It’s tempting to think that fascism is in the past — it’s that thing that the Axis Powers in World War II were really into, and outside of maybe North Korea, it’s not something we really need to worry about in the modern world. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. These five social experiments prove that — and should scare you how easy it is to fall into these traps.
1. A Class Divided: Brown Eyes Versus Blue Eyes (1968)
Who Did It: Jane Elliott, a third-grade teacher in the (then) all-white town of Riceville, Iowa.
What’s The Big Deal: The day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, Jane Elliott had an idea to teach her class of white students a lesson in prejudice. Though she’d been talking about bigotry with her students since the beginning of the school year, she felt that it was something the children still didn’t really understand. She decided to show them what prejudice was, first hand: She announced they were going to play a game, and explained that blue-eyed people were smarter and all around better than those with brown eyes.
As it turned out, that was all it took — within hours, the children had internalized the superiority of blue-eyed children and started bullying each other over eye color. The next day, Elliott announced she’d been mistaken — it was the brown-eyed people who were better all along, and the power dynamic flipped. At the end of the school day, they’d each felt first-hand what it was like to be discriminated against for something beyond their control.
It’s not just children who get sucked into these games — in the years since, Elliott has played her “game” with many groups, including adult prison guards. It always happens this way.
Why Should It Concern Us Now: Considering that Presidential candidate Donald Trump has been demonizing Mexicans to get support — and his rallies have been home to many violent incidents… and he’s been endorsed by KKK leaders — we’re getting a demonstration on how easy it is to gin up prejudice right now. Unfortunately, unlike in Jane Elliott’s experiment, Trump hasn’t been instilling empathy for oppressed groups.
2. The Third Wave (1967)
Who Did It: Ron Jones, a high-school history teacher in Palo Alto, California.
What’s The Big Deal: Similar to Jane Elliott’s attempt to explain how prejudice can kill someone like Martin Luther King, Jr., Jones wanted to demonstrate to his students how German citizens in World War II could be ignorant of the Holocaust. So over a week, he turned his class into a model of the rise of fascism.
On the first day, Jones positioned himself as a stern, authoritarian leader; though he was strict with discipline, he made the class very efficient. The next day, he announced that his methods were part of a new movement — “The Third Wave,” claiming the third in a series of waves is the strongest (not true: It’s actually the ninth) — and ordered his students to salute each other, even outside of the classroom.
On the next day, more students became interested in the Third Wave; his class gained an extra thirteen students. All of the students were highly motivated and had improved in their learning skills. Jones told the class to recruit more — and by the end of the day, they had more than 200 students following their cause. He also found that students were tattling on others who didn’t follow Jones’ rules.
The fourth day, Jones tried to end the experiment because it had spiralled out of control. Unfortunately, the students were still highly involved — so he told them all that there’d be a rally that Friday to see an TV announcement of a presidential candidate using Third Wave principles would announce themselves to the world.
On that Friday, there was no TV announcement — they watched a blank TV station for a few minutes until Jones came forward and told them they’d just willingly created the same sense of superiority that happened in Nazi Germany — and then showed them a film about the Third Reich.
While The Third Wave never became racist, it shows exactly how an Adolf Hitler could rise to power — and how easy it can be to be taken in.
Why Should It Concern Us Now: The rise of the alt-right movement — especially online with its GamerGate ties — is linked with white supremacy and fascism itself. Many members of the movement even openly identify as fascist. While most of the individual alt-rightists generally come off as nutters, The Third Wave shows us how dangerous it is to write off the movement — all they need is a charismatic leader to coalesce under, and they could pick up steam quickly.
3. The Milgram Experiment (1961)
Who Did It: Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University
What’s The Big Deal: Adolf Eichmann’s trial started three months prior to the beginning of the Milgram Experiment — and Milgram wanted to explore the idea of the Nuremberg defense, or “I was just following orders.”
To test the power of a superior’s orders, Milgram set up a study involving three people: The experimenter, the “learner” and the “teacher”. The teacher would read off word-pairs and the learner would press a button with the correct answer. If the learner was incorrect, though, they’d receive a series of electric shocks, each increasing by 15 volts with each wrong answer.
As it turned out, the experimenter and the learner were both in on the experiment — aside from the initial shock to the teacher to give them a sense of what the starting shock felt like, no electricity entered into any bodies. Instead, the switches that administered the shocks were actually attached to a tape recorder that played different screams based on the voltage the learner was allegedly getting. The learner also claimed to have a heart condition.
The initial “shocks” were mild — but quickly became more and more painful. At a certain point, the learner would start to bang on the wall, complaining about his heart condition — until there were no responses at all. While most teachers did push back — asking to check on the learner, or questioning the purpose of the experiment — the experimenter always told them to continue no matter what.
The experiment ended either when the teacher refused four times to continue or after the maximum shock — denoted on the switchboard as “X” — was given three times.
In the first study, 65 percent of teachers gave the learner the full course of shocks.
Why Should It Concern Us Now: While people like to think they’ll do the right thing, Milgram’s experiment shows precisely how authoritarianism can take hold and make us act against our own moral code. It’s surprisingly easy to manipulate people into doing evil, even if they consider themselves a good person. It’s an abject warning to be on the lookout for authoritarianism and fascism in all its forms and fight it where we can.
4. Stanford Prison Experiment (1971)
Who Did It: Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford University.
What’s The Big Deal: Zimbardo wanted to explore the relationship between prisoners and prison guards. Zimbardo recruited college students to take part in a two week study where they’d be placed in a mock prison in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford — half of the subjects would be prisoners, and the other half would be guards. Zimbardo himself was the superintendent of the “prison” and one of his research assistants was the warden.
The day before the experiment, the guards were given an orientation session where they were told not to physically harm the “prisoners”, nor withhold food or drink from them. That night, the prisoners were “arrested” and taken from their homes, and “charged” with armed robbery. The actual police department in Palo Alto assisted with the “arrests” and booked them the way they would an actual suspect.
Cells in the prison held three people each, a “prison yard” was set up in a hallway and a closet was used for solitary confinement. There was also another, larger room across from the prisoners where the guards and warden stayed to watch the prisoners. While the prisoners had to stay in prison for 24 hours a day, the guards could go home after their eight-hour shifts.
The first day was fine — but that was the only time that was true. Conditions quickly deteriorated — on the second day, the prisoners tried to rebel and were put down by guards with fire extinguishers. Since the guards were having trouble controlling the prisoners, one guard — on their own, this was not a suggestion from the researchers — suggested using psychological techniques, praising the prisoners not involved in the riot and giving them special privileges.
Guards broke down the other prisoners by making them endlessly repeat their own identification numbers, refusing to let them empty the buckets the prisoners were forced to use as a toilet, stripping them nude, taking their mattresses.
Though the experiment was slated to last two weeks, it was ended after only six days — one prisoner had gone home after severe psychological disturbance after only 36 hours — when a graduate student sent to interview the participants objected to the conditions of the prison. She was the only one to object — out of over fifty observers — on ethical grounds.
Why Should It Concern Us Now: Prisons in America are frightening, overcrowded places where inmates are abused and the focus is more on punishment than rehabilitation. Not only that, but with the increase in for-profit prisons, keeping prisoners has become profitable. There’ve even been scandals where judges have been given money for sending more people to jail. While the Zimbardo experiment is horrifying, it’s a clear example as to why we need to be very careful when it comes to keeping prisons, as they can quickly become nightmare scenarios.
5. The Hofling Hospital Experiment (1966)
Who Did It: Charles K. Hofling, a psychiatrist.
What’s The Big Deal: In Hofling’s experiment, he was looking to find if nurses would act against their own better judgement and hospital protocol if told to by a doctor.
Working with an unnamed United States hospital, a researcher would call a nurse as Dr. Smith, and ask them to administer 20 mg of a new drug, Astroten, to a patient — “Dr. Smith” would fill out the paperwork once he got to the hospital.
While Astroten was placed in the drug cabinet where nurses get the medicine they need for their patients, it was not on the approved drug list from the hospital. Not just that, but the label clearly indicated that 10 mg was the maximum dosage.
Astroten doesn’t actually exist — it was just a placebo — and nurses were stopped at the door before the drug could be given to the patient.
There were many reasons why the drug shouldn’t have been given: It was twice the stated safe dosage, nurses should only take orders from doctors they know — not unknown doctors over the phone — and they should never give a drug that’s not on the approved list. Likewise, the paperwork has to be done by the doctor before the drug can be administered.
Twenty-two nurses were given this test. Of those, twenty-one would have given the patient the overdose.
Why Should It Concern Us Now: A recent hoax going around has seen someone call up restaurants, say they’re from the fire department, and they need to break all the windows in the building due to a buildup of gas that, if they don’t do this, will cause the restaurant to explode.
When the story went viral, the common refrain was to mock the people who fell for the hoax — after all, it wasn’t a real official, surely if there was a gas buildup, they could have just opened the doors, et cetera, et cetera. (A film, Compliance, focused on a similar incident, where a caller posing as a police officer, made a McDonald’s employee strip and perform sexual acts.)
Hofling’s study shows us exactly why we shouldn’t mock these people, and why false authority is so dangerous.
(Featured image via Recuerdos de Pandora/Flickr)