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Will there be a traditional song about coronavirus in 2120? How historic events survive in the tradition.

A friend of mine commented that there must be lots of ‘folk songs’ being written about coronavirus and the lockdown. I said, pedantically, that there are plenty of songs, raps, poems, whatever, being written and performed, but there’s no way of knowing if any of them will pass into tradition and become genuine Traditional Songs for a long while yet – 20 years at least. The same might apply to what’s been written about Grenfell Tower.

But that started me thinking – what momentous social events of the past that have been recorded in songs like this have become traditional? My first thoughts were “not many”, but then I thought I should make a bit of a search. That still produced the answer “not a lot,” but did produce some interesting examples.

What I did was not serious historical research, but I did try to be a bit systematic. To start with, I needed a definition of ‘folk’ or ‘traditional’. I stuck with ‘traditional’, because ‘folk song’ seems to have become attached to anything a middle-aged man sings to guitar accompaniment with a fake American or West Country accent.

A more generous definition comes from Lucy Wright, in her fascinating collection of photos: 21st-Century Folk Art: “Folk art is what can happen when people, alone or together, and regardless of anything, engage in cultural practices they create for themselves.”

Since I was looking for historical examples, that wasn’t really what I wanted, so I tried to limit the search to songs which had become more or less anonymous and were more or less widely known by people generally, at least to recognise, if not to perform. Of relatively recent social and political events, there are examples from the 60s like ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’, ‘We’ll Meet Again’, maybe, from World War Two and ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’ from World War One.

I was looking for memories of more distant historical events, and I looked for songs which seemed to fit those criteria and were still in circulation in the first half of the 20th century. I concentrated on songs from the British Isles, though I was prepared to use a few examples collected in the States as evidence for the continued existence of some songs or themes. For songs that appeared in the various folk song books and collections I had, I counted songs that were recorded from people who sang them, not from printed sources.

This actually rules out most of the ‘traditional songs’ that people know. Elderly folkies like me will know lots of songs from the past about social issues, from Bert Lloyd’s Come All Ye Bold Miners collection onwards, and a strong tradition of performing these has grown up, but it’s a tradition of the late 20th century folk revival culture, with very little to do with the culture that existed before that. The current musical culture of the folk clubs themselves is even further away from a historical tradition. Last year, I did a bit of rough research recording what was actually sung over a few months in a small fairly traditionally inclined club in the East Midlands – an example of Lucy Wright’s 21st-century folk art. That showed that the largest group of songs came from the 1960s, many others were very recent, often written by the performer, and only one third were anything like traditional. Most of those ‘traditional’ songs were from the Sharp/Vaughn Williams/Lloyd kind of collections, or from the later 20th century popularisers of these collections, and not from any living or recently dead cultural tradition. So all that stuff I’d learned about Blackleg Miners and Border Reivers was a bit irrelevant, really.

Another problem was the broadsides. They worked as popular news and entertainment and they do reflect lots of important political and social events from the past, and they’ve been carefully preserved and mined for popular commentaries on these events. Roy Palmer’s A Ballad History of England is a fascinating survey of contemporaneous compositions, but he points out that only 20 of his 82 examples come from oral tradition, and one of his sources is a single copy of a broadsheet.

Palmer points out that “in some cases songs detach themselves from individual ownership and go travelling by themselves, multiplying into different versions, and becoming common property. By this stage the original author is usually forgotten; nor is he now the sole author for often a song is rounded and improved by those who learn it, sing it, and pass it on to others.” (p5). Those were the examples I was looking for, but many good songs recorded in broadside collections never made that jump. So, the problem is the same as might apply to potential coronavirus and Grenfell Tower songs: which accounts of historical events did ever become part of popular traditional culture in that way?

I searched through some books and lists and collections of recordings – not carefully selected, just what I had easily available. There is a list of what I used at the end of this piece. Then I needed to make a lot of very approximate and subjective decisions, heavily contaminated by my 50 plus years’ experience of all the distorting processes that are described above. I’d welcome commentary on, and disagreement with, my judgements.

So, what came out?

There was nothing at all, not surprisingly, about long-ago momentous events like the Norman invasion, the Black Death and other plagues, or the Wars of the Roses, though I did find two survivals from medieval times.

I found very little about specific short-term momentous events like the English Civil War or the South Sea bubble, but there were commentaries on longer term social issues. Some specific bits of history that do have various songs attached to them are the Jacobite Rebellion, the Napoleonic wars, the post Waterloo depression (perhaps, though I think that has been absorbed into general ‘hard times’ themes), and the siege of Québec. These are songs about specific events, but they are often tied to the personalities involved, like Bonnie Prince Charlie or General Wolfe. There are also some songs about other historical (and non-historical) figures, more as personalities than about the events they were involved in. It seems that up until the 19th century there were lots of songs about Robin Hood in circulation, but few of those came through to the 20th century. Dick Turpin has songs about him, though the songs don’t reflect the actual events or his personality. Jim Sharpe has given a convincing account of the full shortcomings of songs and stories about Turpin compared with the historical record. There is a song with a continuing life about Bold Wolfe and the siege of Québec. But the historical person who crops up most often in the British tradition is Napoleon. This may be because he has a variety of appeals, as well as great historical importance. Napoleon can be seen as a revolutionary and the champion of the common worker, and there are songs in praise of him, but also he was an important enemy of the country and there are songs about the Napoleonic wars, his defeat, and eventual tragic end – which is another good topic for a song.

There are two songs about medieval women which persisted beyond the broadsides into the 20th century. ‘Fair Rosamund’ tells the story of the relationship between Rosamund Clifford and King Henry the Second of England in the 12th century. ‘The Death of Queen Jane’ may well be an account of the death of Jane Seymour (1508-1537), wife of Henry the Eighth, after childbirth.

There are lots of 18th and 19th century broadsides giving the extended story of Rosamund Clifford, including how she was kept hidden in a labyrinth by Henry the Second but discovered and murdered by Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry’s wife. The bit about the labyrinth and the murder is not true, but there is evidence with Henry and Rosamund had a relationship. A fragment of ‘Fair Rosamund’ survived in the United States into the 20th century, which just involved Rosamund’s dismay at being noticed by Henry: the danger to an attractive young woman of coming to the attention of a powerful man. Perhaps this theme continued because it is a #metoo story with relevance down the ages.

The Death of Queen Jane is a graphic account of a long and difficult confinement which ends in the Queen’s death after a caesarean delivery, followed by a grand funeral procession. If it is an account of Jane Seymour’s death, then it isn’t accurate. Seymour died of an infection some time after giving birth naturally. But it’s a powerful story and an excellent song, so it may have survived just for those reasons.

There are particular social issues which occur in quite a lot of songs, but they tend to be generalised and historically extended, and the songs don’t necessarily reflect specific events within the general issues.

For instance, there are lots of songs about the continuing war between poachers and landowners and their gamekeepers. Some of those refer to specific places and specific incidents, although the places named can shift from version to version of the song. This general conflict extended over a long period of time, and drove the composition of many songs and kept them relevant over time, so that they were remembered and developed and became part of a tradition.

The same applies to songs of immigration and transportation. Some songs refer to particular crises and destinations, like the Irish famine or van Diemen’s land, but the issues continued and recurred over long periods of time, and again there are many songs which can’t be tied to any particular instance.

There are one or two long lived and quite common songs about infanticide: The Cruel Mother in one form or another. As Sharpe has pointed out in his history of violence in Britain, the incidence of infanticide, or certainly the incidence of prosecutions for infanticide, peaked quite markedly at the end of the 17th century and beginning of the 18th. Sharpe attributes that to a rise in puritan principles of morality and a reduction in support for children born out of wedlock, which might lead to increased levels of infanticide and increased willingness to label the perpetrators as evil. It’s possible that the songs reflect this and can be tied back to the times when those changes took place. There are printed versions from the end of the 17th century onwards.

Another repeating theme is the press gang – obviously heartily disliked and presented as being a danger to individuals and to married couples, and also as a way of disposing of inappropriate suitors: “We’ll send him to the wars to be slain”.

There are songs about specific disasters, but I have the impression that it’s more of a general disaster theme which gets applied to particular cases, which may change from century to century. Fires, storms at sea, and at least in the last two centuries, mining disasters, are things that come along time and time again, and so the songs are more archetypal than historically specific, though certainly songs like The Gresford Disaster, which describes a mine disaster in 1934, and Three Score and Ten, describing the Great Storm of 1889, are quite precise. Whether they would stay specific down the centuries is not so clear. There are several songs about the Titanic which were recorded in the USA in the 20th century, but I don’t know of any well-known British ones.

The other generalised theme is The Hard Times Of Old England (or in the States, songs like How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live, written in the 1920s) which could apply to the 1830s, the late 19th century recessions, the 1930s, the 1970s , the 2010s – and on into the future. Again these become less specific as time goes on and historical identifiers get lost. There were still people with a memory of eating nettles for lack of any other food in the 20th century, but boiled nettles aren’t called Waterloo Porridge any more.

So just as traditional songs in general become anonymized and reflect general community experience as they are passed down and changed, it’s possible that the historical events referred to in those songs become less individual, and those songs which have resonances with current disasters or injustices are the ones which continue in the tradition – but in doing that they become less historically specific. Traditional songs retain their hold because they reflect those things in people’s lives that don’t change much down the ages: sex and death, betrayal and revenge, food, drink and good times, religion and ritual –  and war, oppression and social injustice, hard times and poverty are ever with us, and so political event songs about them become historically anonymized, just as authors and tunes become individually anonymized in the traditional process.


Song Sources

The BBC/Caedmon/Topic Folk Songs of Britain series

Those volumes that I have from Topic’s Voice of the People collection

Assorted other Topic and Leader recordings

Steve Roud and Julia Bishop The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs Penguin, 2012

(not Vaughan Williams and Lloyd Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (1959) because they say that theirs is a more specialised collection than Roud & Bishop’s:

“We have confined ourselves to songs and variants unpublished outside the pages of the journals of the Folk Song Society and English Folk Dance and Song Society […] versions of songs that have hitherto remained in what is practically a private collection.”)

Roy Palmer A Ballad History of England Batsford, 1979, carefully sifted

The list of titles in the various Copper Family Song Books which I copied on a visit to Bob Copper in the 1970s


Other sources

The two books by Jim Sharpe that I refer to are:

James Sharpe Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman Profile: 2004

James Sharpe A Fiery and Furious People: A History of Violence in England Penguin Random House 2016


Lucy Wright 21st Century Folk Art Social Art Publications 2019

The Psychology of Doing the Right Thing

This text was written as a replacement for a lecture I was scheduled to give, but was unable to because of other issues, on a module on The Psychology of War and Peace at Sheffield Hallam University. March 2020

One starting point in considering oppression and cruelty in many psychology courses is to look at studies which have constructed situations in which people end up behaving in cruel and oppressive ways, such as Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram’s study of obedience. There is a psychology of oppression & cruelty but there’s more to human behaviour in crisis than the cruel and neglectful, and it’s important to try to construct a psychology of resistance to oppression and cruelty. Both Milgram and Zimbardo were well aware of this, which is apparent if you read their own accounts of their research (Milgram 1974, Zimbardo 2007), rather than the condensed textbook versions.

This essay will describe a number of case studies of people who, in various ways, did the right thing in evil situations, and then try to disentangle aspects of motivation, situation or personality which might have been important in their resistance.

In fact, many of Milgram’s own respondents successfully resisted the pressures of the experiment. Milgram ran very many versions of the shock experiment, and in most of them people resisted at much higher levels than the 32% in the version usually cited. He was interested in what factors would allow people to resist the commands of the experiment, and he found many, so that there were many conditions (where the ‘experimenter’ isn’t physically present, where there is a ‘fellow teacher’ who resists the ‘experimenter’, where there are two ‘experimenters’ who quarrel, and so on) where obedience was very low. Even in the standard version, there were many who resisted. There is a video of such a person at 13:44–15:55 in this video

Milgram was rightly interested in these resisters, I’ll discuss his account of them later on.

Recently, Zimbardo has moved into explicitly dealing with ‘heroism’ (though he later questioned whether ‘hero’ was the best word) as in Franco, Blau & Zimbardo (2011).

Franco et al develop a typology of ‘heroes’, ranging from those who face physical peril, whether military or civilian, to those who show social sacrifice: good Samaritans, bureaucracy heroes, or whistleblowers (also religious and political figures, martyrs, political or military leaders, adventurers, scientific heroes, underdogs). They found that the public view favoured physical peril as being heroic, and compared with physical risk, “social courageousness items were marked as heroic less frequently, showed greater overlap with altruism and were frequently viewed as being motivated by neither heroic nor altruistic intentions” Franco, Blau & Zimbardo 2011, p8

You can see Zimbardo talking about this project and his ‘Hero Construction Company’ in a 2012 interview at The section I use in the lecture runs from 6:44 to 9:02. Another part of the interview will be referenced later.

Some examples
It’s important to remember that at all times, in all places, there are people who stand up for doing the right thing. Historically, many of them end up being recorded as martyrs, unfortunately, but that can be the way heroism goes. Here is a quick run-through of some examples, arranged chronologically. I will come back to some of them in more detail in trying to give a psychological account.

Slavery-era USA: I came across a nice example in a reprinted collection of papers from the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, published in The Underground Railroad (Still, 2017). The Committee was part of the ‘Underground Railroad’, which was a network in the early and mid-19th century which helped to organise the escape of slaves from the southern states of the U.S.A. to the free states in the North. This was a serious crime in the southern states, and even if they reached the North, slaves were vulnerable to being kidnapped, legally or otherwise, back into slavery. Still records that in 1856 a police officer from the Mayor’s Force turned up at their office at a time when they were expecting a party of escapers to arrive, which caused them great alarm, but he told them:

“I have just received a telegraphic despatch from a slave­holder living in Maryland, informing me that six slaves had escaped from him, and that he had reason to believe that they were on their way to Philadelphia, and would come in the regular train direct from Harrisburg; furthermore I am requested to be at the depot on the arrival of the train to arrest the whole party, for whom a reward of $1,300 [a very large amount of money in 1856: slaves were valuable possessions] is offered.
Now I am not the man for this business. I would have nothing to do with the contemptible work of arresting fugitives. I’d rather help them off. What I am telling you is confidential. My object in coming to the office is simply to notify the Vigilance Committee so that they may be on the look-out for them at the depot this evening and get them out of danger as soon as possible. This is the way I feel about them; but I shall telegraph back that I will be on the look-out.”   Still 2017, p246

This probably risked his job, and maybe prosecution. Good work, un-named police officer.

PatchWorld War One: Not all soldiers are prepared to follow orders to kill. Harry Patch was one of the longest-surviving soldiers from World War One. He was a member of a machine-gun team, a main mechanism for delivering death, but he wrote in his memoir:

“The team was very close-knit and it had a pact. It was this: Bob said we wouldn’t kill, not if we could help it. He said ‘we fire short, have them in the legs, or fire over their heads, but not to kill, unless it’s them or us.’” Patch, 2007, p71

GruningerEarly stages of the Holocaust: Paul Grüninger (Paul Groeninger in some English-language versions), was a Chief of Police on part of the Swiss border with Austria in 1938-39. After the Nazi occupation of Austria in March, 1938, the Swiss government decided to prevent the movement into Switzerland of Jewish refugees. They cited concerns about the risks of ‘overload’ of refugees/asylum seekers, foreigners who would have difficulty integrating. There was fear of foreign ‘overpopulation’ in a small country. Refugees were depicted as ‘rejects, the dregs of society’.

This reasoning might sound familiar to you.

In April, 1938 border guards were ordered to refuse entry to those crossing from Austria without an entry visa. Grüninger and his staff ignored these commands, and used several strategies to admit Jews ‘legally’, as well as illegally. They allowed 2-3,000 refugees into Switzerland. In April, 1939, he was suspended from duty. In 1940 he was convicted of allowing refugees to enter Switzerland illegally. He was dismissed and lost his pension and all other public employee privileges. He died in poverty in 1972. He was pardoned posthumously in 1995 (Rochat & Modigliani, 2000)

He later said of his motivation

“…we did not have the heart simply to send the refugees back and, who knows, perhaps even to condemn to death people who had been mistreated in the most shameful way in Germany […] we were guided also by the opinion of a large portion of the Swiss people, of the press, and of the political parties.” Rochat & Modigliani, 2000, p99

SendlerowaLater: From 1935 to 1943 Irena Sendler or Irena Sendlerowa worked for the Department of Social Welfare and Public Health of the City of Warsaw.

She also pursued informal, and during the war conspiratorial, activities, such as rescuing Jews, primarily as part of the network of workers and volunteers from that department, mostly women. Sendler participated, with dozens of others, in smuggling Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and then provided them with false identity documents and shelter with willing Polish families or in orphanages and other care facilities, including Catholic run convents, saving those children from the Holocaust. Wikipedia:

There were a few options available. The first route led through the underground corridors of the courts in Leszno. Anonymous janitors were bribed. But what if the exit on the Aryan side was closed off?
The trolley tracks were the second route – Irena could count on the help of a tram driver she’d befriended, Leon Szeszko. The third option was to walk out together with the worker brigades. […] Route number four was the ambulance leaving the ghetto. Infants were carried across in crates and sacks. […] A loudly barking dog was bought so as to obscure the crying of babies.   Irena Sendlerowa would bridle at being called a heroine, so let us call her a social activist. She saved 2,500 Jewish children. Not by herself, as she always emphasised. During the war and the time of the occupation, she dreamt of having dry shoes. Her interests were politics, history, and people.

Pasteur_André_TrocméThe citizens of Le Chambon and André and Magda Trocmé: Le Chambon is a remote mountain plateau in south-eastern France, where people in many villages sheltered Jews from deportation and en route to escape to Switzerland.

When the deportations began in France in 1942, Trocmé

MagdaTrocme, the local pastor, urged his congregation in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon (S.E.France) to give shelter to any Jew who should ask for it.  The village and its outlying areas were quickly filled with hundreds of Jews. Some of them found permanent shelter in the hilly region of Le Chambon, and others were given temporary asylum until they were able to escape across the border, mostly to Switzerland. Jews were housed with local townspeople and farmers, in public institutions and children’s homes. With the help of the inhabitants some Jews were then taken on dangerous treks to the Swiss border. The entire community banded together to rescue Jews, viewing it as their Christian obligation. Yad Vashem

“We do not know what a Jew is. We only know men”, he said when asked by the Vichy authorities to produce a list of the Jews in the town. Hallie, 1979, p103

Trocmé urged his congregants to “do the will of God, not of men,” and stressed the importance of fulfilling the commandment in Deuteronomy 19:2-10 concerning the entitlement of the persecuted to shelter. Yad Vashem

SchindlerI won’t go into the story of Oskar Schindler right here. The story is well-known and the book Schindler’s Ark, and the film Schindler’s List give lots of detail. I’ll discuss him later.

There are many more stories. The Yad Vashem Foundation instituted an award Righteous Among the Nations, for non-Jews who had rescued Jews during the Holocaust.

“In a world of total moral collapse there was a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values. These were the Righteous Among the Nations […] Contrary to the general trend, these rescuers regarded the Jews as fellow human beings who came within the bounds of their universe of obligation.”  Yad Vashem Foundation

You can probably think of many well-known cases that might qualify: Paul Grüninger, Oskar Schindler, Chiune Sugihara, Raoul Wallenberg – but how many were there in total?

What would you think, given that in most of those times, in many of those places, helping Jews in any way was at least illegal, and in many cases could lead to being immediately killed or tortured. A dozen, a hundred, a few hundred, a few thousand?

My initial guess was several hundred or a few thousand. When I checked I found that by 1 January 2019, Yad Vashem had recognized over 27,000 Righteous Among the Nations from 51 countries.
So many. Not enough, obviously, but this kind of resistance is something that many people will rise to, if necessary.

Vietnam War: In the midst of the atrocities of war, there are always those who resist. In 1968, during the Vietnam War, there was a massacre in the village of My Lai, during which American soldiers spent hours killing, raping and mutilating between 300 and 500 defenceless civilians of all ages. You can easily find horrible details of this, so I won’t spell them out here. Amongst the soldiers on the ground, there were those who refused orders to shoot people. Here is an account from Harry Stanley:

Lt Calley ordered [me] to shoot these people and I refused, and he told me he was going to court-martial me when we got back to base camp, and I told him what was on my mind at the time. Ordering me to shoot down innocent people: that’s not an order, that’s craziness to me. I don’t feel I have to obey that. If you want to court-martial me you do that if you think you can get away with it. […] It was immoral to me.

You can see this brief interview Harry Stanley at 6:07 onwards at This, and the clip with Hugh Thompson (below), are from the Yorkshire Television documentary Four Hours at My Lai. There are many horrible things in this programme, but the interviews with Stanley and Thompson are not horrible.

ThompsonHugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot who was flying cover for the troops on the ground, started to realise that something had gone wrong.

During the mission as it was going on, we kept just reconning around: started seeing a lot of bodies. It didn’t add up, you know, how people were getting killed and wounded, and we weren’t receiving any fire – just didn’t make sense: there was too many casualties and how they were – the locations they were in – y’know, figured our artillery couldn’t do this – bodies in places the artillery didn’t hit – trying to get out of the village.

He landed his helicopter, and found a group of soldiers advancing on a group of women and children. Larry Coburn, Thompson’s door gunner:

“Warrant Officer Thompson was desperate to get these civilians – what he believed to be civilians – out of this bunker and into a safe area. He’s seen beforehand that what he was trying to do to help the people on the ground wasn’t getting done. He was convinced that the ground forces would kill these people if he couldn’t get to them first. He landed the aircraft between the American forces and the Vietnamese people in the bunker, got out of the aircraft, had us get out of the aircraft with our weapons to cover him, and he went and had words with the Lieutenant on the ground. He asked the Lieutenant how he could get these people out of the bunker. The Lieutenant said the only way he knew was with hand grenades, so when Warrant Officer Thompson came back to the aircraft he was furious, and he was desperate to get these people out of the bunker himself. […] He told us if the Americans were to open fire on these Vietnamese as he was getting them out of the bunker that we should return fire – on the Americans”.

Hugh Thompson: “When I did instruct my crew – my crew chief and gunner – y’know, to open up on them if they opened up on any more civilians, I don’t know how I would have felt if they had opened up on them, but that particular day I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. They were the enemy at that time, I guess” 1:34 to 4:50

Thompson and his crew recruited help from other helicopters, and airlifted over a dozen civilians to safety. Thompson was unpopular as a result of his actions. On later missions, his crew member Glenn Andreotta was killed, and Thompson broke his back in a crash. His actions were sharply criticised by some back in the States. Democrat Congressman Mendel Rivers publicly stated that he felt Thompson was the only soldier at My Lai who should be punished (for turning his weapons on fellow American troops) and unsuccessfully attempted to have him court-martialled.

Eventually, Hugh Thompson was awarded the Soldier’s Medal in 1998, thirty years after his actions.

“The Soldier’s Medal is awarded to any person of the Armed Forces of the United States or of a friendly foreign nation who, while serving in any capacity with the Army of the United States, distinguished himself or herself by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy.”

Characteristically, he initially refused to accept the medal, unless Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn, his crew members, both received the same honour.

If you want to follow up more on My Lai, it’s worth finding out about those who played a heroic role in uncovering the massacre, such as Ron Ridenhour and Ron Haeberle.

Palo Alto, California 1971: The Stanford Prison Experiment

This was Philip Zimbardo’s ‘fake prison’ study, in which randomly assigned student ‘guards’ bullied and abused other students who were acting as ‘prisoners’. The accounts of the experiment usually say something like ‘after six days, because of the escalating abuse by the guards ,the experiment was terminated’, which gives the impression that Zimbardo made the decision. However, Zimbardo makes it clear in his book (Zimbardo, 2007) that the initiative came from Christina Maslach, and that he initially opposed her. Maslach was going out with Zimbardo at the time, and he had invited her down to the study site to see all the fascinating stuff that was going on. She was appalled, and directed him to stop the study straight away.

 “…I challenged whether she could ever be a good researcher if she was going to get so emotional from a research procedure. I told her that dozens of people had come down to this prison and no one had reacted as she had. She was furious. She didn’t care if everyone in the world thought what I was doing was OK. It was simply wrong. Boys were suffering. As principal investigator, I was personally responsible for their suffering. They were not prisoners, not experimental subjects, but boys, young men, who were being dehumanised and humiliated by other boys who had lost their moral compass in this situation.”  Zimbardo, 2007, p170

Maslach was a research student at the time, and Zimbardo was a faculty member, so her opposition was risky to her in a number of ways.

Maslach recalls: “…a bit of a tirade by Phil (and other staff there) about what was the matter with me. Here was fascinating human behaviour unfolding, and I, as a psychologist, couldn’t even look at it? They couldn’t believe my reaction, which they may have taken to be a lack of interest. Their comments and teasing made me feel sick and stupid – the out-of-place woman in this male world – in addition to already feeling sick to my stomach by the sight of these sad boys so totally dehumanised.” Zimbardo, 2007, pp170-171

In fact Zimbardo reluctantly accepted her judgement and stopped the experiment. “At the time it was a slap in my face, the wake-up call from the nightmare that I had been living” p170. (They later married, and are still married, almost 50 years later, happily as far as I know. This is pretty good going for academics.)

Iraq: Abu Ghraib Prison 2004: There was systematic mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by a small group of American Army prison guards. You have probably seen the photographs. This is often portrayed as being just like the Stanford Prison Experiment. (My interpretation of the SPE is very different from the standard textbook one, and it’s clear from Zimbardo’s (2007) detailed account that the standard version of what happened, let alone the psychological interpretation, is inaccurate. I think that both Stanford and Abu Ghraib show how lax management and a generally malign environment allow dominant individuals with bullying tendencies to emerge and control the abuse. But that’s for another lecture.)

Sergeant Joe Darby, a military policeman at the prison, was given a CD with lots of photos of Iraq by Chuck Graner, one of the abusers, so he could pick some to send home to his family. Amongst the city scenes and sunsets, he discovered the now well-known photos of the physical and sexual abuse of the prisoners by Graner and other members of the 372nd Military Police Company. Darby sat on the photos for several weeks, and initially tried to expose this abuse anonymously, because he knew it would be dangerous for him to blow the whistle on it.

Darby didn’t do anything in a hurry. ‘I’d been in the military and around a lot of these guys long enough to know we take care of our own,’ he said. He anticipated what would be said if he reported the pictures: ‘That I was turning in my friends, that I was a traitor, that I was a stool pigeon.’ […] ‘Is it going to be worth the possible retaliation?’  Gourevich & Morris 2008, pp235-236

In the end, he handed the pictures to the army CID. He was right about possible consequences. The identity of the whistle-blower was kept secret in Iraq, but Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, named him in a congress committee. Darby was immediately smuggled back to the states for his own safety. There were repercussions for his family, too:

His wife had no idea that Mr Darby had handed in those photos, but when he was named, she had to flee to her sister’s house which was then vandalised with graffiti. Many in his home town called him a traitor. That animosity in his home town has meant that he still cannot return there…… …After Donald Rumsfeld blew his cover, he was bundled out of Iraq very quickly and lived under armed protection for the first six months…… …Mr Darby and his family have moved to a new town. They have new jobs. They have done everything but change their identities.
Bryan (BBC News August 2007)

RusesabaginaRwanda 1994: During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Paul Rusesabagina used his influence and connections as temporary manager of the Mille Collines hotel to shelter 1,268 Tutsis and moderate Hutus for several months from being slaughtered by the Interahamwe militia.

Rusesabagina’s story is well-known and well-documented, including in his own book An Ordinary Man (2007), and in the film Hotel Rwanda (2004).
I’ll discuss him in more detail later.

A psychology of Doing the Right Thing
So, lots of cases. What is the psychology of all this? There isn’t a simple answer, and there’s not very much research. I’ll discuss that, and then make some suggestions based on the examples I’ve described so far.

Milgram has an appendix on ‘patterns among individuals’ in his book, which discusses the characteristics of those who resisted, but found but found few consistent similarities in them.

In any event it would be a mistake to believe that any single temperamental quality is associated with disobedience or to make the simple-minded statement that kindly and good persons disobey, while those who are cruel do not. There are simply too many points in the processes at hand at which various components of the personality can play complicated roles to allow any oversimplified generalisations Milgram, 1974, p226

Milgram’s study is difficult to replicate, for ethical reasons, but there have been further analyses of his archives, and versions with less damaging ‘punishments’ which have been run, which suggest some consistencies. Stephen Gibson did a rhetorical analysis of transcripts from Milgram’s studies.

“Analysis draws attention to the way in which participants could draw the experimenter into a process of negotiation over the continuation of the experimental session, something which could lead to quite radical departures from the standardized experimental procedure.” Gibson, 2013, p290

Modigliani & Rochat (1995) analysed film and audio recordings of 36 respondents in the version of the Milgram study which was conducted in an office building in Bridgeport, rather than at Yale, where the obedience rate was 47%. They hypothesized that “The sooner in the course of the experiment a subject begins to show notable resistance, the more likely he will be to end up defiant.” p107. After analysis they concluded “the lower the voltage at which subjects first question, object, or refuse, the lower will be the final voltage they will deliver.” p117, original emphasis.

Both of these factors show the dynamic nature of agreeing to cooperate with evil, as Milgram did in stressing the importance of the gradual escalation of the level of shock in his original design. They point out the importance of quickly grasping what is going on, and of having the verbal and social skills to negotiate with the malign authority, both of which will crop up in later discussion.

Morselli and Passini (2010) analysed autobiographies by Gandhi, Mandela and Martin Luther King. They found that all three report the influence of parents: ‘a very strong and self-confident person’ (King); ‘incorruptible and had earned a name for strict impartiality’ (Ghandi); ‘My father possessed a proud rebelliousness,, a stubborn sense of fairness that I recognise in myself (Mandela). All three recalled how encounters with new social contexts, peoples and ideas in adolescence affected their relationship with authority, and all three stressed the importance of social relationships and a supportive social context in dealing with the hardship and persecution that resulted from resisting authority.

Philip Zimbardo recorded a long interview about his Hero Construction Company project in 2012, already referred to. It is available at In this part of my lecture I used the section from 10:40 to 14:35. It’s actually an hour-ling interview and discussion. This is the summary of the points he makes there.

He differentiates heroism from altruism because those who do it are aware of the personal cost and risk. There are three kinds of heroes

  • The impulsive, reactive hero: the person who perceives an emergency and reacts immediately. He gives the example of Wesley Autrey, who dived onto a subway track, in the face of an oncoming train, to save someone who had fallen on the tracks.
  • The reflective, proactive hero: these are the whistleblowers. They see something immoral and they often have to collect sufficient data to present to authority, they have to get people to support them, other people on their side
  • A third kind, whose whole life is focussed on a cause: examples like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa

These categories don’t fit clearly with the examples I’ve given above. Perhaps Hugh Thompson and Christina Maslach as impulsive and reactive, but the other examples seem to have elements beyond the categories above.

What’s the difference between them in terms of psychology? Zimbardo’s conclusion in the interview is that “we don’t have a clue.” Milgram reached a similar conclusion about disobedience:

My overall reaction was to wonder at how few correlates there were of obedience and disobedience and how weakly they are related to observed behaviour. I am certain that there is a complex personality basis to obedience and disobedience. But I know we have not found it. In any event it would be a mistake to believe that any single temperamental quality is associated with disobedience, or to make the simple-minded statement that kindly and good persons disobey while those who are cruel do not. Milgram 1974 p226

However, in the last chapter of The Lucifer Effect (Zimbardo, 2007), and on his website, Zimbardo does suggest some characteristics of those who are successful in resisting evil:

  • Mindfulness
  • Hardiness/accepting interpersonal conflict
  • Extended time-horizon
  • Resist rationalising inaction
  • Transcend anticipating negative consequences

Those are rather dense terms, and it’s worth simplifying them a bit.

Mindfulness: this isn’t the meditation stuff. It’s to do with clearly realising what’s going on, what the implications and consequences might be – and not being sucked into doing something inhumane without paying attention to it. It also applies to not being the kind of person who ignores injustice if it doesn’t affect them.

Hardiness/accepting interpersonal conflict: being prepared to accept disagreement, being unpopular, not being accepted if you stand up for what you think is right. This is pretty obvious in those who refuse to go along with bullying peer groups.

Extended time-horizon: thinking about future consequences, both for possible victims, but also for yourself. ‘If I walk away now, it’ll be easier for me right now, but I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.’

Resist rationalising inaction: don’t be led astray by thinking ‘there’s no point doing anything – it won’t make any difference’; ‘it’s not my responsibility’; ‘other people can intervene more effectively than me’. The traditional challenge: ‘if not you, who? If not now, when?’ is an encouragement to ‘resist rationalising inaction’.

Transcend anticipating negative consequences: Being prepared to accept that this might turn out badly for you – but being prepared to do it anyway, because it’s the right thing to do. This is a tough thing to do.

Two of the people from my examples have recorded statements about their motivation. Read through these, and see if they fit with Zimbardo’s categories.

The first is from The Making of Hotel Rwanda (George 2004) in ‘additional material’ on the DVD of the film Hotel Rwanda, about Paul Rusesabagina.

 Rusesabagina: I didn’t have any other motivation. I just took in people. I helped them. I was willing to do it, and I really didn’t have time to think about all that… Because it took every second, every minute, every day, seven days a week, and I had to work very hard, and very fast, always to avoid the disaster.
Of course, at a certain given time, I knew I was going to be killed. But I didn’t take it that way. I thought that – dying: one day, we’ll all die – but, at least, dying without doing anything, to me, was a failure. That was why I had to fight up to the end.
Don Cheadle, who played Rusesabagina in the film: It was as selfish an act to him as it was a selfless act, in that he could not have lived with himself, and he could not, you know, have looked in the mirror and gone on, knowing that he had left however many it was in his care at the hotel to perish, at a time when he felt that he could have done more.
Paul Rusesabagina: I took it as an obligation, to help my neighbour – whether I know him or not. Because, even if I do not know someone, why should he or she die? Why should she be killed? Is there any reason to take out somebody’s life?
Terry George, Director: When I listen to him talk and people ask him does he consider himself a hero, and he says “No, I’m an ordinary man: that was my job to do that. That’s what I had to do” and I think that’s the strength of Paul, the inner moral courage, the desire to help the ordinary man, is the strength of the character.

Then this is Joe Darby talking about why he revealed the Abu Ghraib photographs, from ‘additional scenes’ on the DVD of Standard Operating Procedure (Morris, 2008)

Joe Darby: I felt it was not only the right thing to do, but it was my job. I was my duty as an MP [Military Police] to do this, and I’ve never felt anything more than I was just an MP doing my job. My job in the army was to put people in prison for doing wrong, and that’s what I did. I would have been very, very happy if these people had been put in prison and it had ended there […]
I didn’t want it to become national news. I didn’t want to be labelled a hero or a traitor. I didn’t want people to know who I was. I just wanted people punished for the wrong they had done.
I don’t see myself as a hero or a traitor. I see myself as an MP who did his job and punished those who had broken the law. It was my burden to bear and, you know, I had to do it.

The resisters from My Lai show signs of ‘transcending anticipating negative consequences’. Harry Stanley: “If you want to court-martial me you do that, if you think you can get away with it.” Hugh Thompson: “I don’t know how I would have felt if they had opened up on them, but that particular day I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.”

 Bocchiaro & Zimbardo (2010) ran a variant of Milgram’s procedure (in which respondents were urged to give ‘learners’ insults instead of electric shocks). They found 60% refusers.

“To assess possible individual differences between disobedient and obedient participants, we compared the scores they obtained on BFQ [the Big Five Questionnaire]. No statistically significant differences were found on any of the five BFQ dimensions nor any of the 10 sub-dimensions.” p163 (added emphasis).

None of them thought that this behaviour was unusual or extraordinary. […] They believed they made a most obvious decision at that time in the experiment. Among the most common answers were “I think everyone would have done the same”. pp164-165

Another perspective
The examples I have given seem to show admirable characteristics like mindfulness, farsightedness, and courage, but there are also other factors which are not in themselves noble, or might not be seen as desirable in other circumstances. It’s possible that some of these admirable people would not be ones that you would choose as friends, or be comfortable working with. Some of them are people who chose to go against what was seen as right and reasonable in their society at that particular time, and they might not seem generally right-minded and reasonable people. Many of them broke the law in their actions, and those who are accustomed to breaking the law in other ways may find it easy to do, and be skilled at doing it, when the law turns out to be malign.

For instance, to maintain resistance in a hostile, dynamic environment, you need quick-wittedness, and social skill, to the extent of being the kind of person who can manipulate situations and persons to your own advantage. Schindler and Rusesabagina show this.

Oskar Schindler:

Because of his good business contacts, his conviviality, his gifts of salesmanship, his ability to hold drink, he had got a job even in the midst of the depression as sales manager of Moravian Electrotechnic.  Keneally 1982 Schindler’s Ark p28


Johnathan Dresner: “He was an adventurer. He was like an actor who always wanted to be centre stage. He got into a play, and he couldn’t get out of it.”
Mosche Bejski: “Schindler was a drunkard. Schindler was a womanizer. His relations with his wife were bad. He often had not one but several girlfriends. After the war, he was quite unable to run a normal business. During the war, as long as he could produce kitchenware and sell it on the black market and make a lot of money, he could do it. But he was unable to work normally, to calculate normally, to hold down a normal job, even in Germany. […Everything he did put him in jeopardy. You had to take him as he was. Schindler was a very complex person. Schindler was a good human being. He was against evil. He acted spontaneously. He was adventurous, someone who took risks, but I’m not sure he enjoyed taking them … He was very, very sensitive. If Schindler had been a normal man, he would not have done what he did.” Silver, 1992, p147-148.

On the other hand, when

…two Gestapo men came to his office and demanded that he handed over a family of five who had bought forged Polish identity papers ‘Three hours after they waked in’ Schindler told the writer Kurt Grossman, ‘two drunken Gestapo men reeled out of my office without their prisoners and without the incrimination documents they had demanded.’. Silver, 1992, p149

‘I don’t know why he did it,’ they say. ‘Oskar was a gambler, was a sentimentalist who loved the transparency, the simplicity of doing good; that Oscar was an anarchist who loved to ridicule the system, and that beneath the hearty sensuality lay a capacity to be outraged by human savagery, to react to it, and not to be overwhelmed.'” Keneally, 1982, p278

Paul Rusesabigina, an assistant manager of a luxury hotel in the capital city of a poor country, recounts that he was familiar with corruption and manipulation in better times

They gave me an office of my own, as well as the authority to dispense little perks here and there to favoured guests. An Army general who came infrequently would get a free cognac, or perhaps a lobster dinner. It made them feel appreciated, which is a universal hunger among all human beings. p58

I took my morning coffee at the bar, watched the comings and goings, made careful note of who the regulars were, followed the gossip about their careers, and saved up that knowledge for the frequent times when I would find myself clinking glasses of complimentary Merlot with a man whose friendship was another link to the power web of the capital and whose favour I could count on in the future. And the presence of beverages always kept the tone easy and social, even when the subtext of the discussion was quite serious. Rusesabagina, 2007, pp64-65

He used those skills to good effect later.

Today I am convinced that the only thing that saved those 1,268 people in my hotel was words. Not the liquor, not money, not the UN. Just ordinary words directed against the darkness, I used words in many ways during the genocide – to plead, intimidate, coax, cajole, and negotiate. I was slippery and evasive when I needed to be. I acted friendly towards despicable people. I put cartons of champagne in their car trunks. I flattered them shamelessly.
I said whatever I thought it would take to keep the people in my hotel from being killed. I had no cause to advance, no ideology to promote beyond that one simple goal. Rusesabagina, 2007, p xvii

So as well as mindfulness, farsightedness, courage, quick-wittedness and social skill, manipulativeness and readiness to break the rules may be important. Alternatively, however, an unusual determination to follow rules and principles, unreasonable insensitivity to social niceties, and overwhelming confidence in one’s own judgement might be helpful. After all, these people may be completely rejecting what is currently seen as sensible and right behaviour, and may be inconveniencing or endangering their friends and neighbours, as well as rejecting their neighbours’ views about the oppressed. These characteristics may be associated with some degree of autism. Attwood (2020) notes that those with autism are usually renowned for being direct, speaking their mind, and being honest and determined and having a strong sense of social justice. They may show remarkable honesty, and delay in the development of the art of persuasion, compromise and conflict resolution.

Moorehead (2014) comments on André and Magda Trocmé, the church couple who were important in encouraging the villagers to shelter Jews in Le chambon. “…they were also complicated, overbearing and strong.” p112; “Somewhat similar in temperament, both impatient, short-tempered, outspoken, highly-educated and apparently sure of themselves…” p114; “A colleague observed that Trocmé possessed an openness and a courage ‘unusual, alas, in our churches’, and that he had rarely met a Christian ‘so little frightened of the consequences of clarity’.” p115

A New York Times account of Sherron Watkins, who was the whistleblower who exposed the massive frauds in the Enron Corporation, describes similar characteristics:

In the cutthroat business culture of the Enron Corporation, where toughness and a sharp tongue were often prerequisites for success, Sherron S. Watkins could be noticeably tough and sharp.
One former colleague described her as ”a bull in the china shop” at times. Others mistook the Texan Ms. Watkins for a brusque New Yorker. But several former colleagues agreed that her toughness was rooted in a strong sense of business ethics and that she was unafraid to deliver difficult news, even to her superiors.
”In my experience, she was not afraid to speak the truth, even when it was uncomfortable,” said Stephen Schwarz, a former Enron employee who worked with Ms. Watkins, Yardley, 2002

Watkins herself describes her dependence on her Christian faith, and the importance of taking guidance from the Scriptures literally:

It was an unsettling time, the morning after the disclosure, I woke to camera crews surrounding our house. My hands were shaking, I was so nervous about the situation. I picked up my Bible and opened by chance to Hebrews 12. The first 3 verses say,
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (no longer available)

Although her actions are different from those of the people described here, Greta Thunberg is also someone who is prepared to take a stand against general indifference to a major problem. She sees her autism as a help in her actions.

I just know what is right and I want to do what is right. I want to make sure that I do everything in my power to stop this crisis from happening. I have Asperger’s – I’m on the autism spectrum – so I don’t really care about social codes. [..] It makes you different, it makes you think differently, and especially in such a big crisis as this, when you need to think outside the box. Interview with CBS This Morning, 2019

Everyone else is “OK, it’s very important, but I am too busy with my life…”, and I just thought it was very strange that no-one else was behaving in a logical way. What would the logical way be? To do something; to step out of your comfort zone. Interview with Democracy Now! 2019

I have heard a quote from Thunberg in which she says explicitly that neurotypical people are able to think ‘something must be done’, and ‘things can carry on as normal’ at the same time, but her condition means that it is literally impossible for her to do that – and that’s why her condition has given her the power to do what she’s done – but I can’t find it to give you the precise source.

The banality of good action
On the other hand, it may be possible to establish an environment which promotes the banality of heroism. Rochat & Modigliani (1995) comment on the villagers of Le Chambon:

Almost all of those involved in the effort at Le Chambon had not plotted in advance to counter the Vichy Government. Only gradually did they arrive at a path that flatly opposed the government’s policies and actions regarding refugees and Jews.
[…] In effect, they established an orientation of civility and kindness toward persecuted people and they proceeded to maintain this stance after it was officially outlawed by the authorities.
[…] They did one thing at a time, and one thing after the other, each move bringing them closer to becoming the rescuers we admire today. pp201-205

This is a passing point in this essay, which is worth developing more, perhaps in the context of Zimbardo’s account of the situational factors which encourage evil behaviour, which I mention in the next section.

All cultures know about heroes, and traditional/mythical tales of heroes often describe their motivations. Franco & Zimbardo (2006), describe this as:

“…a code of conduct served as the framework from which heroic action emerged. In this code, the hero follows a set of rules that serves as a reminder, sometimes even when he would prefer to forget, that something is wrong and that he must attempt to set it right.” p35                                          

My examples sometimes echo that. Harry Stanley: “It was just immoral to me”; Joe Darby: “My job in the army was to put people in prison for doing wrong, and that’s what I did […] It was my burden to bear and, you know, I had to do it.”
But Zimbardo also points out that Great Heroes are not a very useful example for most people. Almost by definition, they do stuff we can’t or wouldn’t do. Everyday heroes are better examples – and maybe ‘heroes’ isn’t the right word: People who do the right thing. It’s possible that there are many of those around.

Zimbardo, Breckenridge & Moghaddam, (2013) asked a nationally representative sample of 4000 participants from the general public in the United States “Have you ever done something that other people – not necessarily you yourself – considered a heroic act or deed?” 20% said yes. Among those:

55% had helped someone during an emergency,
8% confronted an injustice,
14% had defied unjust authority, and
5% had sacrificed for a stranger (organ donation or similar).

In this study, both blacks and Hispanics were twice as likely as whites to have performed heroic deeds. Zimbardo & al suggest that in contrast to an “exclusive” vision of heroism, which presents heroic leadership by exceptional individuals, an “inclusive” vision depicts heroism as integral to everyday life for ordinary people, and widespread volunteer participation in social life as normative in all democracies. The occasions people recalled may have been trivial compared with the actions of the Righteous Among the Nations, but both examples are encouraging.

General social support for right actions, even if it isn’t very strident, may also help individuals in doing the right thing. Grüninger said about his law-breaking; “we were guided also by the opinion of a large portion of the Swiss people, of the press, and
of the political parties” (Rochat & Modigliani, 2000, p99), and Gandhi, M.L. King, and Mandela all stressed the importance of support from others in their autobiographies.

Zimbardo is still convinced of the importance of the social environment in promoting good or bad behaviour.

…there are no special attributes of either pathology or goodness residing within the human psyche or the human genome. Both conditions emerge in particular situations at particular times when situational forces play a compelling role in moving particular individuals across a dividing line from inaction to action. There is a decisive decisional moment when a person is caught up in a vector of forces that emanate from a behavioural context. These forces combine to increase the probability of one’s acting to harm others or acting to help others.”
[…] Among the situational action vectors [for evil behaviour] are group pressures and group identity, the diffusion of responsibility for the action, a temporal focus on the immediate moment without concern for consequences stemming from the act in the future, presence of social models, and commitment to an ideology. Zimbardo (2007), pp485-486 (emphasis added)

These factors can act to promote evil behaviour, but there is always the possibility turning them round to promote good. It’s worth noting that Christina Maslach has pointed out that refusing to obey malign orders, or resisting oppression isn’t enough: people need to do something to stop it – as she did at Stanford.

What would I like to be the takeaway messages from this piece?
In response to the oversimplified accounts of the psychology of obedience and conformity, based on the work of people like Milgram and Zimbardo fifty years ago, we should remember:

  • People aren’t always obedient to authority
  • It isn’t inevitable that they follow the roles prescribed
  • There are other things you can do.
  • It’s important to study those who take the other path.

Resistant participants in Milgram’s study: Paul Grüninger; Oskar Schindler; Irena Sendlerowa; Hugh Thompson; Harry Stanley; Chris Maslach; Joe Darby; Paul Rusesabagina – and countless others. These are people who deserve our respect, but they are also people who deserve further psychological study, to hep to develop a psychology of Doing The Right Thing.

Attwood, Tony (2020) What is Aspergers Accessed 13 March 2020

Bocchiaro, Piero, Zimbardo, Philip (2010) Defying Unjust Authority: An exploratory study Current Psychology 29, 155-170

Bryan, Dawn (BBC News August 2007) Abu Ghraib whistleblower’s ordeal Available at Accessed 14 March 2020

Franco, Zeno & Zimbardo, Philip (2006) The Banality of Heroism Greater Good Fall/Winter 2006/7, 30-35 Available online at

Gibson, Stephen (2013) Milgram’s Obedience Experiments: A Rhetorical Analysis  British Journal of Social Psychology 52, 290-309

George, Terry (2004) Additional Material Hotel Rwanda DVD

Gourevitch, Philip and Errol Morris (2008) Standard Operating Procedure London: Picador

Hallie, Philip (1979), Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There  New York: Harper & Row

Milgram, Stanley (1974) Obedience to Authority  NY: HarperCollins

Modigliani, Andre & Rochat, François (1995) The Role of Interaction Sequences and the Timing of Resistance in Shaping Obedience and Defiance to Authority Journal of Social Issues 51(3), 107-123

Morehead, Caroline (2014) Village of Secrets: defying the Nazis in Vichy France London: Vintage

Morselli, Davide and Passini, Stefano (2010) Avoiding Crimes of Obedience: A Comparative Study of the Autobiographies of M.K. Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr Peace and Conflict; Journal of Peace Psychology, 16, 295-319

Rochat, François & Andre Modigliani (2000) Captain Paul Grueninger: The Chief of Police Who Saved Jewish Refugees by Refusing to Do His Duty in Thomas Blass Obedience to Authority: Current Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

Rusesabagina, Paul (2007) An Ordinary Man: The True Story Behind Hotel Rwanda London: Bloomsbury

Silver, Eric (1992) The Book of the Just New York; Grove Press

Still, William (2017) The Underground Railroad London: Arcturus Publishing (first published 1872)

Van Emden, Richard (2007). The Last Fighting Tommy: The Life of Harry Patch, the Oldest Surviving Veteran of the Trenches. London: Bloomsbury

Yardley, Jim (2002) Enron’s Collapse: the Employee; Author of Letter To Enron Chief Is Called Tough New York Times, Jan 16, 2002

Zimbardo, Philip (2007a) The Lucifer Effect London: Rider

Zimbardo, Philip (2007b) Resisting Social Influences and Celebrating Heroism (chapter 16) in The Lucifer Effect London: Rider

Zimbardo, Philip (2012) talking about his Heroic Imagination Project:

Zimbardo,P.G., Breckenridge,J.N. & Moghaddam,F.M. (2013)  “Exclusive” and “Inclusive” Visions of Heroism and Democracy. Curr Psychol 32, 221–233




(Unsuccessful) Bloody revolution in Barnsley, 1820 & Georgia, 2013: How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?

A story in the Huffington Post, spotted by Occupy Posters (well worth following: ):

Georgia Men Used Facebook To Plot Anti-Government Militia Uprising, Prosecutors Say
Three Georgia men were charged in federal court this week with plotting an attack against the government designed to trigger martial law and encourage other militias to join their violent uprising.

The men were trapped by an FBI informant:

Cannon told an FBI cooperating source on Feb. 8 that the group was planning to “start a fight” with the government by attacking power grids, transfer stations and water treatment facilities, which they hoped would trigger martial law, according to prosecutors. Cannon said he would invite the FBI’s source to a private Facebook group, where plans were being made, according to the government.
Later, on Feb. 15, Cannon told another FBI informant the types of weapons that Peace allegedly wanted. The FBI gave the cooperating informant 12 non-working pipe bombs and two high-temperature thermite devices. The three men met with the cooperating informant, who handed over the thermite devices. The three suspects were arrested as the cooperating informant went to obtain another box of supplies.

So, that’s good: we’ve had quite enough Christian terrorism (or, more precisely, terrorist acts carried out by those purporting to be Christians) over the last century or so.

Occupy Posters took the trouble to track down some of the Facebook posts from the accused:

..which make interesting reading. I was puzzled to start with by Cannon’s term SHTF, but realised it’s when the Shit Hits The Fan. I’m not sure if this is the breakdown of civilisation as we know it, or when the Revolution kicks off, or maybe both/either.
On reading these, however, I was reminded of stuff I’ve just been reading written by English revolutionaries in the early 19th century, in Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. This was a time when there seem to have been (according to Thompson, at least) groups of disaffected people all over England planning real, bloody revolution with sword, gun and pike. Of course, they never got it together to actually do anything, and, as above, plots were defused by government spies and informers (and maybe provocateurs), as in the Pentridge rising and the Cato Street Plot. There was a real expectation among some people that once the levolution had started, people would join in and make an unstoppable wave – if only people would step up and join in. In Georgia in 2013, Brian Cannon moans:

I am absofuckinglutely sick and tired of all the keyboard commandos that only know how to run their mouths!! Sure they claim to train but what the fuck for? Seriously, why waste the time and energy if you are not willing to do something with that training?
(First link above)

The English revolutionaries had similar problems:

The Barnsley Radicals expected all the north and the Midlands to rise on the same night. They were to proceed to Grange Moor, where they would rendezvous with other contingents, and then proceed:
‘…through Barnsley to Sheffield and on to London. It was said the Scotsmen would be at Leeds as soon as us or not above a day’s march behind us.’
Perhaps 300 assembled, with drums, weapons, haversacks (with three days provisions) and a green flag with black fringe: ‘He that smiteth a man so that he die, shall surely be put to death.’ They were marshalled by two former soldiers, Comstive (a ‘Waterloo man’ and a ‘good penman’) and Addy (who wore the symbolic white hat). They trudged the twelve miles to Grange Moor, picking up small parties on the way, arriving in the small hours to find the rendezvous deserted. After waiting for some time, the rumour of a Government plot spread through the ranks, and they scattered in dismay. For these two attempts, Comstive, Addy, and several others were transported.
[…] On 14 April a weaver, Joseph Tyas, was apprehended near Huddersfield, and in his wife’s cap a letter was found, addressed by him to ‘our brethren in Lankaster Shire’:

Dearly beloved—
We hope you are comeng on pretty well though your Captifeity is painful. . . . Our Musick in Yorkshire as played twise where yours in Lankashire has never struck at all, is your Musicians sick? …
Melancholy, Melancholy, Melancholy Yorkshire, your Reformers stand true. … About 300 at Grange Moor, they marched all night, each man had is Blanket Spare [Spear] or Gon & well filed with ammunition poor Men to be so deceived by short sighted men it would have tuck an afect on your feelings to have seen the brave men stand under their arms all that weet night after a march of 12 miles and Not one Man to meet them according to Apointment all their pike shafts were left on the more the blades taken out except 3 or 4 which was to feast in [too fast in], the poor Men stud with charefull [cheerful] hearts till daylight beating the drums and their breast but no other partity joyned them. All at a loss to know what to do. Return to Barnsley they could no think of but when there was no other prospect they all begain to shed tears Most bitterly with Crys of the most distracted …
‘I hope,’ the letter concludes, ‘that we may all meet in one Body and one Voice yet.. ‘(Thompson pp776-7)

I’m sure I could find a similar sort-of religious piece from around 1820 to match Tony Kinsey’s:

I ask that you [God] be with all the good men, women and children that will stand up in defiance of the wicked rulers and in defense of our Country and the world. I ask that you shield us and those we protect from harm and injury. Give us great speed and accuracy, make us invisible to our enemies and our enemies easily seen. Help us to destroy those that make this world painful and miserable so that one day all hearts will radiate your love freely without constraint.
(Second link above)

– but I had to take Thompson’s book back to the library, so I can’t search for quotes at the moment.

I have some sympathy (at a comfortable distance of 200 years) with the English radicals, and none at all with modern right wing terrorists, but as well as similar laments (better expressed, though with worse spelling, by Tyas than by Cannon), there’s the same underlying problem: the rich grinding the faces of the poor.
That fits with something else I found online. A posting from one of the ‘53%’ (the 53% of US workers who pay Federal tax, according to Mitt Romney in his presidential campaign, and who may see themselves as supporting the rest of the idle, feckless scum who probably voted for Obama), in the genre of posting a selfie holding up a handwritten testament started by ‘I am the 99%’ (fascinating stuff: just do a Google image search for “I am the 99%”: try “53%” and “47%”, too). The text reads (you can see the image in the Daily Kos link below. I can’t find the original, so I’m not able to credit it):

I am a former Marine.
I work two jobs.
I don’t have health insurance.
I worked 60-70 hours a week for 8 years to pay my way through college.
I haven’t had 4 consecutive days off in over 4 years.
But I don’t blame Wall Street.
Suck it up you whiners.
I am the 53%.
God bless the USA!

Which really socks it to the ‘99%’ whiners, but as Max Udargo gently but very effectively points out in his ‘Open Letter to That 53% Guy’: …the statement itself shows the reality of the problem the whiners are on about: is that really what it takes for an ordinary person to get along in the richest country around? And how could you raise a family that way?

And if so, it’s not so surprising that there are people looking for ‘the Second American Revolution’ and thanking God for ‘for the opportunity to kill the bad guys that are wicked and vile’ (Tony Kinsey in the Cory Williamson link above).

As Blind Alfred Reed asked at another difficult time How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?
Best ever modern version: Ry Cooder & Flaco Jimenez: (you can find a Springsteen version on YouTube, too)

DISCLAIMER: I’m not advocating violent revolution here, either in Barnsley or Georgia, and yes, I have checked my privilege, as someone who isn’t a poor man and is living very comfortably in these times, but I think there are fascinating – and worrying – parallels here.

Thompson,EP (1980)  The Making of the English Working Class London: Gollancz

The Stanford Prison Experiment part 2: an alternative explanation (involving rotten apples)

LevineRotten Apples

(Image from Alan Levine at

This is the second of three posts on the Stanford Prison Experiment: the myth of what happened (last post), an alternative explanation for what happened (this post), and how that relates to the abuses at Abu Ghraib (next post).
The oversimplified version of the SPE is that the guards all became abusive, irrespective of their values and personalities, because they fell into the role required of them in the prison situation. Zimbardo’s full account of the study in The Lucifer Effect (2007) shows it was much more complicated than that, and he discusses thoughtfully and at length the various processes involved. As usual, this shows the value of going back to original accounts or papers, rather than relying on the text-book versions. I’ve discussed in the previous post how Zimbardo’s account shows considerable ‘personality-related’ variation in behaviour amongst both prisoners and guards, and questioned the extent to which situation/role governed everyone’s behaviour (though Zimbardo points out quite convincingly how he himself was overcome by the expectations of the ‘prison governor’ role).

The kind of thing that happened in the SPE does happen in other total institutions* (schools, children’s homes, care homes: see examples in the previous post), so the ‘SPE effect’ is pretty robust – but not all these total institutions have potentially dangerous inmates and a punitive (or at least corrective) ethos like a prison, so it can’t be simply the ‘prison guard role’ which is causing the effect.
My explanation is rather simple: individuals with a propensity for bullying and the ‘rotten apple’ effect, coming together in a total institution environment with lax controls on worker behaviour.

Zimbardo’s account distinguishes clearly between the ‘tough guards’ and the ‘good guards’, and even discusses a power struggle between them, which the tough guards win. One individual stands out: a guard named by Zimbardo in the book as Hellman (not his real name), who the other guards nicknamed ‘John Wayne’. In the available videos of the SPE which you may have seen he is a tall guard with straight fair hair who usually appears as taking a lead role in taunting the prisoners, and The Lucifer Effect emphasises his dominance and enthusiasm for mistreating the prisoners (which Hellman presents as his own ‘experiment’ to see how far he could go before someone stopped him: Zimbardo, 2007, p194).
Zimbardo commented on him, years later: “He was creative in his evil. He would think up very ingenious ways to degrade, to demean the prisoners.” BBC2 (2002)
Just after the end of the experiment, one of the prisoners talking to Hellman about how he might have behaved himself as a guard says: “I don’t think, I don’t believe, I would have been as inventive as you. I don’t think l would have applied as much imagination to what I was doing. Do you understand? […] I think I would have been a guard, I don’t think it would have been such a masterpiece!.” Zimbardo 2007, p193
I also remember Zimbardo reporting a conversation between one of the other guards and Hellman: “I know we have to do this stuff, Dave, but you don’t have to be so damn good at it.” I’m ashamed to say I can’t find the source for this now: if you know it, please let me know.

So, a personality difference, with one person seemingly more inclined to be abusive than others. But several other guards followed his lead, and no other guard, even ones that both Zimbardo and the prisoners regarded as ‘good guys’, effectively stopped the abuse. This is where the rotten apple effect comes in.

Rotten apples

Whenever some example of institutional abuse or corruption emerges, some senior spokesperson will blithely say ‘of course, there are always a few rotten apples, but….’ to reassure the public that there’s no fundamental problem. Such people are using a metaphor they don’t understand (don’t you hate people like that?), are actually confirming (if they understood what they were saying) that there is a real systemic problem, and worst of all DON’T KNOW ABOUT STORING FRUIT. The point about a rotten apple is that it quickly makes all the other apples in the barrel rotten. If it’s not removed at the first sign of decay, the whole lot can be lost. And that’s what rotten apples do: they’re not isolated instances – they’re centres of systemic corruption, once they’re allowed to get away with their rottenness. That seems to be what happened in the SPE: a ‘creatively evil’ person, running their own ‘experiments’, and lax management (Zimbardo), who allowed that kind of thing to take hold. Zimbardo is well aware of that in retrospect, and in The Lucifer Effect he staunchly owns up to his responsibility. Zimbardo does understand the metaphor, but he turns it around by suggesting that the situation was a ‘rotten barrel’ which infected the apples, not the other way around. There is some truth in that, and it may be a characteristic of total institutions (especially those with lax management) to provide ideal conditions for the infection to spread unopposed, but the influence of someone like guard Hellman is an important starting point. There seems to have been a similar influence at Abu Ghraib, which I’ll describe in the next post.

* The term ‘total institution’ comes from Erving Goffman’s 1961 book Asylums: well worth reading as background to all this stuff. (Everything Goffman wrote is well worth reading.)

A total institution may be defined as a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together live an enclosed, formally administered round of life. Goffman, 1961, 1991: p11 in 1991 Penguin edition

An ‘appreciable period of time’ doesn’t have to be continuous, I think, so day schools can fit here, though boarding schools do fit better.

The standard ref for the Stanford Prison Experiment is:
C Haney, C Banks, P Zimbardo (1973) Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison – International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69-97 (note this isn’t a psychological journal), but you probably won’t be able to get hold of that.

BBC2 (2002) The Stanford Prison Experiment

Goffman, Erving (1991, 1961) Asylums: essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates London: Penguin Books

Zimbardo, Philip (2007, 2009) The Lucifer Effect London: Rider

There are very extensive and informative websites about the SPE at and The Lucifer Effect at (but that’s not a substitute for reading the book).

(Almost) everything you know about the Stanford Prison Experiment is wrong

This is a critical discussion of the Stanford Prison Experiment, a study reported by Haney, Banks and Zimbardo in 1973, which gets a write-up in most introductory psychology books, and the place it has come to occupy in the mythology of psychology. It isn’t a criticism of the study itself or Zimbardo’s work, though I have some criticisms of Zimbardo’s conclusions from the study, but of the simplistic ways it has been reported and interpreted and applied to account for events like the mistreatment of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003/4. Zimbardo has recently provided a detailed account of the study in The Lucifer Effect (2007) and in that book, and more recent lectures, he gives a more nuanced account of the psychology of bullying and oppression than the accounts I’m criticising here.
Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues set up a fake prison, put volunteers into it as randomly assigned ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’, and the ‘guards’ abused and bullied the ‘prisoners’ to such an extent that the experiment was stopped after a few days. The myth of the study is that it showed that role and situation overcame individuality; both guards and prisoners fell into their roles, whatever their personal or social inclination may have been, and that the study gives a full explanation of prison abuse. There is a comforting follow-on from being told this myth: now we know how these things work, we can avoid the same kind of thing happening again. That comfortable belief was shaken by the revelation of the physical and sexual abuse suffered by prisoners in the military jail at Abu Ghraib in Iraq in 2003/4, which was taken by many as ‘the Stanford Prison Experiment in real life’.
A Critical Psychology approach suggests that things are more complicated than this standard version. In 2007, Zimbardo published a book which contained a detailed, almost hour-by-hour, account of the study, which helps in this analysis.
A useful critical psychology framework is to ask who? where? why? and when? about a piece of research.
Who and where? Zimbardo was a young academic with an imaginative approach, working at a prestigious university in the USA.
When? The research was undertaken while the USA was at war in Vietnam, and not long after the Korean war.
Why? In both of these conflicts, US soldiers became long-term prisoners of war, and there was concern about how resistant these soldiers might be to interrogation, indoctrination and ‘brainwashing’. This concern was the original point of the study. The research was funded by the US Navy, and the point was to study how prisoners might react to stressful conditions. The guards were not originally the focus of the research. They were just there as part of the machinery of making things difficult for the prisoners. In fact, to start with the researchers thought that the guards were treating the prisoners too well (see later).
The myth is that everyone fell into their roles, and played them altogether too well: the prisoners cowed and intimidated, the guards bullying and sadistic. However, it’s clear from the 2007 account that there were considerable individual differences between the guards and their inclination to abuse prisoners – and the prisoners themselves showed wide individual differences in their behaviour, as the following quotes show:

Arnett [a guard] doesn’t like the fact that Tom-2093 is ‘too good’ in his ‘rigid adherence to all orders and regulations’. (Indeed 2093 will later be disparagingly nicknamed ‘sarge’ by the other prisoners precisely because of his militaristic style of obediently following orders. He has brought some strong values into the situation that may come into conflict with those of the guards….) p47

Prisoner 8612 tries to talk the others into going on a sit-down strike to protest these ‘unacceptable’ prison conditions… p48

The ringleader of the revolt is Paul-5704, who got his buddies in Cell 1 […] to agree that it was time to react against the violation of the original contract they made with the authorities (me). They push their beds against the cell door, cover the door opening with blankets. pp60-61

One of those prisoners commented: ‘Although I am usually quiet, I don’t like to be pushed around like this. Having helped to organise and participate in our rebellion was important for me. I built my ego up from there. I felt it was the best thing in my entire experience. Sort of asserting myself after the barricade made me more known to myself.’ p63

Meanwhile, in cell 1, two prisoners are quietly executing the first stage of their new escape plan. Paul-5704 will use his long fingernails, strengthened from guitar-picking, to loosen the screws in the faceplate of the power outlet. Once that is accomplished, they plan to use the edge of the plate as a screwdriver to unscrew the cell door lock. One will pretend to be sick and, when the guard is taking him to the toilet, will open the main entrance door down the hall.  Signalled by a whistle, the other cellmate will burst out. They will knock the guard down and run away to freedom![…] but as bad luck would have it, Guard John Landry, making routine routine rounds, turns the door handle on Cell 1, and it falls to the ground with a resounding thud. Panic ensues [and the escape attempt is foiled]. pp63-64 

Not all the guards were keen to be oppressive, and some had to be nudged by the researchers into being tougher:

Guard John Marcus seems listless. He rarely gets involved in the main activities in the Yard. Instead, he volunteers to do off-site duties, like picking up food at the college cafeteria. His body posture gives the impression that he is not enacting the macho guard image: he slouches, shoulders down, head drooping. p65

He is later taken aside and urged to ‘play the role of the tough guard’.

The warden takes [guard Markus] out to the yard and chastises him…
“The guards have to know that every guard has to be what we call a ‘tough guard’…”
[Markus objects] “…we need you to act in a certain way. For the time being, we need you to play the role of a ‘tough guard’… your individual style has been a little too soft” Zimbardo 2007, p65

Certainly, an abusive situation did develop, but from the 2007 account, it seems to have been the product of one or two dominant, bullying individuals, rather than something that was ‘produced’ by the situation. The situation did allow this bullying, because of Zimbardo’s deliberately laissez-faire management, but perhaps didn’t require it. This conclusion is supported by the outcome of a ‘replication’ staged by Reicher and Haslam in 2006 (lots of details at Although this wasn’t a true replication – there were many detail differences, although the starting setup was similar to Zimbardo’s – the outcome was very different, with co-operation between prisoners and guards, and prisoners sure of their rights taking back some dominance from the guards . Reicher and Haslam (2006) discuss how a different social milieu thirty years later, and different emerging social processes within the ‘prison’, could change the outcome so markedly.
Although there clearly were lessons to be learned about prison management from the original study, and Zimbardo has been an active expert witness on prison reform over the years, the idea that this knowledge can straightforwardly change things hasn’t been borne out either. In a 1998 paper, Haney & Zimbardo conclude that US prison policy showed “a consistent disregard of context situation in the criminal justice practices of the past 25 years” (p714). They conclude that this was because of a politically-driven shift of prison ideology from rehabilitation to punishment, and the failure of the politically motivated ‘war on drugs’; the significance and effectiveness of psychological research depends crucially on the social and political conditions of the time.
However, the Stanford study did seem to come true all over again in Abu Ghraib – perhaps as a result of lax management, and a dominant, bullying personality (Charles Graner), just as in the original study – but I think it’s more complicated than that. As always, it’s necessary to consider the surrounding social and political conditions. I’ll talk about that in my next post.
Certainly, the kind of thing that happened in the SPE does happen, with depressing regularity, but the ‘people fall into their (oppressive) roles’ explanation doesn’t really work. I don’t think bullying is part of the job description of prison guards, and it certainly doesn’t apply in other cases. For instance: a reported case of 16-year-old being tied up by teachers in UK, 2007….

Two teachers have been suspended after mobile phone footage showed a 16-year-old pupil being tied up with electrical tape and taunted in front of his classmates at a new academy in Kent.
At one point in the five-minute clip a voice, believed to be a teacher’s, says: ‘Give us a shout when you are ready to start grovelling.’ It ends with the pupil being released by another teacher. The boy was reportedly distressed. Polly Curtis, The Guardian Thursday December 20, 2007 (,

…and it’s not the case that teachers are supposed to be sadistic bullies – and the same goes for care workers:

Winterbourne View care home “BBC One’s Panorama showed patients at a residential care home near Bristol, being slapped and restrained under chairs, having their hair pulled and being held down as medication was forced into their mouths. The victims, who had severe learning disabilities, were visibly upset and were shown screaming and shaking. One victim was showered while fully clothed and had mouthwash poured into her eyes.
Undercover recordings showed one senior care worker at Winterbourne View asking a patient whether they wanted him to get a “cheese grater and grate your face off?”
The abuse was so bad that one patient, who had tried to jump out of a second floor window, was then mocked by staff members.”
BBC News 26 October 2012

…and only a rabid anti-cleric would suggest that bullying and oppression was the ‘role’ of a nun:

Children were forced to eat their own vomit and bathe in disinfectant at residential care homes run by nuns, the UK’s largest public inquiry into institutional child abuse was told on Monday.
During evidence on the behaviour of nuns from the Sisters of Nazareth order at two Catholic church-run children’s homes in Derry, the inquiry heard that children were beaten for bedwetting and had soiled sheets placed on their heads to humiliate them.
Nazareth House children’s home and St Joseph’s Home, Termonbacca, were both run by the Sisters of Nazareth in Derry. Forty-nine ex-residents of the two homes gave evidence about their treatment in written and oral testimony to the historic institutional abuse inquiry sitting at Banbridge courthouse.
A total of 16 church- and state-run orphanages, care homes and other institutions in Northern Ireland are under scrutiny in a public inquiry expected to last until June 2015.
Young people at Sisters of Nazareth properties in Derry were known by numbers rather than their names, and many were allegedly subjected to humiliation, threats and physical abuse, said Christine Smith QC, senior counsel for the inquiry.
Henry McDonald, The Guardian Monday 27 January 2014

I think there’s a different explanation, consistent with the happenings in the SPE, but quite different from the standard text-book myth, and a bit different from Zimbardo’s version. It’s briefly sketched above, but I’ll elaborate it, and talk about the Abu Ghraib case, in my next post.

Haney,  Banks & Zimbardo (1973) Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison – International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69-97 (note this isn’t a psychological journal), This is the standard ref for the Stanford Prison Experiment but you probably won’t be able to get hold of it. 

Haney, Craig & Zimbardo, Philip (1998) The Past and Future of American Prison Policy: Twenty-five years after the Stanford Prison Experiment  American Psychologist, 53(7), 709-727. This doesn’t tell you anything very new about the SPE, but suggests that it didn’t have much effect on government policy.

Reicher, Stephen & Haslam, Alexander (2006) Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC prison study British Journal of Social Psychology 45, 1–40
Available at
Also see for the BBC Prison Study

Zimbardo, Philip (2007, 2009) The Lucifer Effect London: Rider

There are very extensive and informative websites about the SPE at and The Lucifer Effect at

Not psychology: early 19th Century analysis of modern issues

I’ve been reading EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (Gollancz, 1980) in an attempt to make up for the weaknesses of my academic education in the 1950s and 60s. Not having had the benefit of having been taught in a modern comprehensive, my history knowledge derives mainly from Time Team and Blackadder (I note that Michael Gove hasn’t objected to Blackadder’s portrayal of Elizabeth 1 and the Prince Regent, so I guess he thinks those are pretty accurate).

I’ve been really struck by how precisely things people wrote 200 years ago mirror modern issues. Perhaps if I knew more history, it wouldn’t be so striking – but perhaps if many modern commentators knew more history, they would have more sensible things to say about these modern issues.
So (p225 in the 1980 edition): “Thus as early as 1817 the Leicester framework knitters put forward, in a series of resolutions, an under-consumption theory of capitalist crisis”, which could be seen as support for raising the minimum wage, and a criticism of the global race to the bottom in wage rates:

  • That in proportion as the Reduction of Wages makes the great Body of the People poor and wretched, in the same proportion must the consumption of our manufacturers be lessened.
  • That if liberal Wages were given to the Mechanics in general throughout the Country, the Home Consumption of our Manufactures would be immediately more than doubled, and consequently every hand would soon find full employment.
  • That to Reduce the Wage of the Mechanic in this Country so low that he cannot live by his labour, in order to undersell Foreign Manufacturers in a Foreign Market, is to gain one customer abroad, and lose two at home ..

And the benefits system works in the favour of employers to subsidise wages, and to maintain a pool of workers for zero-hours contracts (p244):

…a country magistrate in 1800 […] went on to argue that the poor-rates, by maintaining a surplus population and encouraging marriages – thereby ensuring a supply of labour in excess of demand – brought down the total wages bill. Indeed, he showed himself a pioneer in the science of ‘averages’:
‘Let us suppose the annual poor-rates, and the amount of wages throughout England added together in one total; I think this total would be less than the sole amount of the wages, if the poor-rates had not existed.’
The motives which led to the introduction of the various systems of poor-relief which related relief to the price of bread and to the number of children were no doubt various. The Speenhamland decision of 1795 was impelled by both humanity and necessity. But the perpetuation of Speenhamland and ’roundsman’ systems, in all their variety, was ensured by the demand of the larger farmers – in an industry which has exceptional requirements for occasional or casual labour – for a permanent cheap labour reserve.

And, in the eyes of employers and the comfortably off, the countryside in 1800 was pretty much like Benefits Street. The same prejudiced ranting that you’ll find in the modern right-wing press was visible than, too. Depressing.
243: from the Commercial and Agricultural Magazine, October 1800:

[The village poor are] ‘designing rogues, who, under various pretences, attempt to cheat the parish’ and ‘their whole abilities are exerted in the execution of deceit, which may procure from the parish officers an allowance of money for idle and profligate purposes’.

..and by 1816, the human rights menace from Brussels (or at least Paris) had been added (p246):

‘In regard to the poor-rates,’ one Bedfordshire ‘feelosofer’ (Dr Macqueen) wrote to the Board of Agriculture in 1816, ‘I always view these as coupled with the idleness and depravity of the working class:
The morals as well as the manners of the lower orders of the community have been degenerating since the earliest ages of the French Revolution. The doctrine of equality and the rights of man is not yet forgotten, but fondly cherished and reluctantly abandoned. They consider their respective parishes as their right and inheritance, in which they are entitled to resort …’

I guess the poor are always with us, and so always need to be slagged off by those who benefit from maintaining their poverty, in order to justify to themselves and others what is done to maintain that poverty (we psychologists call it Dissonance Reduction).
Later in the 19th century, I believe (haven’t got that far in the book yet), these lower orders and mechanics organised themselves and affected some improvement in their conditions. Might that happen this century?

Mind? Brain? As a psychologist, who cares?

This started out as an overlong comment on Facebook, in response to some posts by Andrew Dunn and Colin Johnson about the brain-mind problem. Thanks, as always, to Andrew and Colin for giving me interesting things to think about. The starting point for the discussion was a video clip ( suggesting that we can see mind as an emergent feature of brain, and/or that we can think of mind as being like software and brain like hardware. Both of those are ideas worth considering, and I find the software/hardware analogy quite alluring, though it doesn’t quite hold up or explain anything if you look at it closely, but then I thought: is this my problem? As a psychologist (and as an everyday walking-around person), the issue is mind (conscious awareness) and only mind. Phenomenologically, the *only* thing that exists for me is my mind/consciousness/awareness/experience, so that is the core reality. OK, from some outside perspective mind might be an epiphenomenon of brain activity, but for me, the brain activity is more of an epiphenomenon of my existence. I know that changes in brain activity affect my experience (vascular dementia, alcohol, whatever it is that makes me left-handed, which does seem to be related to other characteristics), and I will sometimes deliberately mess with my brain to affect my experience (alcohol), and maybe some things about my brain make that more or less dangerous for me than for others (addiction-prone or -resistant brain structures?)– but the only thing that’s actually going on for me is my experience. It would be fascinating to know something about the machinery of that experience, and that knowledge could be used to change my experience – as we now know enough about exercise physiology to bio-engineer athletic performance – but the brain things I might do with that knowledge would be mind-driven and mind-purposed. In the original discussion, Colin pointed out that that the bit we’re aware of is only a tiny fraction of all the things the brain does (absolutely right), and said “..and we are then supposed to induce that that small channel of neural activity is what makes you ‘you’? – nonsense”, and that’s right at one level – but at the level of my lived experience, me being “me” is the only game in town. I have eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of ‘me’ and ‘not-me’, and once I’ve done that I can’t be brain activity: there has to be a mind. All I have is my experience, and all that that is built on is my experience, and where that experience might come from is interesting, entertaining, and possibly useful, but it doesn’t stop my experience being my experience. So, although it might be possible to solve the problem of mind “by the objective and experimental analysis of the brain proper” (quote from Colin again), the only point of doing that, as a human, would be to satisfy our curiosity about how we work, or to use the information to modify our experience – so it remains an experiential, mind-governed enterprise. Actually, there’s also the problem of the inbuilt indeterminacy of the systems involved, which might make the problem insoluble in engineering terms (see but it’s still worth trying). As an ex-physiologist, I’m fascinated by this stuff, just as I remember being mightily impressed by cross-current filtration in the kidney, and how that’s paralleled by cross-current heat exchangers in birds’ legs, but my real involvement in kidney physiology is having to get up to go to the toilet, or discussions and feelings about my friend’s experience of kidney failure. So, this is a claim for psychologists to be interested in mind-type things, and only bother about the brain where it clearly does impose on conscious experience, just as we only bother about society when it impinges from the other direction. Physiology and sociology and politics are fine, but they’re not really the appropriate level of analysis for a lot of what goes on with people (they are the right level of analysis for some other things that go on). This argument seems to me to be very similar to the resolution of Descartian doubt – how can I be sure that what I think I’m experiencing is what’s really going on? Well, if what I’m experiencing is all I can experience, who cares? Unless I’m being offered a choice between blue and red pills, I might as well – actually, I need to – get on with living that (possibly illusory) experience – what else could I do? As with the ‘let psychology be psychology’ argument above, there is some leakage from other realities: study of optical illusions shows a fracture between two versions of available reality, and you could see irrational dissonance reduction or Freudian repression and defence mechanisms as evidence of other fractures – and useful in casting light on what the ‘sum’ of ‘cogito ergo sum’ is, but still, there’s enough existential doubt around, for goodness sake, without actually needing to doubt one’s existence.

As The Man (Lao-Tzu) said: Open yourself to the Tao, then trust your natural responses; and everything will fall into place (Tao Te Ching 23, translation by Stephen Mitchell, 1988)

This was written at the turn of 2013/14, and if you’ve persisted this far, I wish you all a very Happy New Year – but remember that while the occurrence of New Year’s Day is, of course, entirely objectively explainable in terms of the chronology of the Gregorian calendar and the cosmology of the solar system, the irresponsible saturnalia driven by existential despair which goes on on New Year’s Eve (I can hear it going on next door as I write) is entirely mind- and consciousness-driven.

Where’s the harm in creationism?

I was talking to a friend about being sceptical about being sceptical, and he raised the question: “where’s the harm in creationism?” Creationism is offensively stupid, of course, but then so are lots of other commonly held beliefs – like that anything Paris Hilton (2016 update: any of the Khardashians. Paris Hilton has lost her appeal, it seems) does is interesting and should be monetised – which are equally stupid, but probably don’t do much harm. Other –isms – racism, sexism, sectarianism, homophobia-ism – are clearly harmful and can be directly linked to discrimination, ethnic cleansing, rape, murder, war….Those are isms clearly worth combating – but is creationism anything to get het up about? What did the creationists ever do to us?
A good question, and it got me thinking. Here is why I think creationism is damaging. I’m talking here about Abrahamic creationism – mainly because that’s the only kind of creationism that I have any theological grounding in: I was raised as a Christian. There are lots of other versions of creationism (the ones involving Raven and Halibut are part-way convincing), but I guess one set of creationists aren’t prepared to co-opt other sets’ versions to work towards a general theory of creation.

So, where’s the harm in creationism? What did the creationists ever do to us?

1) It supports lots of the other –isms.
Sexism: Woman was created secondarily to Man, and therefore inferior and subservient to Man.
Speciesism: Man was created master over the rest of creation.
Racism: the curse of Ham falls on people with dark skin (‘a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren’*) – no, wait: that is in Genesis, but it’s not really part of the story of the Creation, which ought to end with the abatement of Noah’s flood, if not with the expulsion from Eden.
Sectarianism: no, that’s probably post-Holy Scripture.
Condemnation of same-sex acts: biblical, but not part of the creation myth (though it could have been: lots of creation myths have the creator making several false starts before getting humanity right; so there could have been a version in which God first created two same-sex individuals, rather than a man and a woman, and then decided that that wasn’t a good basis for procreation. Missed a trick there, 5-10th century B.C.E bigots.)
But then many evolutionists are just as bad. The eugenics movement developed alongside, and as a natural extension of, really, the theory of evolution. The (mistaken, admittedly) notion that some species and races are ‘more evolved’ than others is used to justify speciesism and racism.
There’s a whole genre of sexist evolutionary thought. You know the kind of thing: women evolved to have better colour discrimination than men because back in the old hunter-gatherer days, out on the savannah, those women with excellent colour discrimination were better able to choose the right colours to use to knit** effective camouflage garments for their mates, which enabled those men to go out and kill more sabre-toothed mammoths than those who had partners with mediocre colour discrimination, and therefore raise more offspring. Conversely, men are more stupid than women because back in those evolutionary days, you had to be stupid to go out trying to kill sabre-toothed mammoths when you could easily have raised (rather fewer) offspring on worms and beetles. Evolutionists have a problem understanding same-sex relationships, too: what’s the point? However, I think you can model an evolutionary advantage to having a gay uncle (a lesbian aunt probably enhances infant survival odds even more). So, from the point of view of harmful isms, there may not be much to choose between creationists and evolutionists (though maybe not all evolutionists are as bad as evolutionary psychologists).

And don’t get me started on Social Darwinism.

2) Some of the big problems and dangers which face us depend on evolutionary mechanisms, and if we don’t understand or believe in those we could be stuffed.
One of those problems is species loss and reduction in biodiversity, and the food security risks of genetically limited monocultures. Reasons for thinking these things are dangerous depend on at least some acceptance of evolutionary processes (though presumably lots of good creationists got the point of the Irish potato famine at the time).
From a creationist point of view, what’s the problem?

Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.
And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food. Genesis 1: 28-29

There you go; we’ve been given it, and it’s there for us to exploit AS WE THINK FIT.
Well, you’d hope that a sensible creationist would think that even if the rest of the world was created to serve humanity, that doesn’t mean we can trash it with impunity – and for less sensible creationists, surely any act of deliberate or negligent extinction is blasphemy? Do we really have the right to destroy what God saw fit to create?
Of course, selective breeding itself ought to be a problem for creationists. Obviously it can’t work, because the mechanisms we use (artificial selection) are too close to the natural selection which doesn’t work and doesn’t modify organisms. Or if it does work, we shouldn’t do it. Modifying that which God saw fit to create in all its perfection has to be blasphemous, again. Every heavily overbred bulldog  is an Abomination Unto The Lord (they’re probably right on that one***). This interpretation seems logical to me, but I’ve not heard it raised by creationists, though it does appear in John Windham’s post-apocalyptic novel The Chrysalids.

The other evolution-based problem that’s worrying me is the evolution of antibiotic resistance in common bacteria. Here’s somewhere where lack of belief in evolution and natural selection will surely kill our grandchildren. This one in itself is enough to condemn creationism.
Having said that, the bland refusal to bother with scientific stuff shown by our ruling and communicative classes is just as dangerous. Last week, I heard an interviewer on Radio 4’s Today programme, interviewing an expert about antibiotic resistance, twice saying that antibiotics had become less effective because ‘our bodies have got used to them’. The second time he said it, the interviewee gently (much too gently, I think) corrected him – but such cluelessness can be as dangerous as creationist resistance. I blame Oxbridge education.

3) Creationism sets a bad intellectual example, which may warp people’s ability to cope with other aspects of the world. Ever since Darwin, what we’ve discovered in all kinds of areas apart from the zoology and botany he was mainly using for evidence – geology, physics, molecular biology – has fitted in with the general notion of the change and diversification of organisms and the age of the earth, most spectacularly in genetics and molecular biology, where we’ve understood the mechanisms for processes which Darwin could only infer, and plate tectonics, where we understand the mechanism for a process which seemed necessary to account for the distribution of living things (and rocks) over the surface of the earth, but which, even in my lifetime, seemed manifestly impossible. By and large (there are always complications in science) the evidence FITS, even in areas which seemed to have little to do with the original thesis****.
If you’re prepared to deny all that, you’re prepared to deny almost anything in science, and probably everyday logic as well. So a the cast of mind which allows a belief in creationism (or, more accurately, denial of evolution and the age of the Earth) is a serious intellectual handicap which can spread to all kinds of other areas of life, with potentially damaging effects, like starting wars to protect ourselves from Weapons of Mass Destruction. Put more simply, creationism is monumentally stupid, and choosing to be monumentally stupid is a hazard to your health, and probably to the health of those around you.

4) Creationism is a subset of a wider problem: literal belief in every single word in the Christian Bible, as the word of God. One problem I have with this is that I can’t find a solid provenance of the fully divinely Authorised Version. I’ve read lots of English versions of the bible, which are all translations of translations, as far as I can make out, and different versions say different things, and I know that in the past people were put to death for asserting that some sentences in the bible should be translated one way rather than another. But maybe that can be put aside as an epistemological problem for believers which we non-believers don’t have to worry about.
But have you seen what the Bible says outside of Genesis?*****
Leviticus 11: 30 forbids eating ferrets and chameleons, which seems fair enough, but 11: 23 forbids eating flying creeping things with four feet (which are extinct now, though not as a result of evolutionary pressure), and 11: 10 bans lobster bisque and moules marinière, which is going a bit far.
Leviticus 19: 19 bans linen/wool blends, though the abomination that is cotton-rich seems to be spared.
More seriously, Leviticus 19: 33-34 says:

And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

– which rules out any anti-immigration policy. Exodus 35: 2 says:

Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to the LORD: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death.

This should be grim news for many workers in modern retail.
The New Testament is worse. We are encouraged to undermine the economic and moral order:

Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
Matthew 19:21


But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.
Matthew 5: 44

(The quotes above are from the King James version: authenticated by the King as the Lord’s agent on Earth at that time.)
So, apart from decimating fine dining and retail, the Bible requires us to welcome immigrants, sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor, and do good to those that hate us. That would hit the Home Counties like a Zombie Apocalypse. Imagine what the Daily Mail would say.

If creationists believed all this stuff, and acted on it, society as we know it would be in big trouble. THAT’S where the real harm in creationism would lie.

5) However, either most fundamentalist creationists don’t believe what it says in places like this in the Bible, or believe it and aren’t prepared to act on it – which seems like monumental hypocrisy. And, eventually, that may be the biggest harm: just as creationism is a training in intellectual inadequacy, claiming to believe and follow the Divine Word of God as set out in the Bible – but not doing so on matters like those above – is a moral failure, which softens people up for accepting all the other injustices, cruelties, prejudices and meanesses of life.

Many thanks to Andy Sutton for the original question.

* Although Wikipedia points out that in the original story (or factual account, if you want it that way), there’s no reference to Ham being Black, and Abraham’s curse is on Canaan (Ham’s son, or maybe the nation descended from Ham’s son), not on Ham himself: “And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.” (Genesis, chapter 9)

** Yes, I know that’s pastoralist, but it’s a shame to get historical accuracy get in the way of a good evolutionary psychology story.

***And the hairless cat is Satan’s Work Right Here On Earth:

**** Note that this is strikingly different from modern cosmology, where developing research and theory has led to more and more weird notions because the evidence doesn’t fit. Dark matter and dark energy do seem very like theological inventions to explain away awkward reality, and not that unlike celestial spheres. Doubting the big bang theory because of these counter-intuitive accretions is probably unjustified, but does make intellectual sense.

***** West Wing fans will know that I got most of the ideas for this bit from ‘Bartlett’s Quotations’:

Chaos, Determinism, & Psychology

I’ve been rereading James Gleick’s excellent book Chaos  (1988), and it started me thinking about the practical usefulness of a deterministic psychology.

Determinism in psychology has always been a personal problem for me, because it’s difficult to reconcile the rigid determinism that the science of psychology must lead to: ‘varying factor X will result in effect Y’, with the feeling of free will and choice which is an everyday experience. As a scientist, I have to go with determinism; as an individual, I feel I have free will and I regret the bad choices I continually make. OK, that’s an existential problem, but what about the practical usefulness of a deterministic psychology?

I think understanding chaotic systems and how they work gives us some ideas about this.

Here’s the creation myth of chaos theory: a meteorologist called Lorenz constructed a simple mathematical weather model in 1961 consisting of a dozen non-linear equations. These describe things like the relationship between temperature and atmospheric pressure, and pressure and windspeed. He fed data on these variables into a computer model and let it run to see what weather it would predict. In those days, computers were slow and calculations took a long time to run. On one occasion, he restarted the calculation that he had had to stop partway through by retyping in the figures that the incomplete run had produced.

To give the machine its initial conditions, he typed the numbers straight from the earlier printout. Then he walked down the hall to get away from the noise and drink coffee. When he returned an hour later, he saw something unexpected, something that planted the seed for a new science.

The new run should have exactly duplicated the old. Lorenz had copied the numbers into the machine himself. The program had not changed. Yet as he stared at the new printout, Lorenz saw his weather diverging so rapidly from the pattern of the last run that, within just a few months, all resemblance had disappeared. He looked at one set of numbers, then back at the other, he might as well have chosen to random numbers out of a hat. His first thought was that another vacuum tube had gone bad.

Suddenly he realised the truth. They have been no malfunction. The problem lay in the numbers he had typed. In the computer’s memory, six decimal places were stored: .506127. On the printout, to save space, just three appeared: .506. Lorentz had entered the shorter, rounded off numbers, assuming that the difference – one part in thousand – was inconsequential.
Gleick (1988), p16

But it wasn’t inconsequential. What Lorenz had discovered was that even a tiny change in the starting conditions of a process which depends on several non-linear functions can lead to unpredictable and far-reaching changes in final outcomes. This is what we now call the ‘Butterfly Effect ‘: a tiny change in weather conditions in one part of the world may lead to large unpredictable changes elsewhere. Because of this, it is now generally recognised that long-term weather prediction is practically impossible, no matter how sophisticated our computer models or how extensive and precise measurements of the conditions are.

I think the same applies in psychology. Although we can describe some psychological functions in terms of how factor X leads to effect Y, those functions are generally non-linear. A trivial but obvious example is the effect of amount of alcohol consumed on how good you feel. At low levels, increasing the amount consumed increases the sense of well-being in many people; a higher levels, increasing the amount consumed just leads to the resolution to never, ever, do this again.

Now, if the deterministic relationships which control our behaviour are non-linear, and we are complex systems in which many of these non-linear relationships interact, we are perfect examples of a chaotic system. As such, no matter how well we understand the relationships, nor how precisely we can measure (or control) the starting conditions, we cannot make long-term predictions of the outcomes.

Gleick sums this up later in the book in describing the views of psychiatrist Arnold Mandell:

To Mandell, the discoveries of chaos dictate a shift in clinical approaches to treating psychiatric disorders. By any objective measure, the modern business of ‘psychopharmacology” – the use of drugs to treat everything from anxiety and insomnia to schizophrenia itself – has to be judged a failure. Few patients, if any, are cured. The most violent manifestations of mental illness can be controlled, but with what long-term consequences, no one knows. Mandell offered his colleagues a chilling assessment of the most commonly used drugs. Phenothiazines, prescribed for schizophrenia, make the fundamental disorder worse. Tricyclic antidepressants “increase the rate of mood cycling, leading to long-term increases in numbers of relapsing psychopathological episodes.” And so on. Only lithium has any real medical success, Mandell said, and only for some disorders.

As he saw it, the problem was conceptual. Traditional methods of treating this “most unstable, dynamic, infinite-dimensional machine” were non-linear and reductionist. “The underlying paradigm remains: one gene – one peptide – one enzyme – one neurotransmitter – one receptor – one animal behaviour –  one clinical syndrome – one drug – one clinical rating scale. It dominates almost all research and treatment in psychopharmacology. More than 50 transmitters, thousands of cell types, complex electromagnetic phenomenology, and continuous instability-based autonomous activity at all levels, from proteins to the electroencephalogram – and still the brain is thought of as a chemical point-to-point switchboard.” To someone exposed to the world of non-linear dynamics the response could only be: how naïve. Mandell urged his colleagues to understand the flowing geometries that sustain complex systems like the mind.
Gleick (1998), pp 298-299 (Gleick gives a reference to Mandell’s original writing: I’ve put that at the end).

We might not be quite so pessimistic as Mandell about the effectiveness of psychopharmacology, though even 25 years later I’m not sure that much has changed, and his description of the models used is a bit of a caricature, but the basic point of the unpredictable chaotic nature of the human system is surely valid.

So, even if it were the case that we were completely deterministic systems (like the meteorological systems of weather), and we could determine the relationships within those systems (which we are clearly a very long way away from being able to do at the moment), would that be useless in producing a fully descriptive, fully predictive psychology?

Well, yes and no. We now know that long-term fine-grained meteorological prediction is impossible, but short-term local weather forecasts can still be very useful, even though we don’t expect them to be completely accurate. Similarly (until we started messing around with things with ever-rising CO2 levels, at least) we can make reasonably reliable long-term general predictions. We know how April in Spain will generally differ from August in Spain, and how the weather there will generally differ from the weather in Finland at the same times of year. In many cases, that’s good enough to be going on with, but we are always aware of the possibility of ‘freak’, ‘unpredictable’ weather events.

Similarly, we can make pretty good short-term psychological predictions, certainly in terms of predicting the general outcome of experimental manipulations, and generally useful long-term predictions, based on the climatic differences between ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’, or convergent and divergent thinkers.

In fact, in a chaotic deterministic model, failures of prediction, such as the unpredictable extroverted behaviour of some introverts, and people’s ability to switch from convergent to divergent in certain circumstances, might not be disconfirming evidence for our models. Some unpredictability is to be expected. As long as we limit predictions to the very short term or to generalisms, and have some idea of the unpredictability to be expected (which chaos theory can give us), our models may serve pretty well. That is, they can serve understanding of the processes involved, but may be much less useful for control or categorisation. Even in a fully deterministic world, the ‘gene for believing in flying saucers’ is not going to be simplistically effective, and the test for leadership potential is not going to unerringly detect potential leaders.

So where does this leave the effective usefulness of a completely deterministic psychology, and what does it mean for the existential problem of the possible illusion of free will? I think it shows that the aim of describing, understanding and controlling human behaviour through deterministic (and reductionist) models is over-optimistic. We can make some weather-forecaster-like predictions, but more holistic and phenomenological ways of understanding are going to be equally useful. I think the same applies to determinism and free will. It may be that all my thoughts, reactions, and behaviours are determined, but if so, since they are determined in a way which is unpredictable (and may be unfathomable) carrying on behaving as though I have free will and I’m responsible for the choices I make not only seems to work, but might be the most practical alternative. We are aware that we are to some extent determined; we have ideas of internal and external compulsion, but we also have ideas about ways of working with that, and to the extent that these ideas work, they are practically, humanly, useful – even if fundamentally illusory. This is the solution that that old determinist Skinner came to in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Although he felt that behaviour was determined by reinforcement contingencies, somehow, if we have the ability to understand and manipulate those contingencies, we can choose to create better or worse worlds.

In some ways this is similar to the practical solution of the Cartesian problem, that we can never be sure that the world we experience is as it seems to be – that it is not an illusion produced by our senses. It could well be an illusion, but unless someone is offering us the red pill or the blue pill, there is no way of establishing that, and the only sensible thing we can do is to operate in the world as we experience it. What other world could we operate in? Also, we know that some parts of our world experience are illusory, and the understanding of that gives us a more secure basis for operating in good faith in other parts of the world.

Yes I know that’s simplistic, and ignores problems like the false consciousness associated with late-phase capitalism, but it works for me. Just as Samuel Johnson established the existence of the stone by kicking it*, my world of free will is established by the consequences of the good and bad choices I seem to be making, and the pleasure I experience in looking at the trees  and birds which seem to be in front of me.


Gleick, James (1988) Chaos: Making a new science London: Cardina

Mandell, Arnold J. (1985) From Molecular Biological Biological Simplifiaction to more Realistic Central Nervous System Dynamics: an Opinion in Cavenar & al (eds) Psychiatry: Psychobiological Foundations of Clinical Psychiatry New York: Lippincott (cited in Gleick, 1988)

Skinner, B.F. (1971) Beyond Freedom and Dignity NewYork: Knopf

*After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, “I refute it thus.”
— James Boswell In Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1820), Vol. 1, 218.

Why the private sector shouldn’t do public service: or why these people behave like scum, even if they didn’t start out like that

Three stories in The Guardian over the last week which started me thinking about the inherent, and serious, danger of using the private sector to run organisations which are supposed to be for the public good. My disgust started with a story about Adam Afriyie, who has emerged as a possible conservative leadership contender (no, I don’t know what that’s about either, but obviously someone has a Cunning Plan): Adam Afriyie profile: before any plot, there was always a word farm by Robert Booth The Guardian, Thursday 31 January (

“Afriyie, the MP for Windsor, who was forced to deny any ambition to unseat the PM, has made a multimillion-pound fortune from businesses that include an operation employing hundreds of young writers to churn out thousands of news stories a day about anything from car roof racks to the best way to cook Christmas lunch.
Afriyie owns businesses that include Adfero which bills itself as “the UK’s leading dedicated online news provider”. It produces thousands of short articles for corporate clients who need fresh content on their websites featuring popular keywords in the daily battle to appear near the top of Google’s search rankings.
[…]  Adfero staff are asked to produce around 30 articles per day, each of around 200 words – a rate of one every 15 minutes in an eight-hour shift. The stories – many written from press releases harvested systematically – are then sold to clients at a price of around £18 per time to clients.
Adfero is part of the burgeoning industry of “search engine optimisation” and to make sure Google puts an organisation’s website high up its list of search results whenever an internet user inputs search terms that relate to that organisation’s trade. So by writing stories about a film star such as Jennifer Lopez and posting them on a film rental website, when a movie fan does a Google search for Jennifer Lopez, there is a higher likelihood of the company’s site appearing in the search.”

I can’t imagine anything more vacuous, meretricious, and wasteful (and deceitful to those of us who [unwisely] trust Google’s algorithms to find us good quality content) – but you can make a multi-million pound business* out of that.

Then I found: The Google adverts helping to rip-off consumers Patrick Collinson The Guardian, Saturday 2 February 2013 (

“There are a bunch of slimy toerags who create websites that trick people into paying £1.50 a minute to ring free services such as calling NHS Direct and DWP benefit helplines, or lure them into paying £10 for a European health insurance card when they’re free, or charge £50 for what should be an £8 US visa. Now unsuspecting visitors to London are being targeted with sites that mislead drivers into paying 50% more than they should for the congestion charge.”

Slimy toerags is mild – but if there’s money to be made…..

….And finally, I remembered from the week before: Fake reviews plague consumer websites: Consumer website reviews should give you the truth about goods and services – unless they’ve been written to order Mike Deri Smith The Guardian, Saturday 26 January 2013 (

“Websites such as Trustpilot claim to have millions of “authentic reviews from actual customers” to help shoppers buy online with confidence. But a Guardian Money investigation has uncovered fake reviewing on an almost industrial scale, with companies paying offshore contractors to post numerous glowing accounts of their activities, yet maintaining they are from unbiased consumers.

Many of the fake reviews uncovered by Money were written by computer science specialists in countries such as Bangladesh, India and Indonesia, who, for a relatively low fee, will write and send false reviews using scores of aliases and fake addresses. Many offer their services to western companies on, which promotes itself as an international website on which you can “outsource anything you can think of”. Companies simply post their requirements and wait for freelancers to start bidding for the work.

Guardian Money tracked down fake reviews promoting WAE+ (formerly known as We Are Electricals), which last year was the most complained about company to our consumer champions’ Bachelor&Brignall consumer champions column.”

OK, you shouldn’t believe everything you read in The Guardian, but you just know this stuff is true, because it’s absolutely in character: the character of the private sector.

The point of private enterprise is to make profit for the owners. There is no other objective, and from its point of view there should be no restrictions on how to do that, as long as it’s legally allowed (thank goodness there are some legal restrictions, which is why – for any libertarian US  readers – yes, we really do need a democratic government and a set of laws). Anything else can go and get stuffed. I was first made aware of this thirty-odd years ago when I read The Famine Business (1977)**, a book by Colin Tudge, the excellent science writer about all kinds of things, where he pointed out that the business of food companies was not to make food, but to make money – and once you realise that, a lot of unfairness and suffering in the world starts to make sense.
OK, there can be useful side-effects. Maybe the public sector wouldn’t have done what Apple did (though it might not have overcharged, restricted use of its technology, and introduced infuriating DRM, either), but producing all that good stuff isn’t really the point for Apple. If they had brilliant products which didn’t produce fat profits, they’d ditch them. On the other hand, if there are malevolent products which make good profits, then it’s the entirely consistent business of the private sector to promote them. It isn’t an aberration that there’s one mis-selling scandal after another: mis-selling is what they do. It’s what they should do, if mis-selling produces more profit than ethical selling.
On the other hand, the business of the public sector is to benefit the public. There will be all kinds of failures, wrong decisions, self-serving employees, bureaucratic befuddlement – but in the end, what people are trying to do (and what they’re judged by) is to do something useful. The NHS is supposed to promote health and provide medical care; the fire service is supposed to prevent fire, and save lives and property, the education system is supposed to help people understand the world and get the skills to cope with life and work (and, yes, to filter to deserving classes from the dross, but if we really wanted, we could change that aim). They won’t succeed, but at least they’re trying do the right thing, and there will be attempts at correction.
As I write this, I realise that this is so stupidly obvious that I shouldn’t be wasting your time expecting you to read it – or my time writing it, maybe – but it doesn’t seem to be something that’s realised by the people who are in the business of making life worse for almost everyone (the coalition government). Actually, that’s probably wrong, because they’re acting in the interests of people who stand to profit enormously from things like the privatisation of health care, and they know that very well. But why do we let ourselves be fooled?

So – someone can get enormously, unnecessarily, rich, by employing people to write meaningless articles about useless topics in order to fool people about which websites are most useful or relevant to their interests. WTF.

*Unlike me, who…..

** but don’t buy it from Amazon, unless you’re citizen of Luxemburg. Better Books World have two secondhand copies in stock (on 3 February 2013):