media outlets, they are not going to take any responsibility for inspiring new school shooters and other varieties of a deranged shooter. After all, they are the mouthpiece for all the experts touting the evils of Marilyn Manson (I apologize for the dated reference), political extremism, and guns. Fixating on these gruesome stories and participating in conspiratorial conjecture about the impetus was for a demented young man to kill innocent people. Sadly, negativity sells, making it lucrative for business. Human beings are plagued by what is known as the negativity bias; we are more apt to engage with articles or news programming that has a negative tone. News outlets lay into this bias by exaggerating the severity of negative news. Validated by the fact that fifty percent (p.5) of news coverage features stories on crime. Media companies have a lot to gain from obsessively presenting all the gory updates on the Uvalde massacre. Business is good when you have audience captivity by the horror and depravity of a madman.
At its core, the dynamics of how media outlets cover mass shootings is a Prisoner’s Dilemma. The media companies act in their self-interest by bombarding us with all the horrific details of these mass killing events. This is done so with little consideration for the ethical consequence of how the story is framed. Typically, there is more coverage of the perpetrator than on the heroes who intervened and stopped the killing spree or even the victims (p.22). The tight focus on the gunman aggrandizes the image of the killer. In the mind of narcissistic (p.16) or otherwise mentally unstable people, they become the protagonist in the story of a folk anti-hero. The previous mass shooter serves as a template for how to quickly gain notoriety. In the canonical literature, there is a model known as the contagion effect, where essentially publicized shootings beget more publicized shootings. We begin to see copycat shooters. A 1999 study found that “.. of 83 would-be mass killers or assassins, who noted that evidence in their belongings or writings indicated that 38% of them emulated previous killers…”(p.24). A 2013 study, found a positive correlation between tweets about mass shootings and the likelihood of another one occurring (p.27). The shooters end up “defecting” by orchestrating and executing a shooting event, believing they are acting in their self-interest by indulging their angst and narcissism.
The suboptimal results in this situation would be the victims of the shooting. They are merely collateral damage in the pursuits of media outlets and mass shooters. Truly this mutual defection is the story of excesses. Whether it be improperly channeled rage, vanity, and narcissism or profit and callous political opportunism , innocent people had to die to achieve these ends.
1.) The suggestion that the media companies bare some responsibility for mass shootings is not an indictment of capitalism or freedom of the press. This presents an ironic fact; news outlets blame many distal factors for shootings; it never occurs to them to look in the mirror. Especially considering that most mass murders have proclivities towards narcissism.
2.) The incentives structure of media outlets may extend beyond the profit-loss mechanism, as they are generally ideologically driven. Many of the news channels and publications of esteem are politically left-wing, meaning they may also have anti-gun agenda. In effect; driving the obsessive coverage of gun violence.
The religion and mythology of Greek antiquity were heavily an integral component of the lives of the ancient Greeks. The ancient Greeks as a civilization worshipped the same pantheon of deities; however, each individual city-state has a patron deity that was extensively venerated by the citizens of that polis. The manner in which the patron deity was portrayed and their role in mythology often influenced the culture of the polis. The most conscious example of this was in the ancient city-state of Athens, the citizens of which often derived rituals, values, and concepts from the mythological depictions of their patron goddess Athena. The patron goddess of Athens influenced the form of Athenian government, perspective on education, rituals of celebration, and the local function of their institutions of worship.
In the city-state of Athens much like other city-states, religion and mythology were closely intertwined. Athena was a prevalent figure throughout Greek mythology (Mikalson, 68). Athena was often depicted as the following: a cultural hero, a figure of protection, a virgin deity, and a rival of Ares, the Greek god of war. Athena is known as a cultural hero for her role in establishing the crucial institutions of Greek life (Hoffman, 277). She was responsible for life-sustaining institutions such as arts and crafts, wisdom, the structure and order of law, shipbuilding, domestic chores such as cooking, mathematics, etc. (Burkert, 140-141; Graves, 96).
Athena often acted as a protective figure that tended to guide a hero or the Greek people away from harm. Examples of such accounts are ample, for instance, her aid to Hercules in the myth of Twelfth Labor: The Capture of Cerberus, his task of capturing the dog, Cerberus, from Tartarus, offering him guidance and moral support (Graves, 514-517). Athena was portrayed as being a deity that never engaged in any sort of amorous activity and zealously guarded her prudish nature. The account of Teiresias being blinded by Athena while watching her bathe clearly illustrated this attribute (Graves, 327). Athena has also been depicted as a rival of the god of war, Ares. Ares tended to be viewed as the boorish representation of offensive warfare, while Athena was the representation of strategic and defensive aspects of war (Burkert, 141, 169).
It is important to realize the cultural context in which Athena was venerated in ancient Athens, the same polis which first developed the institution of Democracy. This development was rooted in the Solonian reform (594 BCE) and came to fruition during the era of Cleisthenesian leadership (508 BCE). Under Cleisthenes is where pure democracy was developed. A form of democracy in which average citizens had an actual say in making policy and were selected to the Assembly or boule, by lot for an annual term. Individual citizens who disagreed with policy had the ability to issue a “writ of unconstitutionality” to formally express any grievances (Starr, 46-47, 50-53). Both developments created a sense of socio-economical equity with regard to the political rights of the polis.
It appears as if this cultural development is rooted in the founding mythology of the city-state. The city-state of Athens has a strong sense of national identity coupled with a sense of equality among the citizens of equal status (Athenian-born male landowners). It is speculated that this value of equality among Athenian men is what engendered the establishment of the first democracy. This sense of equality among Athenian men stems from a myth in which they are identified as having a common lineage with an early Athenian king, Erectheus, who was cared for by Athena (Mikalson, 58-59; Starr, 50-52). The myth depicting the birth of the first Athenian king begins with an account of Hephaestus attempting to sexually force himself upon Athena. She halts this attempt, but Hephaestus does end up ejaculating on her thigh. She wipes off the discharge and lets the semen fall on the ground, thereby creating Erectheus. Fulfilling her role as a protective figure, Athena watches over him until he ascends to the throne of Attica and institutes the worship of his protective surrogate mother (Gantz, 77; Graves 96-97). This myth rationalizes direct democracy through the concept of the divine right of kings, a premise based on the idea that authority and order are derived from divine will (Leonard & McClure, 192-193). Due to Athenians being decedents of the chosen king, they are all of equal status and all participated in running the government. This clearly illustrates how humans tend to utilize myths to justify governmental authority.
True to the depictions of Athena, the Athenians held wisdom and education in high esteem. Formal education was available in the polis; however, contrary to Athens’s lack of social stratification in politics, it seems as if it was a privilege of the wealthy. Formal Athenian education was diverse and included: poetry, music, rhetoric, physical training, grammar, didactic, writing, and logic. All of this suggests a very holistic approach to the education of young affluent males. Formal higher education was available in the form of academies founded by philosophical thinkers such as Isocrates and Plato, which was a development that transpired around the 4th century in Athens. However, male children of lesser affluence were often taught to read at home due to the skill playing a vital role in citizenship (Starr, 44, 61-63; Webster, 59-63, 67). Athenian males of voting status pursued knowledge in order to be competent participants in the political process, illustrating the value of knowledge (Beye, 113). It is quite evident that the form of democracy practiced in ancient Athens did have an influence on the Athenian values of education and knowledge because of the high degree of civic involvement. However, the city-state’s patron goddess’s influence cannot be ignored when examining this cultural value. Athena has been depicted in Greek mythology as being the divine manifestation of wisdom (Hamilton, 29). This is shown in the myth of The Wooden Horse, in which Athena suggests using a wooden horse as an effective means of covertly sneaking troops into Troy, which proves to be a worthwhile strategy (Graves, 692, 696). Just as their patron deity inspired the proper application of knowledge, Athenians in the classical era used wisdom to stay informed, so they could govern themselves, instead of succumbing to the consequences of detrimental policies. The value of education is more directly influenced by mythology since Athena created many of the academic disciplines that existed. She is known to be the deity that taught Prometheus math, astronomy, medicine, architecture, and other fields of study (Graves, 39).
This upcoming series will feature segments of a paper I wrote while attending Bridgewater State University. My paper Athena: Her Impact Upon the Polis (2012) was composed for professor Dr. Michael Zimmerman’s course Anthropology 111-F01. Most of the papers I wrote in college might have been “well written”, but this is the only work I chose to hang on to for the past ten years. For me, accumulating sources and drafting this paper became something more than a mere school assignment; at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I was fighting for my soul. I attended this course my senior year to fulfill a university-mandated “writing intensive” requirement. However, this endeavor was far from mundane. After spending hours engaging with material that pushed me to question the interaction of religion, mythology, culture, and social institutions, but circuitously led me to look a little deeper inward to learn more about myself. Any dynamic thinker cannot help but examine their own beliefs and values when undergoing such a transcendent analysis. After all, culture is never neutral. The stories of our culture permeate into our subconscious without us even being fully cognizant of this occurrence. These commonly shared tales manifest themselves in everything from moral arguments to colloquial speech and are even referenced in popular entertainment.
This was a defining moment in my life; I was about to graduate and faced a hostile job market. This lingering confrontation with the uncertainty of my future career and life was extremely anxiety-inducing. Ancient myths convey lessons and observations that are still applicable in modern society. For example in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh’s struggles with life, legacy, and acceptance of death was not parochial concern isolated to the ancient Mesopotamians; but are concerns that are prevalent in modern societies today. Once an individual has this revelation, it is difficult to deny the logic behind Carl Jung’s theory of Collective Consciousness. I was a fan of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell’s work shortly before Jordan B. Peterson reignited interest in their intellectual contributions.
A decade has passed since I was at the crossroads of being a student and entering the workforce; I have done much self-reflection within these ten years. In retrospect, majoring in psychology was a horrible error in judgment on my part. I have also realized that the mythic hue of the proverbial “dream job”; is nothing more than a rose-tinted mirage. However, the specter of uncertainty still is omnipresent in my life; it will be a lifelong process to acquire the adequate skills to navigate these uncharted waters. Whether this context is impertinent or adds another level of depth to my analysis remains to be seen. I request all my readers to join me on this multipart series journey. I hope you all find this series to be illuminating and insightful.
Peter Clark, Arizona
A few years about Tilea West contributed an excellent article to the Foundation for Education website, entitled Coase Theorem, The Prisoner’s Dilemma, and Zero-Sum Games in Modern Dating, an article applying Coase’s Theorem and Game Theory to the modern dating scene. For me, the most engaging section of her essay was the section where West addresses Prisoner’s Dilemmas. After all, this series is devoted to this cooperation-related phenomenon. West describes a scenario where a lack of cooperation can arise from modern technology and dating norms:
“…Both Harry and Sally had a wonderful time on their date, but with modern technology, asymmetric information, and the prisoner’s dilemma, we see a breakdown of communication. We see that both Harry and Sally want to text each other and go on another date, but instead, the asymmetric information and the lack of cooperation in the game result in the prisoner’s dilemma. Instead of being straightforward and communicating punctually and politely, both Harry and Sally feel like they can’t openly communicate because of the asymmetric information about the other person. They don’t have a dominant strategy to play with each other because they do not know how the other person feels…”
Tilea certainly makes some shrewd observations in this paragraph, which inspired me to explore the prospect of additional Prisoner’s Dilemmas in the dating world. For example, could the Battle-of-the-Sexes game devolve into a standoff between mutually defecting players? Invariably this will lead us into the territory of the biological differences between men and women. The physiological, psychological, evolutionary distinctions between the two sexes play a crucial role in determining the mating strategies of heterosexual men and women. Once we strip away all the courtesy, social conventions, and other superficial attributes of dating, it is ultimately an intricate ritual at the center of the mate selection process. Most people can recall from previous anecdotes or even personal experiences the massive gulf between the mating interests of both men and women.
Mutual defection manifests in dating/sex because males and females possess incompatible “mating strategies”. If evaluated from the surface level, it would appear as if stable and monogamous relationships are untenable. Men frequently fall prey to the over perception bias. Where men tend to interpret often misinterpreting friendly female behavior as sexual interest; to avoid “… the cost of missed sexual opportunities…” (p.2). Per Haselton and Buss (2000), the costs of misreading a sexual opportunity are relatively low; when compared with the costs of losing a potential mate (p.3). The ultimate measure of genetic success is producing offspring. If mating opportunities are scant; this perceptual bias has a logical evolutionary function.
However, many theorists surmise that women have the opposite perception of mating opportunities. Females tend to be much more cautious in the mate selection process for one salient reason; women bear the costs of childbearing. In Haselton and Buss (2000), it is suggested that women underestimate a man’s level of investment in a relationship; he is more likely to demonstrate commitment to his partner (p.3). Overall, men rely on very liberal mating strategies, while women utilize conservative approaches to pair-bonding. Men have a lot to lose by not capitalizing upon potential mating opportunities. Women have a strong interest in guarding themselves against the high costs of promiscuity. Please note that this model excludes the variable of birth control for the sake of simplicity.
When viewing human mating strategies from the lens of a game-theoretical framework, there is unquestionably a Prisoner’s Dilemma. The conflicting mating strategies invariably lead to miscommunication and frustration among men and women. This mating conflict is depicted in a very two-dimensional nature in many sappy and cliché Rom-Com films. The archetypal freewheeling bachelor, being tamed by the female protagonist, attempting to cure him of his wild ways. Almost like a modern version of the sacred harlot taming Enkidu, but it is possible that making this analogy is too generous. The unfortunate fact of both sexes having opposing mating strategies is that it creates suboptimal results by increasing the transaction costs of courtship and sex. Most notably through miscommunication, but there are many other drawbacks incurred through the contending mating interests of men and women. These divergent approaches to mating have even engendered distrust. Some women believe that most men are only interested in sexual contact and not the emotionally deeper aspects of romantic relationships.
Frequently we hear about people undergoing the process of “finding themselves”. This concept is kind of preposterous once we truly contemplate it. This is not to say that it is impossible for an individual to not know “thy self”. Denying our true essence through methodically crafted facades acts as a social survival mechanism. Effectively shielding us from censure and other forms of social opprobrium. Self-deception being as common and conformity highly valued it would be foolish to question the desire for self-discovery. How much of our sense of self is truly a byproduct of internal processes and is absent of external influence? That is a question that remains to be satisfactorily answered.
It is more reasonable to question if the process of self-discovery is even worthwhile. It does seem to be somewhat of a hapless endeavor. Why? Simply because we are not stagnating. Our thoughts, opinions, and values are always being tested. Almost as if we are nothing more than the organic personification of Bayesian probability. Sure, we may have some attributes, normative preferences, enduring opinions. Do these semi-fixed characteristics truly signify resistance to the dynamism of existence? No. When people do not adapt to new information, they merely find new ways of justifying their old beliefs. Holding the same premise, but adapting their reasoning. Someone may be a lifelong gun-rights activist, but their rationale for maintaining their principles may have evolved.
Self-exploration fails to capture the true quiddity of ourselves because we are ever-changing. Attend all of the vision quest retreats and peyote ceremonies you like, these experiences may very well lead you down a dead-end. Your perception of these experiences will likely change over time. Your opinions of the experience may even change while you are engrossed in such enveloping sensory journeys. The very malleable nature of man, especially from a psychological perspective, it is difficult to find a fixed sense of self. Layered upon the various cultural and normative identities we ascribe to ourselves, it possible that we perceive ourselves differently at various times and in divergent contexts.
Eg.) A man can be an American, veteran, Grandfather, Father, son, friend, baker, neighbor all at various times to various people.
All of these various categorical titles that can be ascribed to an individual may mean different things to them at different times. Placing a get weight on the temporal and contextual influences driving our sense of selfhood. To a certain extent, we may not even be the same person we are today that we will be tomorrow. The alterations may not be drastic, but although subtle substantial enough to cause minor qualitative changes in personality, cognition, thought processes, normative values, etc. Colloquially we often hear young people talking about the need to “find themselves”. This analogous to Sisyphus perpetually rolling a boulder up a hill. Due to our dynamic nature which is highly adaptive from an evolutionary perspective, progress is illusory. This perceptual stalemate is only compounded by the fact that we often perceive ourselves incorrectly. Typically, in an exaggeratedly positive light. Validating Adam Smith’s observations in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). People do not want to believe view themselves in a negative light. Making self-depiction a form of self-pacification. The futility of attempting to pinpoint our selfhood cannot be understated. Unfortunately, our sense of self is subject to the illusions and psychological coping mechanisms that afflict human perception.
If the direct feedback from social interactions can help facilitate morality and positive social relations, how can this be done on a larger scale? Corporations, nations, communities, coalitions, etc. are institutions comprised of many individuals. Staying within the framework of methodological individualism, we assume that the collective action of a single institution represents the unanimous will of all the individual agents affiliated with the organization. In a sense, the collective action “speaks” for the group. How does social distance influence the interaction between various institutions, nations, collectives, etc.? Per the insights in Smith’s book The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), a person’s socialization and moral development are shaped by their peers. How would we go about socializing an entire culture? What factors enable us to peacefully co-exist with our neighbors? There certainly are not any clear-cut answers to these vast questions. The best we can do is hone in on the variables that help support human flourishing and social stability.
Some people assert that a common cultural identity is a cohesive glue that keeps the fibers of society together. There may be some veracity to this opinion as possessing a common culture can reduce the potential for conflict. However, there are some profound issues with holding culture as the variable that unites mankind as a whole. For one, commerce is global. Anyone in the business world cannot merely associate with people sharing the same cultural experience. In theory, you can, however, you would be severely limiting the potential reach of your business. Due to globalization and technological advancements, clinging to cultural identity has become more futile. Another consideration is that associating with people of a similar cultural background (closer social distance) is detrimental to our ongoing moral development. Demonstrating the fallacy of nationalism from both practical and moral perspectives.
If the cultural distance is inevitable what is one way we can bring people of various cultures together? Many people may suggest the use of international treaties. The parameters of such an agreement serve as nothing more than a compulsive obligation. Outside of state-sanctioned compulsory inclusion (which is not limited to treaties, but also pertains to sections of The Civil Rights Act of 1964), there is also social pressure to force the association between different cultural groups. We see this in the aggressive push for multiculturalism. The intentions of some proponents may be laudable, however, too often it is utilized as Trojan Horse for political opportunists. It should also be mentioned that does not arrive at cultural diversity through voluntary association. But rather from a form of informal social cohesion. While Smith may point out that conforming to this new norm would be an example of our peers shaping our moral development, this simply is not the case. Most of this rhetoric comes from the deepest fringes of academia. These norms are enforced through immense social pressure by a small minority of people who are out of touch with the real world. Cultural diversity is not something that can be forced by legal statutes nor by social cohesion. Rather it exists through the voluntary movement of people, which is a spontaneous phenomenon that cannot be artificially manufactured.
It is evident what fails to bridge the gulf between different cultures and societies. However, what can succeed at this seemingly insurmountable task? Here is where the themes of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and the Wealth of Nations (1776) converge. The social arrangement that keeps the appropriate distance for peaceful relations between strangers is commercial societies (p.13). Please keep in mind that this is not the recipe for sustained and eternal peace. No thinker has been able to formulate a tried-and-true solution for eradicating violent conflicts. Our propensity for violence may be an unfortunate proclivity of human nature that cannot be contained by reason or by institutional means. Providing validation of David Hume’s assertion that we are essential “slaves to our passions”. Voluntary trade may reduce the frequency of armed conflict between nations. In commerce, we do need to maintain a certain level of professionalism (self-command) to establish an effective working relationship (p.14).
To perceive free trade as a magic bullet would be a complete fallacy. For one, if it was the key to enduring peace, world peace would have been achieved back in 1776. Ultimately, Smith viewed trade as a potential source of tensions between nations. It has been argued that Regan/Thatcher-era proponents of Neo-Liberalism overstated the role free trade plays in facilitating peaceful relations. If the tides of economic nationalism are not stifled international trade continues to serve as a weapon against rival countries (p.4). The growth of military strength tends to coincide with an expansion of the division of labor (p.5). Economic development reduces the perceived costs of entering armed conflicts (p.2 &5). Smith contended that the root of international conflict was power imbalances among nations (p.34). The prospect of an imbalance of economic power in global trade is the core assumption behind mercantilism. Exemplified in the rhetoric surrounding trade imbalances.
Even though Smith did see trade as a potential source of tension, does that mean that free trade could not reduce the social distance between different culturally distinct nations? No. It may not be the cure for global conflict, but it can reduce the instance of it occurring. There is something of a reciprocal relationship between social stability and economic advancement. The “violence trap” of the feudal era stymied economic growth due to instability in property rights (p.41). Coping with the constant upheaval of violent conflict is destabilizing enough to inhibit economic flourishing. While the prosperity of neighboring countries may conjure the envy of less fortunate nations, Smith suggested that the better-off countries should act as a model of what to aspire to. Rather than an adversary to hold in contempt (p.31). The rise of government and free trade may not conclusively prevent war, per Smith’s treatises that balance power and foster respect among nations helps reduce the instance of armed conflicts (p.32). Such agreements help align interests among different countries. From an economic perspective, unilateral trade agreements help balance the concentration of economic power among trading partners. Loosening the barriers to international trade not only broadens the market for domestic production but also works to reduce hostilities (p.33). Providing the power gap isn’t too wide and nationalistic sentiments can be dispensed with.
“By opening a more extensive market for whatever part of the produce of their labor may exceed the home consumption, it encourages them to improve its productive powers, and to augment its annual produce to the utmost, and thereby to increase1 the real revenue and wealth of the society. These great and important services foreign trade is continually occupied in performing, to all the different countries between which it is carried on. They all derive great benefit from it, though that in which the merchant resides generally derives the greatest, as he is generally more employed in supplying the wants, and carrying out the superfluities of his own, than of any other particular country. To import the gold and silver which may be wanted, into the countries which have no mines, is, no doubt, a part of the business of foreign commerce. It is, however, a most insignificant part of it. A country which carried on foreign trade merely upon this account could scarce have occasion to freight a ship in a century. (Wealth of Nations, p.358-359)”.
While voluntary exchange may not bring about world peace, it does help close the gap between different nations. Resources that could theoretically be dedicated to warfare are reallocated to production for the global consumer market. Providing a practical example of Frédéric Bastiat’s Broken Window Fallacy. War does not generate wealth, but rather rearranges the disposal of resources. Wealth may be correlated with the advancement of military technology. The development of military technology does not necessarily generate wealth. Beyond free trade re-directing resources from armed conflict to the consumer market, there are also other intangible effects. When we engage in trade with foreign countries we are also exchanging culture and ideas. Attending a business meeting in Japan, American executives may consume food that they are not accustomed to. May even learn some of the subtleties of Japanese business etiquette. Through their Japanese counterparts providing the social ques imperative in business transactions in Japan. Talk about challenging a person’s impartial spectator. The American businessmen walk away with more than a new business partner. They are also exporting cultural traditions, new business practices, and even new types of food when they arrive back home. When we have more familiarity with another culture we are less apt to fear them. In turn meaning, we are less apt to bomb them. Closing the cultural gap requires not only a certain degree of openness but also an effective working relationship.
In my previous blog post, I address the role of social distance in moral development. Per Paganelli’s interpretation of Smith’s TMS (1759), we reduced our self-command when we are around people we are emotionally attached to (p.12-13). Much of our moral development arise from socialization. Making our self-restraint a combination of learned behavior and social conformity. The schoolyard may be the proper environment for individuals to fine-tune their social awareness. Does our moral development stop once are no longer school age? I would suggest not. If anything it a continual and lifelong process that is always in progress. If anything as we grow older, the expectation of others and social norms become much more intricate. Some of the basic principles learned on the playground are social conventions that are applicable in any social dynamic. The etiquette learned in the schoolyard is too rudimentary to comprehensively cover all the social nuisances of professional situations.
For instance, what is the proper attire for a job interview? How do I politely reject my boss’s dinner invitation? These are just a few examples of social scenarios of greater complexity that cannot be learned even in High School (arguably even in college). The reserved awkwardness of new hires fresh out of college exemplifies this deficit in workplace social skills. Outside of there being a likely age gap between the new employee and the rest of their co-workers, they are afraid of making a faux-pas. They are deathly afraid of being the person who takes the last of the breakroom coffee without making more (this individual is universally hated). They do not want to be disliked by their new pool of peers. To not look like a self-absorbed young person, it going to take time. The new employee will go through an acclimation process. The primary drive of this adjustment is going to be the feedback of their co-workers.
I would go so far as to even suggest that each new social environment requires some duration of social learning. The phrase “.. reading the room..” comes to mind. For example, even if an individual has worked as a salesperson for twenty years, as soon as they take a job at another company they now become the “new guy”. A new job entails new co-workers, a new boss, new corporate policies, new corporate culture. Despite this individual’s extensive experience they still need to go through an adjustment period. This seasoned salesperson now has to learn to adapt to the personalities, culture, and rules in their new work environment. Even in social situations where we are familiar with the location and the people, various factors lead us to constantly adjust to the feedback from others. If you were attending a dinner party at your brother’s house (only family members were in attendance) you would still have to mold yourself to the social conditions of the moment. You will taper your behavior to the dispositions of the other dinner guests. Social settings are dynamic and even the slightest change to one variable can profoundly alter the course of events. To a certain extent, we are always fine-tuning our Impartial Spectator to maintain social harmony. Social situations much like all complex systems have a loose structure with a set of informal rules. Although there is a resolute structure the one altered variable can drastically change the trajectory of the interaction. As the expression goes “high school never ends”, actually we never leave the playground.
Most of us that have a rudimentary understanding of economics, are familiar with the concept of the Law of Diminishing Returns. It is quite evident that this premise is unquestionably applicable to physical goods. Does this enduring economic law also apply to intangible commodities? It is salient once a person has exhausted the optimal quantity of solid objects. This is conspicuous in the disutility of engaging in hoarding behavior. While the optimum number of chairs a person should furnish their home with is debatable and depend on several factors, it is obvious once a person has amassed too many. Once an individual has so many chairs that it makes restricts accessibility to certain rooms in the house, becomes a fire hazard, or the homeowner can no longer contain all of the objects they own within the confines of the physical structure of their house- then it is problematic. Then rightward shift from the equilibrium point is universally expressed. There is no foreseeable value in obtaining more or maintaining your current collection of chairs. The assessment of whether you have too many chairs is no longer a matter of aesthetic preferences, but a matter of physical limitations. It is easy to determine once we obtained too many physical goods.
The saturation point is much more difficult to answer when about intangible goods (human capital, intellectual property, etc.). However, it could be argued that the Law of Diminishing does apply to human capital. The ultimate marketplace for human capital is the job market. Often we hear the term “saturation” be used to describe the labor market. Several factors can contribute to the overabundance of human capital available to employers. Periods of high unemployment leave firms with the ability to hire, a large pool of applicants to choose from. The saturation could be referring to a glut of similar skill sets or credentials. If history majors are a dime a dozen, but math majors are hard to come by, who is going to stand out in the job market? If everyone has basic Microsoft office skills, but there is one candidate in the resume heap that has an advanced certificate in Excel, needless to say, this will catch the eye of any hiring manager or human resources representative.
Degrees and certificates are not so much human capital as documentation of skills and formal education. Couldn’t the soaking point of specific forms of human capital also be relevant to soft skills? Well, why not? If can be applied to credential and soft skills then it must apply to more innate qualities. Such as personality types. Pre-employment personality tests not only qualify if a candidate is a good match for a specific job role but also help to bring more balance to team dynamics.
Going beyond even the job market or potential job prospects, human capital is integral in determining an individual’s overall trajectory in life. While other factors such as opportunity, motivation, and timing have a lot to do with success. Without the proper skills, most people will not rise above a certain point of attainment. One of the most coveted, but arguably overrated attributes in the panoply of human capital is general intelligence. General intelligence can only get a person so far. There is no one single factor that leads a person to success, but rather a multitude of different variables. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole certain applies. Providing some validation of Scott Adams’s postulations regarding complementary skills. No one needs to a virtuoso, but it is better to be reasonably good at many related skills than to fully master one. General intelligence is the archetypal example of being a master of one domain. We all have heard the platitude “… jack of all trades, master of none…” so frequently that it is deeply ingrained in our subconscious. However, this old saying has little applicability to the real world. It isn’t the smartest or the most diligent among us that succeed. Then again, the village idiot and the local ne’er-do-well burnout aren’t the ones rising to the top either.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers (2008) presents an intriguing example of why general intelligence alone will not ensure success. Gladwell details the near-tragic trials and tribulations of Christopher Langan. A man who is a bona fide genius. Despite his expansive and impressive intellect he never had the opportunity to thrive as a universally praised academic. Langan boosted an IQ of 195 shadowing the IQ of Albert Einstein forty-five points (p.70). As impressive as it sounds to have an IQ of 195, there is one important point to remember. A veteran scientist with an IQ of 130 is equally as likely as a colleague with an IQ of 180 to win a Nobel Prize (p.80). Meaning that Lagan’s intelligence while awe-inspiring could even be viewed as being superfluous. If a person with an IQ thirty points lower than Langan can be a Nobel laureate what value does the extra IQ points effectively bring to the table?
Despite Langan’s intimidating intellect he failed to even obtain an undergraduate degree. This was due to a string of unfortunate shifts in his vicissitudes. One notable incident transpired when he was enrolled at Montana State, he had car troubles and could not make his morning classes. He had a neighbor who offered to give him rides in the afternoon to school. Regardless of how much cajoled and begged the dean he was not allowed to change his class schedule and was forced to withdraw from his program (p.94-95). Langan’s foil must be Robert Oppenheimer who worked on the development of the atomic bomb during World War II (p.97). Here was a man who as a student attempted to murder his tutored (p.98). Not only did he get away with it, but later on after he completed his graduate program he managed to get on the prestigious Manhattan Project. It is evident his past transgressions did not dampen his career in any way. What truly separates both these men from one another? Both men were exceptionally bright, but one man couldn’t even convince his dean to do something as innocuous as changing his class schedule. Another got away with attempted murder. The difference was that Oppenheimer had a greater degree of practical intelligence (p.101).
The comparison between these two men illustrates that not only is there a ceiling in the benefits of having high general intelligence. There are also limitations if the only skills you have are related to general intelligence. Without practical knowledge, a robust IQ is tantamount to be a weight. We all need the precepts requisite to tactfully navigate the world. In the absence of this scaffolding, our intelligence is of little use and only serves to weigh us down.
In terms of formulating effective rules, one needs to have a panoramic understanding of the potential consequences. Even the downstream outcomes are not easily foreseen. Providing some validation of F.A. Hayek’s notion of the Pretense of Knowledge. No one person, organization, or collection of governing institutions has all of the information required to plan for every scenario. Making it foolhardy to enact inflexible rules that operate as if the definite outcomes can be methodically calculated. Treading down the path of the socialist calculation debate is fruitless as the refutations on both sides of the aisle have already been exhausted. The fall of the Soviet Union alone should serve as a historical anecdote of the fallacy of planned economies.
It should be noted that information asymmetries and unforeseeable outcomes are a natural consequence of having limited information. Explaining phenomena such as cobra effects, because certain repercussions cannot be known until it is too late. These distorted outcomes as the result of flawed rules can happen on a much smaller scale than that of the national economy or a country’s legal system. Something as mundane as a birthdate cutoff to participate in youth hockey can spur some surprise inequities in the trajectory of young hockey players. This example springing from the pages of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers gives us some keen insights into the potential for implicit flaws in rule formulation. Gladwell details the observations of psychologist Roger Barnsley (p.22-23) upon perusing the program of the Canadian national youth hockey championship. Barnsley noticed that the majority of the players had birthdays ranging between January and March. Is it possible that there is a certain qualitative factor distinguishing children with birthdays earlier on in the year? If we examine the zodiac symbols of those born in January and February there are characteristics that are conducive to success. However, there is little scientific merit to astrology anyhow. Barnsley had another explanation for this discrepancy between Canadian Hockey players born in January versus July.
Barnsley astutely directs us towards the factor of birthday cutoffs for eligibility to play youth hockey in Canada. This fact was substantiated when Barnsley discovered that roughly 40 percent of all elite hockey players were born between January-March, 30 percent between April-June (p.23) Demonstrating the role of the individual player’s birthday in determining success. Having a January first cutoff, privileged prospective players born in the earlier months of the year (p.24). The main difference being that the boys born in earlier months were more physically mature. In turn, received more attention from the coaches lending this dynamic to an early delineation between talented and untalented players (p.25). Due to the difference in age eligibility cutoffs in American youth football and basketball leagues, they did not exhibit the same distortions in the distribution of talent (p.26). Engendering a Matthew Effect or what is otherwise known as an accumulative advantage. Adam Smith even points to the concept of accumulative advantage in The Wealth of Nations. Explaining how in a sense the poor pay the price for the poor decisions of their forefathers.
Many proponents of meritocratic social arrangements may scoff at the idea of making rules that are fair. However, if the rules are providing a lopsided advantage to one group, are the results truly the result of superior performance or the distortion created by the rules? Few would ever view the occurrence of instances of regulatory capture or rent-seeking as a triumph of free-market competition. Rather just the opposite, it is an example of interest groups bending the rules to suit their own needs. Careful consideration needs to be made in how we set and enforce rules to avoid distorted effects that handsomely benefit a few and harm a great many. Gladwell succinctly sums up this point very eloquently:
“Because we cling to the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit and that the world in which we all group up and then we choose to write society don’t matter at all.” (p.33)
While variables such as luck, talent, ingenuity, and hard work can all have a role in success, we cannot forget that how the rules are written can also have an inseparable impact on outcomes. Even rules that are inadvertently written in a manner to favor one group over another without consideration of merit is a flawed rule. Marred by an unforeseeable blind spot that nevertheless has generated distorted outcomes. These outcomes are not truly the byproduct of talent or work ethic but by technicalities that create illusory perceptions of actual skill.
After watching the documentary I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth V. Michelle Carter I came to a fairly superficial conclusion. I initially chose to watch this HBO mini-series for potential legal analysis. I plan to address those concerns in a later blog entry. Oddly, from a legal standpoint, this case is quite interesting. There wasn’t any previous case precedence in Massachusetts state history. Making this case one that explores uncharted waters. However, my observations are not about the legal facts of the case.
Conrad Roy III and Michelle Carter were two Massachusetts teens who had a highly toxic and co-dependent relationship. Both suffering from various forms of mental illness. Carter lived in a quasi-fantasyland. Blurring the line between romantic comedies and dramas with her relationship with Roy. Drawing parallels between their relationship and the ebbs-and-flows of numerous works of fiction. Even drifting down the perverse road of suicidal ideation. Hence, here aggressive attempts to coax Roy into killing himself. Carter almost took glee in the concept of the attention she would receive in the climatic event that Roy or Roy and herself had committed suicide. Her vision of being showered in attention was almost like a linear plot twist in play. The act of Roy killing himself was the divine Deus ex Machina to free him from the deepest depth of depression. Having the potential to satisfy the psychological pathology of both teens.
In one text message string, Carter details the romanticized depiction of the climatic end of Shakespeare’s Rome and Juliet. As we all, know both of the star-crossed teens end up dying in the end. Lying dead, right next to one another in the ultimate display of catharsis. Demonstrating to the quarreling families how petty their disputes truly were. It would be quite likely Carter saw some highly embellished similarities between the protagonists of the play and her relationship. Upon the documentary reviewing this string of text messages, my mind began to wander. I started to realize that the story of Romeo and Juliet if we strip all the emotional entrapment of romance is nothing more than an extended narrative detailing the Forbidden Fruit Effect. This phenomenon is also known as the Paradox of Temptation. Essentially, we desire what we cannot have.
This has economized instances of prohibited commodities. This principle is not confined merely to the illicit drug trade. During the cigar boom of the late-1990s and early 2000s, the U.S. demand for Cuban cigars skyrocket. To the extent that there was a major slump in quality. The one centralized tobacco producer for Cuba had to resort to using green tobacco and inferior quality control procedures to keep up with demand. It should be noted that the United States has had a trade embargo with Cuban since 1962. It’s hard to believe that much of the mystique of Cuban cigars to Americans isn’t influenced by them is a restricted product. We have seen a similar phenomenon with the legalization of recreational marijuana. What has been referred to as the “Green Rush”. A surge of sales for a product that has been legal and demonized in America for decades, that is now finally legal. To the naïve Cannabis user, the mystery behind its pharmacologic effects is enough of a draw to purchase Marijuana-related products. Would this romanticized image exist to the same capacity if Marijuana use was as ubiquitous as drinking beer? Most likely not. Most of the buzz and hype is levitating around pot because we have treated it as an unholy and deplorable vice for so long. Has only recently become fashionable (in the mainstream sense).
The story of Romeo and Juliet is if reduced to its most base level, a story about wanting what you can’t have. Due to the fact we steeped the narrative in a cloak of riveting romanticism, we forget that this isn’t purely a love store. Would Juliet be as appealing to Romeo if she was a member of a rival family? Couldn’t the same be said for Romeo? Granted, most of these pointed questions are a mix of a priori reasoning and loose conjecture. However, considering the flaws of human nature and the unfortunate fact we are attracted to what we can’t have. Analogous to a moth witlessly fly towards a flame. This seems to be an enduring characteristic of the human condition. Doesn’t matter whether it is two lustful teenagers in the Shakespearean-era or a 1920s Flapper enjoying an illicit gin-and-tonic. We want what we can’t have. Getting beyond the compelling drama of the vibrant and rebellious love affair between two teens, what are we left with? An engaging allegory fixated on desire. The drawbacks of pursuing everything we desire to possess.
This morning I felt particularly stir crazy from being cooped up in the house, so I decided to go to pick up some coffee. When I finally reached the drive-thru window, I was met by one of the employees. He began to detail to me how several local restaurants had employees who had contracted COVID-19. Even blatantly pointing out the window to the adjacent establishment. Claiming that the franchisee owner was going so far to cover it up to prevent a loss in business. Naturally, I was initially shocked by this individual’s candor. However, he made one fatal error which led me to start questioning the integrity of his accusations. He revealed the fact that he was a former employee of the adjacent building. Informing me that he knew both the owner and the manager well. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why this individual would have the incentives to levy such claims against the other business. For anyone out there that has been fired or layoff, you aren’t going to have too many kind words for the former employer that released you.
The employee I was conversing with stated he obtained this information from speaking with the present manager of the neighboring eatery. As implausible it may seem for the manager to disclose such information to an employee of a competitor will have to be dispensed with. It degenerates into nothing more than he said/ she said scenario. There isn’t enough evidence on either side to make a definite claim. So I will be charitable and give him the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that his statement about the other establishment was true. There may have been multiple motives for him informing me of this development in the local culinary scene. He may have felt some unbridled compulsion to inform of the potential hazard of dining at the other restaurant. He may have had personal moral code that would not allow him to withhold such information from innocent parties. Such as adhering to Kantian morality or having strong religious beliefs. Perhaps he is an admirer of George Washington. The conviction to want to shield innocent parties from exposure to COVID-19 is certainly a laudable objective. I would perceive this as the behavior of a Baptist.
Assuming the information was true and he possesses pure intentions for proliferating this news, he can be considered a Baptist. However, it is also possible for him to simultaneously be the Bootlegger as well? I would argue yes. As individuals, we can have multiple motives for engaging in an action. It isn’t outlandish to assume that he had subordinate motives for detailing to me that the neighboring establishment’s staff had tested positive for COVID-19. How does he benefit from disclosing knowledge to me? What are his incentives for doing so?
There are two potential self-seeking motives for his actions. The first reason would be attempting to enact vengeance on a former employer. Doing so by creating a rumor that damages their credibility in the community. If the purported facts are completely fictitious the Bootleggers and Baptists dynamic dissolves. Any pure intention is no longer present. The second reason for his shocking candor that sways into the territory of defamation would be increased job security. The pandemic has likely chewed into the profits of his current employer. To avoid getting laid off for budgetary reasons, he is attempting to divert business to his restaurant. Done out of self-interest and exhibiting behavior that is in line with that of a bootlegger.
Bruce Yandle’s concept of Bootleggers and Baptists was intended to demonstrate how unlikely coalitions are formed in the political arena. Considering we as humans can have multiple reasons for advocating for a policy or engaging in various forms of rent-seeking, it is possible for an act to severe in both roles. Providing they are being honest about their moralistic motives, but also stand to benefit from their attempt to influence public opinion. For instance, I could advocate for a ban on smoking in public parks. Truly feel that I am attempting to save others from the health effects of secondhand smoke. At the same time also be advocating for a smoking ban because I dislike cigarette smoke. The roles of Bootleggers and Baptists are not always mutually exclusive.
It is analogous to the ID and Superego allying. Both are satisfied with the cause and both are the deep-rooted psychoanalytical manifestations of the Baptists and the Bootlegger. When an individual strikes a balance between their hyper-moralistic inclinations and darker impulses they can assume both roles. When avarice and morality align themselves in the intentions of one person this phenomenon becomes possible. Yes, this application of Yandle’s trope does exercise a bit of artistic license. However, Yandle never said that individuals couldn’t form coalitions within themselves. Doing so by combining various rationals for advocacy and then vocalizing them. Typically under the guise of concern for the moral imperative of the situation.
The recent findings regarding the validity of the Stanford Prison Experiment have been disappointing. Even on a personal level. While the study was morally questionable it was one of my favorite studies. In college, I majored in psychology. I found myself particularly drawn to social psychology. Naturally, my social psychology textbook dedicated several pages to the Stanford Prison Experiment. Despite the litany of ethical questions and procedural constraints that have spawned from SPE and the infamous Milgram’s Experiment, the controversial studies have always been the most intriguing to me.
When I was younger often flippantly reducing the ethical considerations to mere inconveniences. As I have gotten older, I have begun to take the ethics of research more seriously. Veering away from a sterile utilitarian mentality to one that holds the rights of the subjects in high esteem. Needless to say, I had to reluctantly acquiesce the fact that one of the most interesting studies conducted in the history of psychological research was a fraud. In science when new fact-based developments come to surface we must except them tentatively until proven otherwise. Even when the facts do not comport with our interests or opinions.
Even though it is reasonable to suspect that the Stanford Prison Experiment was fabricated, are any of the results salvable? The results certainly are not scientifically valid nor can be generalized. That is a difficult question to answer. An exact replication of this study is out of the question. As the purveyor of the Prior Probability blog has mentioned in the comments section of part II, ethical constraints prohibit an exact replication. However, in the United Kingdom, an amended version of the study was conducted back in 2001. Typically referred to as the “BBC Prison Experiment“. This more ethically amenable study did not fully verify the results of Zimbardo’s 1971 study. In 2018, Zimbardo came back and criticized the UK experiment and cited a 1979 study that mirrored his results. Such back-peddling can only be met with incredulity considering the ample evidence that Zimbardo heavily manipulated the results of his 1971 “experiment”.
Philip Zimbardo’s desired results do dovetail to our initiative assumptions about authority. We have all heard the expression of being “drunk on power”. It was the great Lord Acton that once said:
Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority…
It is quite evident that an implied potential for abusing authority is embedded in the human psyche. The problem becomes determining whether this qualitative attribution is factual or illusory. To do so through scientific means is downright cumbersome. Attempts to quantify an inherently qualitative value judgment is difficult. However, there seems to be quite a bit of anecdotally/observational evidence that does point in the direction of Zimbardo’s findings. The unfortunate aspect of observations is that we cannot deduce the prime cause of the observed occurrence. It is possible that the root cause could be an unobservable variable or our observation is clouded by bias.
The instances of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison would appear to be observational evidence congenial to Zimbardo’s results. Per a 2012 paper written by Kristin Richardson, the situational context of the Abu Ghraib prison may explain the behavior of the guards. Suggesting that the fact that senior leadership was complicit in the controversy for fostering an environment where such human rights violations can take place (p.76-77). This lack of oversight being prevalent in other areas of interacting with prisoners of war such as interrogation. Richardson also cites what is known as the Thomas Theorem for addressing how the soldiers guarding the detainees at Abu Ghraib could resort to inhumane measures. This theorem asserts that reality is a mental construct and that reality is real because we believe it is (p.9). Leading to the assumption that the guards did lose a sense of consensus reality while in prison. Started to relax their moral precepts to accept the role of an uncompromisingly tough prison guard. Keeping potential terrorists in-check. Providing some qualitative confirmation about Zimbardo’s assumptions regarding the behavior of the guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment.
Having an understanding of the human mind, I understand how powerful it is. It has the capability of making a delusion a reality. Reinforcing the observations asserted in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave thousands of years before the advent of neuroscience. People can get caught up in a fabricated reality. To not only believe they can get away with abusing prisoners but to believe they are justified. This distortion of reality being triggered by the context of the environment. That does not mean that reality is a complete construct. The fact that there is a consensus reality is a clue that not every aspect of experience is subjective. We merely interpret concrete reality through sensory input creating the spectrum of deviations. As intriguing as Richardson’s insights are they still do not provide us with any causal inferences. Due to ethical and methodological concerns, we may never be able to validate these observations scientifically.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is arguably one of the most famous studies in the discipline of social psychology. Mentioning the study by name generally evokes images of the darker side of the human condition. As you can see from my previous essay detailing the reported qualitative details of the study. Dr. Zimbardo’s controversial study garnered much attention to the ethical considerations of psychological research. While the study has been widely cited and profoundly influential in recent years it has come under fire. Back in 2018, journalist Ben Blum, published an expose scrutinizing the validity of Zimbardo’s work. Exposing major methodological flaws that most likely compromised the results. Even inferring that Zimbardo attempted to manipulate variables to influence the results.
Could one of psychology’s most well known and influential studies be completely invalid? Contrived and orchestrated like a school play? Such a determination veers into murky waters. It can be said confidentially that Zimbarado’s methods were flawed From the standpoint of methodology, the ethical considerations are a whole other subject. When applying the scientific method to research it is imperative to control for any confounding variables. This is the only way to confirm that the results are being impacted by the variables being manipulated by the experimenter. Otherwise, the results fall victim to the third variable problem. Making it impossible to derive causation from the results of the study. At the very least Zimbardo was derelict in regards to preventing outside factors from contaminating the results.
From a methodologically the Stanford Prison Experiment suffers from poor data collect, faulty participant selection, and the demand characteristics of the study.
Poor Data Collection:
Anyone who has read Zimbardo’s 1971 paper can tell you two characteristics are striking. The first being the unorthodox composition of the paper. The second being the paucity of hard data. The details of the paper are almost entirely qualitative. Making the term experiment an unfitting title for the study. French researcher Thibault Le Texier would most likely agree. In his paper, Debunking The Stanford Prison Experiment, he highlights many of the methodological flaws in the study. His research reveals that only 15% of the total “experiment” was recorded. “6 hr of video and 15 hr
of audio” out of the total 150 hours devoted to the experiment. No data was collected during day three of the study (p.12). Such gaps in data collection can only put the results of the study in question. Without sufficient data, the researchers are merely speculating. Presenting speculation as scientific findings are intellectually dishonest and problematic.
A touchstone of scientific inquiry is the ability to control for confounding variables. Extraneous variables that influence attributes being studied and swaying the results. How do we know that the results of Zimbardo’s study were truly due to the situational conditions of being granted unfettered authority over other people? Unfortunately, we cannot. Per Le Texier’s archival research Zimbardo “collected very little personal information about the participants”(p.12). This is profoundly problematic if we are expected to draw causal results from this study. Zimbardo neglecting to collect adequate background information on the subjects generates more questions than answers. The cruel behavior of the guards may have been influenced by factors other than the situation. For example personality traits, political beliefs, religious convictions, etc. Not collecting such preliminary data not only skews the results but is just plain sloppy. Any experienced researcher should have known better to be so cavalier.
It has also come to surface that Zimbardo did not collect any data from actual prisons. Again, another fault in data collection that prevents these findings from being generalized. Without data from prisons, it is difficult to not only have an accurate understanding of typical behavior in these environments, but nothing to compare the results. Yes, you could utilize behavior before the experimental conditions as a baseline. However, this does little if you are seeking to make universal claims about the behavioral dynamics of prisons. In the absence of this information how can really can’t. The results could be atypical for the average prison.
The experiment suffered from one fatal error from the very beginning that could have impacted the results. Zimbardo placed an advertisement in the local paper requesting volunteers for a prison experiment (p.2). Even providing the detail of the study is a “prison” experiment in the process of soliciting participants allows extraneous variables to creep in. Contaminating the results. Individuals who may be interested in a prison study may skew towards people with a specific personality type, ideological convictions, or other proclivities. Thereby generating an applicant pool that may be predisposed towards authoritarian tendencies. As unlikely as this sounds considering we are talking about a group of college kids in the 1970’s California, it cannot be ruled out. It cannot be ruled out because Zimbardo failed to shield the study from self-selection. This concern would even be a talking point if Zimbardo had merely request for participants for a study versus a “prison study”.
Speaking of an experiment taking place in a prestigious university in the 1970’s California, that is a really specific and unique time and place. Bringing to light another question, the generalization of participants. Generally, when you select subjects for a study, you want the pool of applicants to be as diverse as possible. Why? More diversity greatly reduces the likelihood of sampling error. The general population of the United States is extremely diverse. To reflect this, you need a diverse pool of participants to randomly select from. Otherwise, you run the risk of potentially selecting subjects that maybe all have similar characteristics that do not reflect the overall population. The greater the number and diversity of subjects any peculiarities tend to washout, averaging results that can be generalized. Would a bunch of college students presumably attending Stanford be a good representation of the American population? By any metric or measure that would be a resounding no!
Demand Characteristics in an experiment are “ques” that subconsciously influence the behavior of the subjects. For example, knowing the experimenter’s expectations or desired results impacting participant behavior. Once again, Zimbardo was derelict in his duty as a researcher to avoid such issues. Zimbardo expressed what his expected and desired outcomes were for the experiment to the guards during orientation (p.5). The guards also expressed feeling as if they were being “watched and filmed” (p.8). It is quite evident that when feel as if we are being observed we are more apt to behave differently. Especially when the lead experimenter has already expressed his opinions about the potential results. This fact is solidified in the testimony of Guard #1:
He wrote to Zimbardo, 3 months after the experiment, “I was always acting [. .] I
was always very conscious of the responsibility involved in the guards’ and the experimenters’ positions; I mentioned this to various people at various times, including to you during the debriefing” (Guard 1, 1971b). He wrote to him again, 3 months later,
I consciously felt that for the experiment to be at all useful ‘guards’ had to act something like guards.
[. . .] I felt that the experiment was important and my being ‘guard-like’ was part of finding out how people react to real oppression. (Guard 1,1972, p. 5)
(Le Texier, 2019, p. 8)
Unfortunately, it is speculated that to a certain extent the study was scripted and fabricated. Extends beyond the concerns of demand characteristics. Le Texier found that Zimbardo had prewritten conclusions for the study (p.13). There is ample evidence that the experimenters had conditioned the prisoners and guards in how to behave (p.10). Explaining to the participants how to behave in the context of the experiment. Zimbardo and the other researchers claim that the cruel behavior of the guards to have occurred organically is beyond spurious. Especially when the subjects were being coached. To make matters worse, the experiments even played an active role in the experiment. Removing themselves from the role of impartial observers. The role of warden was played by one of Zimbardo’s experimenters.
What was the Stanford Prison Experiment:
The Stanford Prison Experiment was a study conducted on August 14th through 20th of 1971 by Philip Zimbardo, Craig Haney, W. Curtis Banks, and David Jaffe. The lead researcher Zimbardo embarked upon this study to examine how situational factors and authority could lead to normal people engaging in abhorrent behavior. The researchers placed an advertisement in the local paper looking for volunteers for the experiment. The researchers performed psychological evaluations to make sure that the participants were healthy and not suffering from previous mental conditions. Then they were arrested by actual Palo Alto police officers. Underwent standard booking procedures and were taken to a basement on the Stanford campus. Out of the eighteen participants nine were assigned to be guards and the other nine were prisoners. The roles were randomly assigned by a coin toss.
The guards stripped the prisoners naked and sprayed them down with delousing spray. The prisoners were then dressed in jumpsuits (without undergarments) and provided nylon stockings to wear on their heads to mimic the practice of head-shaving in prisons. Each prisoner was assigned a number and was only referred to by their number. The guards periodically took counts on the faux-inmates. The inmates went to the bathroom in buckets and were escorted by the guards to the makeshift facilities. Generally with a bag over their heads. The subjects that were assigned to the role of guards purportedly developed their own rules for governing the mock prison. These “guard” devised parameters included punishments such as limitations on food, solitary confinement, and push-ups. As time went on the severity of guard sanction punishments increased drastically. Even include instances of sexual humiliation ranging from forcing the prisoners to remove their clothes to even forcing them to simulate sodomy. Such displays of cruelty were lead by the sadistic ring-leader David Eshelman, referred to by the prisoners as “John Wayne”.
Due to the concern about the well being of the subjects Zimbardo cut the experiment short. It was originally planned to run for two weeks and was ended after six days. By day five one of the prisoners had developed a rash that was assumed to be psychosomatic. Engendered by the psychological distress (p.14) Instanced of prisoners who refused to eat being force feed by guards. Then there was the story of prisoner 819.
The only prisoner who did not want to speak to the priest was prisoner
#819 who was feeling sick and had refused to eat…While talking to us he broke down and began to cry hysterically, ..While I was doing this one of the guards lined up all of the prisoners and had them chant aloud.
As soon as I realized that #819 was hearing all this, I raced into the room where I had left him, and what I found(66)was a boy crying hysterically while in the background his fellow prisoners were yelling and chanting that he was a bad prisoner…
“OK, let’s leave.” Through his tears, he said to me, “No, I can’t leave.” He could not leave because the others had labeled him a bad prisoner. Even though he was feeling sick, he was willing to go back into that prison to prove that he was not a bad
prisoner. (Zimbardo, Haney, Banks & Jaffe. 1971. P. 12.)
Let’s Take a Ride Down to Abilene:
As the old saying goes often we”… go along to get along…” in order to avoid conflict. However, is harmony coerced by social pressure really the best approach to decision making? Especially when the stakes are high? All too frequently we end up making decisions that conform to our peers and superiors reflecting the phenomena known as groupthink. What happens when a group of individuals makes decisions predicated upon the assumed preferences of the group? For good measure let us add the hypothetical dimension that all the other members of the group do the same; however, no one truly believes that they are making a good decision. Yet collectively as a group, they proceed despite their misgivings.
The recently detailed scenario sounds completely absurd. Such a situation is antithetical to reason and too farfetched to be a common occurrence. In reality, it is exceedingly common. The prevalence of this phenomenon spans the pressure cookers of boardrooms and battlefields to the bedroom. Exampflying the fact while humans have the capacity for reason, we are not inherently reasonable. This fallacy afflicting internal group dynamics goes by the moniker of The Abilene Paradox. The phrase was first coined by a social psychologist and professor of management science by Jerry Harvey in 1974 .
Professor Harvey named the paradox after an ill-fated drive to a cafeteria in Abilene, Texas. Harvey, his wife, and his in-laws had spent the hot July afternoon playing dominoes and drinking lemonade. Then Harvey’s father-in-law makes the suggestion to make the 106 miles/ round trip to the cafeteria in Abilene. Did I mention it was 104 degrees Fahrenheit on that very afternoon? Plus, per Professor Harvey:
I thought, “What, go to Abilene? Fifty-three miles? In this dust storm and heat? And in an unairconditioned 1958 Buick?” 
Certainly has all the ingredients for a joyful road trip, doesn’t it? Oppressive heat and dangerously inclement weather, unfortunately, circumstances don’t improve. The food was abhorrently bad so much so that Harvey stated:
The food at the cafeteria provided first-rate testimonial material for antacid commercials. 
After the long and daunting trip back to Coleman, Texas there was a long bout of Silence among Harvey and his reluctant journey companions. Harvey then sparks a contentious conversation by blurting out ““It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” . Unwittingly, spurring an argument that raged until the wee hours of the morning. The truth reared its ugly head, no one really wanted to undertake the pilgrimage to Abilene for subpar food. Rather, everyone agreed to well based upon the assumption that everyone else really wanted to go. Once the truth came to light tempers flared and finger-pointing ensued.
Why Are We Susceptible to Such a Fallacy?
While many may see the Abilene Paradox as a predominately psychological phenomenon, I would personally classify it as a logical fallacy with a strong basis in psychology. Acting upon a set of information you know is faulty or that will lead to ruin is the abdication of reason. Even if agreeing with the group is intended to appease everyone, it will invariably yield detrimental results. We attempt to rationalize such an erroneous abandonment of consequential commonsense by reassuring ourselves that we are conforming to the will of our peers and superiors. Not only are we making an error in judgment by agreeing to actions that we already know will yield poor results, but it is also incorrect to assume that all parties are on board. Each of the individuals in the car ride to Abilene did not have sufficient evidence to conclude that they were the odd-man-out. The only one with apprehensions about taking the long and arduous trip to a third-rate cafeteria. It was patently obvious that the conditions were a recipe for a miserable trip, but no one spoke up. Odds are if something is saliently problematic you aren’t the only individual who thinks so.
“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” 
This Japanese proverb does not lend itself to sound and pragmatic decisions in the boardroom. However, it does provide some insight into why we surrender our facilities to such absurdity. Professor Harvey makes the counterintuitive claim that this paradox arises from mismanagement of agreement rather than from conflict . Harvey views this being at the core of this perplexing quirk of human interaction with 6 sub- symptoms.
1. Organization members agree privately, as individuals, as to the nature of the situation or problem facing the organization. For example, members of the Abilene group agreed that they were enjoying themselves sitting in front of the fan, sipping lemonade, and playing dominoes.
2. Organization members agree privately, as individuals, as to the steps that would be required to cope with the situation or problem they face. For members of the Abilene group “more of the same” was a solution that would have adequately satisfied their individual and collective desires.
3. Organization members fail to accurately communicate their desires and/or beliefs to one another. In fact, they do just the opposite and thereby lead one another into misperceiving the collective reality. Each member of the Abilene group, for example, communicated inaccurate data to other members of the organization. The data, in effect, said, “Yeah, it’s a great idea. Let’s go to Abilene, ” when in reality members of the organization individually and collectively preferred to stay in Coleman.
4. With such invalid and inaccurate information, organization members make collective decisions that lead them to take actions contrary to what they want to do, and thereby arrive at results that are counterproductive to the organization’s intent and purposes. Thus, the Abilene group went to Abilene when it preferred to do something else.
5. As a result of taking actions that are counterproductive, organization members experience frustration, anger, irritation, and dissatisfaction with their organization. Consequently, they form subgroups with trusted acquaintances and blame other subgroups for the organization’s dilemma. Frequently, they also blame authority figures and one another. Such phenomena were illustrated in the Abilene group by the “culprit” argument that occurred when we had returned to the comfort of the fan.
6. Finally, if organization members do not deal with the generic issue — the inability to manage agreement —the cycle repeats itself with greater intensity. The Abilene group, for a variety of reasons, the most important of which was that it became conscious of the process, did not reach that point. (Page 4) 
It is important to remember that while the Abilene Paradox is applicable to a variety of different situations Harvey oriented towards business management. Due to the fact that at the time he was a professor of management science. The underlying pattern of sub-symptoms stems from faulty assumptions and a lack of clear and honest communication. These deficits enable the paradox to occur often leading to pathologic group dynamics until resolution has been reached. The irony is an attempt to circumvent conflict resulting in fracturing and finger-pointing. At the heart of all of the internal frustration is the unfulfilled wish that someone articulated their concerns sooner.
On a deeper level, the paradox examples our deep longing to fostering and maintain relationships. Connections ranging from friendships to professional relationships. Even the bitter hermit hopes for sincere companionship. Aristotle, the renown classical philosopher, pontificated upon the virtues of friendship. Connecting with other people has proven itself to be an enduring human yearning. Even the sterile confines of a corporate boardroom can relinquish the pursuit of peer approval. Circling back to the previously quoted Japanese proverb, it may yield shoddy advice in the realm of decision making, but provides great insight into the human condition. Being “nailed down” is being ridiculed by our peers. Being “nailed down” is being ostracized for expressing an unpopular opinion. No one wants to be the thrid-wheel or the weirdo. Despite any defense mechanism utilized to combat being maligned by your peers, it is merely a means to cope. Not a reflection of reality. Smoke and mirrors.
Professor Harvey reflects upon this fact of humanity and how it is connected to the Abilene Paradox. Professor Harvey:
One is tempted to say that the core of the paradox lies in the individual’s fear of the unknown. Actually, we do not fear what is unknown, but we are afraid of things we do know about. What do we know about that frightens us into such apparently inexplicable organizational behavior? Separation, alienation, and loneliness are things we do know about —and fear. Both research and experience indicate that ostracism is one of the most powerful punishments that can be devised. Solitary confinement does not draw its coercive strength from physical deprivation. The evidence is overwhelming that we have a fundamental need to be connected, engaged, and related and a reciprocal need not to be separated or alone. Everyone of us, though, has experienced aloneness. From the time the umbilical cord was cut, we have experienced the real anguish of separation —broken friendships, divorces, deaths, and exclusions. C. P. Snow vividly described the tragic interplay between loneliness and connection (Pages 9-10) .
The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions:
Our intentions and outcomes are independent of one another and it is a cumbersome reality to come to terms with. Even actions with the most beneficent of intentions can yield heinously awful results. For instance, U.S. military officials thought it would be a really keen idea to oust Saddam Hussein out of power in Bagdad. The idea of freeing a constituency from decades of tyranny seems superficially Nobel. However, the region never became stable to sustain a democracy resulting in a power vacuum. Creating an opportunity for any gang, terrorist cell, or tribe bloodthirst enough to go the extra mile to seize power. Despite anyone’s intentions or motives, it was a complete disaster. Tax dollars squandered and lives expended for a failed socio-politico experiment. While I am not a full-on consequentialist, I still believe that outcomes are morally imperative in the decision-making process. Ignorance does not excuse any externalities incurred especially when it comes to the loss of life.
While a road trip to an abominable cafeteria may seem like a frivolous example of bad decision-making it merely the allegory for a grander concept. It is the applicability of the story that makes it important. Professor Harvey even demonstrates how the paradox was applicable to the Watergate Scandal . The scandal in the eyes of many Americans compromised the presidency in an irreversible fashion. Meaning that it eroded the trust in arguably the most powerful decision-maker in the free world. While institutional transparency is important it is eclipsed by the decision of going to war. The stakes are much higher! The lives of your constituents are on the line. The circumstances precipitating such a decision need be beyond justified, due to the levity of the consequences. The true tragedy becomes when someone in Congress votes for a war that none of his constituents wanted (a conflict he even had reservations about entering) and then his constituents vocally support the war to appear patriotic. The Abilene Paradox can apply to decisions ranging from going to war or something as mundane as where to grab some dinner.