I recently read an article from The Atlantic Monthly online titled “Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber.” The author, Alston Chase, has corresponded with Ted Kaczynski at length and also wrote the book A Mind for Murder: The Education of the Unabomber and the Origins of Modern Terrorism. I first came across Alston Chase’s work when I listened to a Radio Lab podcast about an experiment conducted at Harvard during the 1950s. The experimenter, psychologist Harry Murray, had worked for the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, studying (and creating experiments on) stress in interrogations. It’s unclear whether his experiments at Harvard were under the auspices of the OSS or whether they were independently motivated. According to Chase, it’s even unclear what the real purpose of the Harvard experiments were.
The experiments, conducted over a period of 3 years, deceived Harvard students and subjected them to severe stress and cruelty. At one point in the experiments, students were asked to write an autobiography and detail very personal accounts related to their sexuality, toilet training, and other intimate experiences. They were told they’d be meeting with another student, who had also written an autobiography, to discuss their various experiences. Instead, they were placed in brightly lit interrogation rooms, hooked to electrodes to monitor their responses, filmed through a one-way mirror — from which they were being observed — and then ridiculed, humiliated, insulted and victimized by an older stooge, not a peer as they were expecting. They were later required to watch the videos of themselves undergoing this humiliation and trauma.
Ted Kaczynski was one of the students in these experiments, and although he wouldn’t talk about them with Chase, it turns out that he had a huge negative response, according to the monitors of his stress levels. Chase explores whether these experiments influenced Kaczynski such that he became more predisposed to carry out his murders as the Unabomber.
When I heard about these experiments, and after getting over my shock that they were ever conducted, I couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened had a different experiment been performed. In one of the experiments Murray did, the students wrote their life philosophies. What if an experimenter asked students to write a combination autobiography, personal philosophy and goals for their lives and a “stooge” validated their ideas and encouraged their interests and supported their goals, and rather than humiliate them, extolled their virtues. What if they went over the top in the other direction? I’m not suggesting that this would be a good thing to do, but I wonder what the result would be. What might the students do with such praise and validation? Who might they become? How might Ted Kaczynski’s life have been different had this been the experimental protocol conducted over three years? And lastly, where are the social psychology experiments that seek to bring out the best in people so that we can learn how better to foster compassion, courage, honesty and integrity for a healthier world?
Author of Most Good, Least Harm and Above All, Be Kind
Image courtesy of myguerrilla via Creative Commons.
Like our blog? Please share it with others, comment, and/or subscribe to our RSS feed.