Psychology and humiliation

I’m suspicious of psychology. Particularly the kind that does controlled experiments. I don’t know what triggered this thought today, whether I saw something in the news or, I don’t know. Here’s the thought: What are the real motives for the psychological experiments I read about? Is it only disinterested curiosity?

Or is there some other reason people want to blindfold others, or give them electric shocks, or instruct them to give others electric shocks, or make them look at violent pornography with electrodes on while people watch and take notes on their reactions. It’s as if they have no knowledge of psychology, these psychologists: do they think people feel and react normally, in such an unequal power relatinoship? Nobody likes being powerless, nobody is going to be like themselves, in that kind of situation.

Who knows, maybe it’s just science. The pursuit of knowledge, disinterested in itself, allows us to have the satisfaction of humiliating people who knows. Or maybe it’s a problem with journalists, these are the experiments they write about. The interesting ones are the ones which feature humiliation, and all the innocuous ones never make the paper. But I don’t know, and I haven’t found out.

There’s a particular study I heard described on a podcast, and I keep returning to it in my mind. The whole situation seems to encapsulate my distaste for this kind of psychology. The study tries to isolate people’s self-image, or their honesty with themselves.

The subjects are asked whether they would say: that they experience particular satisfaction after taking a dump; that they often imagine raping people, or about being raped; whether they think about having sex with their parents, or siblings; and other, similar questions. The common denominator is that these are not things people admit to, in public. Only people who are honest with themselves will admit these things.

Then the respondants are ranked according to how many shameful things they admit to. And those who admit more are called more honest with themselves. These two groups are tracked: and it turns out those who are more honest with themselves are less successful in a variety of ways: they earn less and are more depressed than the others, the ones who lie to themselves. The dishonest ones just do better in life. To succeed, you have to just lie to yourself, or be arrogant, or have an inflated sense of self-worth; and the deck of life is stacked against people who have an accurate self-image.

But there’s a blind spot here, think about it: Why should we call those who are more likely to admit shameful things about themselves to a stranger, why should those people be called honest? Not that they are dishonest; no, not necessarily: but the study doesn’t test honesty, or self-image accuracy, it tests how likely its subjects are to admit shameful things about themselves to a stranger.

But these are not the same thing. We all know people who are unable to admit good things about themselves, good qualities that are obvious to those who know them. These people are also being dishonest in a way, and even dishonest with themselves, their self-image is not accurate; but these people might be called honest, in this study. Additionally: isn’t it a symptom of depression to believe shameful things about yourself, dwell on them, and bring them to others’ attention in inappropriate fora? – it’s no wonder that people who behave in this way will find themselves being less successful than others. It is difficult to work with someone who tells you shameful things about themself. It’s distracting.

The creators of the experiment described its origin on the podcast where I heard about it. It was like this: They were in a bar, late at night, they took a napkin and began writing down all the shameful things, things people whould not want to admit about themselves, and as they got drunker and drunker the things got worse and worse. The scene is all to clear to me: as they drank more and more, their desire to humiliate others became stronger and hid itself more effectively behind the weakened desire to answer the question.

I don’t know if I’m being fair, or if what I’m describing is accurate or representative. But it’s the impression I have of the science. A science is a big place, lots of things happen in it. My own ignorance is plenty wide, there’s room for a great deal inside of it.

I know I’ve benefited tremendously from therapy. But the kind of relationship I had with my therapist, where we worked together as equals, discussed things and agreed, like two human beings working on a problem, seems miles apart from the scenarios seen in science news reporting about psychology, which seem to have a serious sadistic, faux-objective, humilation obsession.

7 Replies to “Psychology and humiliation”

  1. Don’t know about the rest of psychology, but your critique of this particular study seems dead on. As you describe it, the study does indeed test how willing subjects are to admit shameful things about themselves to a stranger. Whether or not this is correlated with being honest to yourself is a question that would have to be decided separately. It might be that the researchers are perfectly well aware of this, and that the meaning of things just got distorted in communicating with the public. Or it might be just shoddy thinking on part of the researchers themselves. From my experience with scientists and philosophers and so on, this latter possibility is very real. It’s all a funny mix, one day I marvel at the low quality of the stuff some people publish, and the next day the same person will write something really brilliant. Chaff and wheat.

  2. Apropos at Wood s Lot today 4-19..the poem by William Stafford. “A Ritual We Read Each Other” I think is the title.

    [edited to include link]

  3. Radio Lab!

    When I heard that program, I was more impressed by how the findings actually conform to and explain aspects of reality as I live it, more than your concerns.

    A lot of the problematic psych experiments you talk about in the first paragraph are things of the fairly distant past, as you may know. Human Subjects Committees have to sign off on you saying “boo” to someone now; I actually feel they have gone too far in the other direction and have nerfed the ability of psychological research to do much meaningful stuff with humans.

    Also, as long as I’m playing devil’s avocado, it’s not entirely fair to criticize the electric-shock type experiments for being unnatural because of the uneven power relationship, because they were all about studying the unnatural behavior engendered by an uneven power relationship.

    Lastly, in a lot of the big fiascos in the genre, like the Stanford Prison Experiment and whatsit, the electric shock one, the researchers had no idea up front that they were putting people in such traumatic situations. The idea was to see whether people would progress from mild to moderate shock, not to find out that everybody would progress all the way to lethal shocks. The experimenters were as horrified as you are.

  4. The electric shock one was Obedience to Authority, A.K.A. The Milgram experiment. Hence Peter Gabriel’s “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37).”

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