The attention of most libertarians seems to be easily directed at economic or political topics, but really there are a number of topics in other fields that warrant our concern as well. In fact, a few years ago television producers approached me to film a sizzle reel for a reality show and I felt the topic of social psychology was so unknown yet so important that I made it the entire focus of our project (nothing ever came of it, it seems the cable networks found other, more educational programs to produce).
In this article I wanted to bring up a few experiments in the field of social psychology that are relevant to anyone interested in human liberation. Understanding the implications of these experiments can become a form of mental self-defense for living in the 21st Century. Here are five that I find particularly important:
David Rosenhan wrote “Being Sane in Insane Places” to report the results from his clever experimental design which confirmed the most horrific implications of libertarian stalwart Thomas Szasz’s criticisms of psychiatry (this one goes hand in hand with the Dr. Fox lectures below).
This is one of my favorite studies of all time because it simply and elegantly shows how ink-horn terms and scientism can easily fool even the so-called “smartest” among us. Libertarians Hayek, Szasz and Robert Anton Wilson all concerned themselves with the perils of scientism.
Stanley Milgrim set out to understand why the people went along with the horrific dictates of Hitler and the Nazis in post-Weimar Germany. Again, through clever experimental design Milgram was able to reveal a dark human tendency that we should all be wary of; obedience to authority.
This brilliant study demonstrated, beyond a doubt, how group thinking can influence the thinking of an individual, even when it contradicts the facts. Perhaps this study would make for an interesting topic of discussion to bring up when you are feeling ganged-up on or that you are being railroaded into something by others.
Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues designed this experiment to examine the roles of prisoners and guards. Ultimately it demonstrated how we define ourselves (or our roles or “identities”) can determine our behavior. This experiment in particular proves why the pervasive notion of “identity politics” not only flies in the face of the individualist anarchist tradition but is divisive, if not dangerous.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, this is just an introduction. However, if you are interested in learning more about social psychology experiments or cognitive illusions that might be relevant to libertarians, here is some further reading that you might find fascinating (and possibly frightening):
- The Selective Attention Test
- The Bystander Effect
- Little Albert Experiment
- Carlsberg Social Experiment
- A Class Divided
- Robbers Cave Experiment
- The Monster Study
- Loftus and Palmer Eye Witness Experiments