would the underground man approve of psychological experiments?

C'est la raison qui engendre l'amour-propre, et c'est la réflexion qui le fortifie; c'est elle qui replie l'homme sur lui-même; c'est elle qui le sépare de tout ce qui le gêne et l'afflige: c'est la philosophie qui l'isole; c'est par elle qu'il dit en secret, à l'aspect d'un homme souffrant: péris si tu veux, je suis en sûreté. Il n'y a plus que les dangers de la société entière qui troublent le sommeil tranquille du philosophe, et qui l'arrachent de son lit. On peut impunément égorger son semblable sous sa fenêtre; il n'a qu'à mettre ses mains sur ses oreilles et s'argumenter un peu pour empêcher la nature qui se révolte en lui de l'identifier avec celui qu'on assassine. – Rousseau, Second Discourse

“It is reason which engenders amour-propre, and it is reflection that strengthens it; reason shoves man back upon himself, and it is reason which separates him from everthing that discomforts and afflicts him; it is philosophy which isolates him; it is on that account that he secretly says, in the face of some suffering person: perish if you want, I’m safe. Only the dangers run by society as a whole troubles the tranquil sleep of the philosopher, pulling him out of his bed. One can boldly cut the throat of his brother or sister under his window, and he’d do no more than put his hands over his ears and argue with himself a bit in order to keep down nature, nature which revolts inside him to identify him with the one being murdered.”

There’s another nice psychological experiment described by Lauren Slater. It was inspired by the Kitty Genovese case. In that case, Kitty was assaulted, stabbed several times and raped on a residential street in New York City, at 2 in the morning. The residents of the apartments around saw it. Not one even called the police. The assailant actually made three attacks, each time returning stab Genovese again, and the last time returning to cum over the fatal wounds he’d inflicted on her.

This caused a scandal at the time. Was New York City entirely inhabited by Rousseau’s philosophers? John Darley and Bibb Latané devised a nice experiment to understand the dynamics of what Rousseau claimed was the ‘natural pity” of the human being. Like many of the other great experiments, it is, in form, an experiment within an experiment – in a sense, Hamlet is the father of all experimental psychologists when he devised his play to monitor his step father’s reactions to the portrayal of a crime he believed happened in real life. And so, too, a play’s the thing to catch the experimental subject. In this one, the subject enters a chamber believing that he is engaged in a psych experiment about student life. The rules are that the subject is to hear the others talk about their common student problems, which they would do in turn. The student is to wait until it is his turn. Then he could turn on his mike and speak. It was a form of “tag team therapy” in Slater’s words.

In actuality, all the subject received were recorded voices. One of them, though, claimed to be epileptic, and during the course of the session has what seems to be a seizure. He asks for help. The subject believes that this information is received not just by him, but by all the members of the collective in their rooms. The epileptic pseudo subject actually keeps his mike on for six minutes, during which the sound of his fit is being received by the subject. He asks simply for someone to go to the monitor and alert him.

“The students [subjects] had a chance to think, and then to act. Here are the results: very few acted – thirty one percent…”

However, interestingly, when the group size was varied, and the subject thought he was in a dyad – just him and the student having the seizure – eighty five percent sought help.

Darley and Latane made an amusing variant of this experiment. In this one, the subject is to go to a room and fill out a questionaire about student life. There are other students there doing the same thing. At a certain point, smoke starts coming out of the air vent into the room. Then a lot of smoke. The other students continue to work, unbothered, even as the smoke becomes so thick it is hard to see. “In the entire experiment, only one subject reported the smoke to the experimenter down the hall within four minutes, only three within the entire experimental period, and the rest not at all.” So attunded did the subjects seem to be to the social cues of the other students that they didn’t dare break a sort of taboo, even though they were obviously threatened with something, and even though the only possible pain they could suffer would be to seem embarrassingly alarmed to some strangers.

As Slater writes; “This perhaps more than any other experiment show the pure foly tht lives at the heart of human beings; it runs so contrary to human sense that we would rather risk our lives than break rank, that we value social etiquette over survival. It puts Emily Post in a whole new place. Manners are not frivolous; they are more forceful than lust, than fear, more primal – that deep preening. When Daley and Latane varied the experiment so the naïve subject was alone in the room, he or she almost always constucted the story of smoke as an emergency and reported it immediately.”

All of which is an intro to the Stendhal’s reflection on interest and what at that time (1829) was not called altruism – that word was coined by Comte some 20 years later. Which will be an upcoming post.