Nov 06

“Experimenter”: About Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Study

In a college psychology class over 40 years ago I learned about Stanley Milgram, the titular Experimenter of a new film by Michael Almereyda. But I’m hardly unique, of course, in having been introduced to his work. John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter: “Readers who’ve heard of only one psychology experiment in their lives probably know Milgram’s…”

Some pertinent background: “An American-born Jew of Romanian-Hungarian extraction,” states Scott Foundas, Variety, “Milgram was obsessed by the origins of genocide and the human capacity to rationalize violent behavior…”

Tricia Olszewski, The Wrap, sets up “Experimenter”:

In response to the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in the 1960s, Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) set out to study obedience, particularly the willingness of experiment participants to inflict ‘punishment’ on another person simply because the conductor of the experiment instructed them to do so. Milgram’s casual polls of colleagues as well as his students at Yale before the trials began predicted that very few would follow through to the end of the experiment, which involved the person shocking another participant three times with 450 volts.

Turns out they had too much faith in the good of mankind: Out of 40 test subjects, 26 administered every shock as instructed by a man in a gray lab coat (white would be ‘too medical,’ Milgram reasoned), though they all expressed concern about the other participant — who was actually an actor (Jim Gaffigan) and didn’t receive any shocks at all — and displayed physical signs of stress and emotional upset.

Some of the film’s other eventualities, says Foundas, include “…his overnight celebrity, the ensuing accusations of ethical impropriety, and the general unwillingness of people to believe what Milgram was saying: that most people, relieved of direct responsibility for their own actions, might be capable of almost any atrocity.”

Other Research and Film Conclusions 

John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter:

As he ages and suffers through countless shallow readings of his work, Milgram takes to pointing out a chapter of his book few people got around to. There he defines the ‘agentic state,’ in which a person sees his role in an interaction as not human but purely functional. ‘That’s store policy,’ such a person might say, or ‘that’s out of my control.’ Spend a couple of hours trying to get satisfaction on a company’s toll-free ‘customer service’ line, and you might conclude that a version of Milgram’s famous experiment is still being conducted on a massive scale.

David Edelstein, Vulture: “The movie ends with Milgram asserting we can be puppets but still have free will — which would be even freer if we could learn to ‘see the strings’ on us.”

The trailer for Experimenter shows many of the other players. Besides Winona Ryder as Milgram’s wife, a few of the research participants are Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, and Taryn Manning.

Selected Reviews

Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “In ‘Experimenter,’ an aesthetically and intellectually playful portrait of the social psychologist Stanley Milgram, the director…turns a biopic into a mind game. It’s an appropriate take on a figure who’s best remembered for his experiments in which subjects delivered punishing electric shocks on command.”

Godfrey Cheshire, rogerebert.com: “…(I)f this is a biopic, it’s hardly a conventional one. It seems not at all interested in probing Milgram’s psychology, to wonder why he would undertake this type of work. And, in effect, the film’s wife-and-family parts have a basically negative function in that, rather than explaining anything, simply tell us he was a fairly ordinary guy.”

Tricia Olszewski, The Wrap(A) largely engrossing sit, even during an unfortunate moment when Sarsgaard sings and the film threatens to become a musical. But as interesting as the developments are, they’re too inscrutable to stay with you for very long.”

May 16

Calling People “Fat”: A Trend That Reclaims the Word

Two new books are notable for their contribution to the discussion on whether food is an addiction and whether calling people fat is appropriate and/or helpful. Well, the first book is, anyway; the second doesn’t actually mean to be.

Morning Joe anchor Mika Brzezinski‘s book gets personal. In Obsessed: America’s Food Addiction–and My Own she owns up to her own significant struggles with eating and body image issues, hidden previously to the world because all we see is her thinness.

An excerpt from her Introduction:

This is the book I have been afraid to write . . . terrified actually. It deals with an issue that is radioactive for me. How I eat, diet, and look has tied me up in knots my entire life, and I know I am not alone. I have been held hostage by food since I was thirteen years old. My body started filling out more than the figures of other girls in my class, and that set off what has become a thirty-year battle with my body image. Food has been my enemy. My determination to be thin has led me to extremes, and I’ve done damage to my body and my mind in the process.

What “extremes” exactly? Nanci Hellmich, USA Today, lists the various issues:

For years, she has maintained a cycle of overeating, starving, binging, running. She has struggled with multiple eating disorders, including a brief bout with bulimia, binging and purging, and a type of exercise bulimia where she would gorge then run for 10 miles. And one psychologist said she had an unhealthy obsession with eating healthful foods, which some call orthorexia nervosa.

Brzezinski made a deal with another journalist, her best friend Diane Smith. The latter, perceived as “fat” and unhealthy by Brzezinski—who told her so—would strive to lose a desired goal of 75 pounds; the former, perceived as “skinny” and unhealthy by Smith, would try to gain 10. And they would write this book about their experiences.

It doesn’t matter what size you are, they advise, your eating and emotional issues can be just as in need of tweaking as the next person’s. Brzezinski, from an interview for New Haven Living:

….(H)alfway through my therapy I’m like, ‘I don’t know who’s more screwed up—she may be totally overweight but I am messed up in my head. My eating disorders have been lifelong, out of control, and they have owned me. Writing together forced me to confront some realities that are far more troubling than I initially thought. I thought I had everything under control because I could control my weight, unlike Diane, but it was very strange how much we have in common.

In the same interview, Smith comes out against calling people fat:

I think we have to stop shaming people. I felt ashamed for the way that I looked. You have to stop blaming people and saying, ‘You’re fat—why don’t you stop eating?’ because it’s not that simple. If you read the book you’ll find all different reasons people have issues with food—internal and external.

Nevertheless, Brzezinski advocates that we do need to talk more about people being “fat.” Another part of her book’s Intro:

Remember the days when people whispered about cancer and called it ‘the big C,’ as if naming it bestowed power? Now we’re doing the same thing with weight problems. We need to stop the whispering, start talking louder, and use the F-word: fat.

But let’s not forget that “fat” is not in fact a disease like cancer. Nor is “skinny” for that matter. The “cancer” is not fatness, it’s the eating, the emotional issues. Calling people fat and shaming them about their size is still a no-no in my opinion.

Meanwhile, popular comedian Jim Gaffigan‘s new book is Dad is Fat. Although about parenting his five young kids, being “fat” is clearly a theme for him. His standup routines also often focus on food and eating.

Dec 18

How to Be Resilient: Two Psychiatrists Help Us Cultivate This Trait

When we began our study, we assumed that resilience was rare and resilient people were somehow special, perhaps genetically gifted. It turns out, we were wrong. Resilience is common and can be witnessed all around us. Even better, we learned that everyone can learn and train to be more resilient. The key involves knowing how to harness stress and use it to our advantage. After all, stress is necessary for growth. Without it the mind and body weaken and atrophy. Steven M. Southwick, psychiatrist, in The Huffington Post

Trauma experts Steven M. Southwick and Dr. Dennis S. Charney, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience, are the brains behind this year’s Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges. In other words: how to bend, not break.

The authors conducted their own research, studied important research from the last couple decades, and interviewed many survivors of severe trauma. From this work they came up with 10 factors that help people recover most effectively:

  •  Optimism
  •  Flexibility
  •  Core value system
  •  Faith
  •  Positive role models
  •  Social support
  •  Physical fitness
  •  Cognitive strength
  •  Facing fears
  •  Finding meaning in struggles

Southwick states in USA Weekend that a couple of these—social support and optimism—are particularly powerful.

In an interview in Time, Southwick says of the former: “It looks like social isolation has as powerful an effect on longevity as smoking and [heavy drinking] and lack of exercise. It’s very bad for you. There’s lots of neat connections between social connectedness and ability to handle stress.”

And of the latter, states Charney: “It’s important to note that it’s realistic optimism we’re talking about. You need to have a very clear eyed view of the challenges you’re facing.”

(On the opposite end of the spectrum, an example of realistic pessimism? Jim Gaffigan, comedian: “If there was an award for most pessimistic, I probably wouldn’t even be nominated.”)