Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Milgram Experiment, the Bystander Effect, and the Vancouver Riot

The Milgram experiments of the 60s were part of a study on human social psychology, specifically how individuals react to authority figures.  In the actual experiment, the test subject was given a button which they were told would deliver a nasty electric shock to an unseen participant (actually a voice recording).  The experimenter would ask a series of questions to the unseen participant and would direct the test subject to push the button, while increasing the voltage for each incorrect answer.

With successive shocks, the unseen participant can be heard reacting in pain, often banging against the wall and complaining of a heart condition. If at any point, the test subject raised any objections, the experimenter would prompt the test subject to continue, while assuring the test subject that he or she would not be held responsible for whatever happened.  The experiment would end if the test subject refused to continue or if the test subject delivered a fatal or incapacitating shock.

Given the morals and ethics behind such an action, researchers polled initially believed that only 1 to 3% would be willing to deliver a fatal shock to the unseen participant. The first time the experiment was conducted, 26 out of 40 test subjects were willing to deliver a fatal shock (65%). The experiment has been duplicated several times, each time indicating a surprising percentage of people who were willing to carry out these actions within the scenario, most of whom (if not all) were your average, everyday law-abiding citizen. The test subjects who delivered a supposedly fatal shock also expressed discomfort, yet proceeded anyway.

Stanley Milgram (the psychologist for whom the experiments are named) created the experiment in response to a recent trial of a Nazi war criminal. While not necessarily a defense (ie: "I was following orders"), the findings do have some very interesting (if disturbing) implications for human nature. Indeed, how does one explain why average ordinary citizens who would never steal or murder, are prone to be willing to commit these acts when thrust into specific situations?

As an ardent info-junkie, I've been regularly following the news on the Vancouver Riot ever since the first car was set on fire. As the city has been working to rebuild their now-tarnished image, the courts are trying to bring certain individuals to justice while social media is actively working to identify and shame the individuals responsible for the riot.

The initial assessment from the Vancouver mayor and the Vancouver chief of police were that the riot was the work of recognized anarchists who specifically came to the downtown area specifically intent on causing trouble, and surely enough, some of them were recognized as the same ones that came to Vancouver during the 2010 Olympics specifically to vandalize the city.  And yes, people specifically came to the downtown core with weapons, Molotov cocktails, and other tools of destruction, and would thus represent a very small segment of the people who came to watch the Canucks lose play.

What caught a few people off guard was the fact that the bulk of the people being formally charged with related crimes (assault, arson, vandalism, inciting a riot, etc.) do not fit the "typical" profile of a serial rioter. None of them have prior arrest records, and are often saying that they were "caught in the moment" (or variations to that effect).  This was one of the reasons given by one Camille Cancino, who was caught looting from a Black & Lee formal wear store in her widely-slammed apology (which she has since edited to remove any sort of justification or explanation for her actions).

I'm not quite ready to make up my mind on the public digital shaming thing yet.  In this Web 2.0 era and proliferation of cameras on cell phones, it was inevitable that anyone doing acts of destruction and violence would be caught on camera and identified, so anybody who was down there really should've known better. 

In the intervening week and a half since the city burned, I read everything I could about it, from blogs to editorials to Facebook groups. There's a wide mix of emotions, with blind rage being the most prominent.  It has certainly motivated a lot of social network mavens to identify the people who were involved in this, which has led to several of them turning themselves in, while also giving proper due to the rare heroes of downtown who were attempting to stem the damage.  At the same time, it's also brought about reactions towards some involved individuals which seem disproportionate, such as the death threats towards the family of Nathan Kotylak, prompting them to flee their home. 

A general public this angry clearly wants their pound of flesh, but to them, I propose this: You can have either satisfy your bloodlust, or the guilty parties can repay their debts to society. You cannot have both. 

The relative ease at which typically law-abiding people are capable of committing criminal acts when thrust in certain situations would suggest that this is much less of a black and white issue than the purveyors of social media justice are making it out to be. This is not to excuse any of them, as most the people left the area as soon as the game was over.  But I ask, if 65% of people are able to deliver a fatal electric shock to a complete stranger, how culpable are people in this situations, and what is an appropriate way for the judiciary system to deal with them?  In this case, maybe a philosophy degree might have more use than a law degree.

Again, this is not an excuse for these people.  This was a shameful act against the people who have worked hard to make the city the way it is, whether it be the business owners, tax payers, or the public services (ie: police, firefighters, ambulatory services), and things like this should never be allowed to occur again. However, I'm not really for living in a police state, and the years following the last hockey riot, Vancouver got dubbed as a "no fun city."

As people are trying to make sense of the whole Vancouver riot, there are lots of theories, whether it's herd instinct and the bystander effect, piss-poor parenting, our narcissistic and materialistic world view, failure to establish a sense of responsibility and morals among a frustrated youth, strong identification with our hockey team, or whatever. Or maybe there are just some people out there who want to see the world burn and know how easily the razor thin veneer of civilization can shatter.

If the same types of people came to our next big event (like the off-hand chance that the Canucks make it to the 2012 finals), it's not likely that we'll be seeing a repeat of the Vancouver Riot, given how fresh the memories are.  But if it's another 17 years until another SCF, people will definitely have forgotten and a new generation of youth will be ready to riot as soon as a car is overturned.

One way we can prevent this is if we have better education about this, to remind the people what happens when people act as passive observers, and how susceptible people are to influence.  As part of the judgments handed down towards participants in the riots, if their sentences include community service, it should be mandatory that they give talks to local high schools to tell of their experiences, especially as to how it relates to the online shaming campaigns.  An active effort to educate people about the bystander effect and actually promote the idea of standing up for what's right might help, or at least stem some of the damage caused by things like this.

But these are just ideas. Anyone know who can implement this?

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm a little tired of hearing how Vancouver is a 'no-fun city'. I think the problem is with the people, not the city. I find plenty of fun things to do - this is the best city for entertainment I've ever lived in and I've lived in a few. I don't understand how you can be bored here.

Apparently we can't have large groups gather here. Too many people can't handle it. The rioters and looters should be on graffiti patrol for a couple years - and there's planty of garbage that could be picked up around the city. There's lots of dirty alleys downtown that could be cleaned up.

Maybe if we can teach children some civic pride that comes from within (like being lucky just to live here) instead of without (the Canuck's winning)then they'd be better citizens. Maybe if we teach our children to think of how their actions affect the other people and the world around them then they'd think and act decently.

It's up to the new generation of parents now. Remember to teach your children well. They need your time, your strength, your discipline, your lessons learned, and NOT your friendship. Being a parent is a tough JOB.

Your kid doesn't need 10 kinds of activities, 5 kinds of electronic entertainment, social media up the wazoo. They need good family interaction to develop good social responsibility. And they need it from beginning to end. Don't let go too fast!