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'Human Behavior Experiments': Schools for Scandal


He made the Oscar-nominated documentary, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Now Director Alex Gibney looks at why people are susceptible to unethical behavior. His new documentary, The Human Behavior Experiments airs tonight on both Court TV and the Sundance Channel. Here's TV critic Andrew Wallenstein.

Mr. ANDREW WALLENSTEIN (The Hollywood Reporter): I know it sounds preposterous but imagine getting a call at work from someone posing as a police officer. He tells you an employee has stolen some money and he wants you to detain the suspect. He then proceeds to order you to conduct a strip search that amounts to sexual abuse. That's not possible, right? Well, it did happen, at least 70 times in various places around the country.

It's a bizarre scam recounted in the new documentary, Human Behavior Experiments. Gibney goes on to help viewers understand how the average citizen could be compelled by a complete stranger to do terrible things. This fascinating and kind of frightening documentary draws mostly on footage taken from the experiments done in the 1960s and '70s by pioneering social scientists such as Stanley Milgram. In this interview, Milgram cites the atrocities committed during the Holocaust as the inspiration behind his research.

Mr. STANLEY MILGREM (Social Scientist): When I learn of incidents such as the massacre of millions of men, women and children perpetrated by the Nazi's in World War II, how is it possible, I ask myself, that ordinary people who were courteous and decent and everyday life can act callously, inhumanely, without any limitations of conscience? Now, there are some studies in my discipline, social psychology, that seem to provide a clue to this question.

Mr. WALLENSTEIN: Milgram is famous for his 1961 experiment demonstrating how simply blind obedience could be elicited. His subjects continued to deliver what they were told was lethal electric shocks to an unseen individual just because that's what they were instructed to do. Even scarier than reels of Mailgram's work are images of the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. In this experiment, subjects were told to simulate a prison. They took it way too far, forcing prisoners to do everything from sleeping on the floor naked to compelling them to perform homosexual acts of humiliation. As some of the participants recalled here, it provided an eerie precursor to the Abu Gharib prison scandal decades later.

Mr. MILGREM: The photographs were strikingly familiar to the photographs that we had taken, many of the photographs I had taken in the prison study.

They didn't do any stuff that you see in Abu Gharib where they, you know, get in a big pile or something like that, but they certainly subjected them to all kinds of humiliations. I don't know what I would have done myself. Given enough time, we could have gotten there.

Mr. WALLENSTEIN: Over and over, human behavior experiments hammers home a rather chilling point, that acts of evil aren't necessarily executed by uniquely depraved individuals, but ordinary people caught in a perfect storm of easily-manipulated circumstances. Credit Gibney's documentary for illuminating the darkest corners of human psychology, where it needs it most.

CHADWICK: Andrew Wallenstein is an editor for The Hollywood Reporter. He's also co-host of Square Off on the TV Guide channel. The Human Behavior Experiments airs tonight on both Court TV and the Sundance Channel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Wallenstein
Andrew Wallenstein is the television critic for NPR's Day to Day. He is also an editor at The Hollywood Reporter, where he covers television and digital media out of Los Angeles. Wallenstein is also the co-host of the weekly TV Guide Channel series Square Off. His essay on Holocaust films was published in Best Jewish Writing 2003 (Jossey-Bass), and he has also written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Business Week. He has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.