February 4

Zimbardo’s class has some of the weirdest sections. Today we practice sneaking a proposed experiment past the ethics review board by distorting your description of it. This makes some sense — Zimbardo’s famed prison experiment apparently led to a tightening of ethics review board rules, so he can’t be much of a fan — but the irony comes in when they explain why we’re doing this exercise: it turns out the ethics committee provided some funding for the class, so we have to do an exercise about ethics.

The way the exercise works is they give us an experiment description and then we present it to the class in a way so that it doesn’t sound half-bad. But to make things worse, a handwritten note scrawled at the bottom of the description explains what really happened after the study was approved. (Ours was the relatively well-known Robber’s Cave experiment where kids on a summer camp trip were divided into groups to fight each other. According to the notes, the kids began killing each other or somehthing.)

Growing up, you hear a very idealized picture of society in which organizations are honest and hard-working and democratic. In particular, the nation’s elite universities sound like these incredible bastions of education, teaching people the great knowledge of our times, gathering the world’s finest minds, creating an experience that is worth tens of thousands of dollars a year.

It’s all completely absurd. As just one example, today’s psychology class was spent showing us an episode of a PBS documentary (The Secret Life of the Brain, “The Child’s Brain: Syllable From Sound”), and not even one that this department made. (And it took them ten minutes to get it working. Prepare these things ahead of time, people!) The documentary is so absurd, that the kids just begin laughing at its blatant stupidity.

Afterward, I am hit by inspiration for how to open a piece I’m writing. I rush to the computer to type it in and the words come out so perfectly, with just the right emotionally-lade pauses, that I can imagine Ira Glass saying them. I’m definitely going to give this piece as a talk some day. I break for lunch but keep coming up with improvements in wording while I eat. I run back again and type them all in before it’s time to meet with my PWR (writing) teacher.

I really like the teacher, a professional playwright. In his office, we have the fast, funny banter I didn’t think I was capable of. He suggests that I try for more subtlety in my writing — not hammering home my points, explaining some of what the other side says — and thinks this could bring it to the next level. As I walk back thinking about it, I tend to agree.

Happy, and a little hungry, I eat the cookie I brought back from lunch. I almost never eat cookies but I decide to give myself a treat. I start reading the blogs and notice myself absent-mindedly scratching my hands. I look down and they’re all red. They start to hurt. I jump up and pace for a bit, before deciding to put some hand lotion on them. But I feel that’s not quite right; something more serious is wrong.

Then I notice that there are small bumps where the redness is. My arms start to itch and the bumps pop up there too. I’m starting to get scared. My stomach begins to itch and with trepidation I lift up my shirt. Bumps there too! I’m really freaking out. My back, my forehead start itching and I start spinning around in a panic.

Freaked out, I call my Mom. It’s hives, she explains, I need some Benadryl. I look through my drawer but I don’t have any; I have to go to the shop. But I haven’t spoken to my mom or answered or emails in weeks and she’s not going to let me off the phone so fast. I try to talk as things get worse. Finally, I’m free.

I spring towards the little shop in the student center, but have to stop running after a couple feet: my neckache is returning. I also feel a little lightheaded. I eventually get to the shop, but the line is really long. I get at the end, trying not to scratch.

I start to feel dizzy. And then my vision begins to fuzz out, like a television when the cord isn’t connected all the way, static invades on my view and my head gets all warm. I try to sit down and eventually the problem moves from my eyes to my ears, where I hear a sort of buzz and it feels as if my ears are collapsing. Then it goes away and the cycle starts anew: dizzy, eyes, ears. I wonder if this is what it feels like to be on drugs.

I finally get to the line when its in between dizzy and eyes. “Can I get some Benadryl?” I say. I’ve rehearsed this line over and over in my head, saying it to myself as I try to remain conscious. “What?” she says. I say it again, louder. She goes to get it and I fumble for my wallet. When she comes back I hand her a ten and cradle my head in my hands. At some point, I realize she’s waiting for me to take the change and wake up. “Sorry,” I stammer, realizing how bizarre my behavior must seem. “That’s OK,” she says. “Sit down.” I scoop up everything I can and walk quickly to a chair outside. Everything seems so surreal. I can’t believe this is happening.

The dizziness eventually passes and I pop a Benadryl out of its little package and swallow. The hives seem to be going away too.

It’s not hard to see how this could have gone an entirely different way. The scary outbreak of hives could have been seen as evidence of some sort of demonic possession; the visual and auditory problems a sign of my struggle to become free, the subsequent cure as evidence of my success. And there is sort of a type of thinking (I’m not sure what it’s called; postmodern?) that argues what happened to me is much the same, except we have new fancy names for the demons and a simpler way of fighting them. I don’t buy into such claims but it’s worth spending a moment to understand why they’re false and seeing if we consistently apply those techniques that make us different.

I’ll let you do that on your own. I’m going to lie down.

posted February 27, 2005 01:48 AM (Education) (4 comments) #


Intellectual Diversity at Stanford
Stanford: Shocking
Stanford: Sanity
David Horowitz on Academic Freedom
Stanford: Reach Out and Hug Someone
Stanford: Allergic Reactions
Stanford: Limerick
Stanford: Psychology is a Fraud
Jimbo Wales on Wikipedia
Stanford: Roosevelt Institution Kickoff Party
Stanford: You Really Don’t Have To Read This


Hi, I was interested by your description of the Robbers Cave Experiment, so I decided to do some research: from what I can tell no boys were killed in the process, and it was actually decently successful in the end :-/ this website, http://www.age-of-the-sage.org/psychology/social/sherif_robbers_cave_experiment.html ,seems to have a pretty good description of the event. :)

posted by Melinda at February 27, 2005 11:10 AM #

Some possibilities:

  1. I misread/misremembered the hand-written notation.
  2. It wasn’t actually the Robber’s Cave experiment but something just like it — a reproduction, perhaps?
  3. The handwritten bit was there to fool us.

posted by Aaron Swartz at February 27, 2005 01:56 PM #

I would think the classes will get better, but yeah—you’re not exactly getting your money’s worth. I guess some of it is access to great minds…when then pawn you off onto a TV program. shrug You alternately make me feel bad I didn’t go there and then not so bad that I didn’t waste the money.:7

As for the hives, you may want to look into the possibility you’re allergic to something in the cookie. My son is allergic to peanuts and reacts very similarly—seems to show up on his hands first even if he ate it, then down to the stomach. I’m telling you, I’d seriously look at the possibility. Always good to know what you’re allergic to.

As for the reason for the handwritten note on the Robber’s Cave thing, I’m going with #3, but I’m a cynical bastard.

posted by Rich at February 27, 2005 11:24 PM #

Hehe, okay.. well, if you ever find out which of the three possibilities it was, I’m kinda curious now (I also like option #3 the best ^_~ )

posted by Melinda at February 27, 2005 11:37 PM #

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