Move Over, Milgram
By Bryan Caplan
In Stanley Milgram’s famous Obedience to Authority Study, subjects were led to believe that they were giving another human being electric shocks. Many administered what they believed was a lethal dose, just because a man in a white coat told them to. The result is fascinating, but you’ve got to admit that the experiment was pretty twisted.
Last night, on the Class Action website, I came across a description of an experiment that strikes me as similarly twisted. But in this case, the subjects knew what they were getting into. In fact, they designed the experiment themselves! The background:
We are a group of six men and women-originally eight-from different class backgrounds who have been meeting over the past three years to talk intimately about our experiences with class and money… We are a laboratory group for one another, doing research on ourselves in hopes of being better organizers in our social change work and of sharing what we learn about bridging the class divide with others down the road.
Their first notable experiment:
In our first year, we held a two-day retreat, during which time we revealed to each other our total financial worth-bank accounts, portfolios, cars, houses, debt, and potential inheritances: all of our assets and debts. This was a very scary exercise, and we had to do much work to create safety for this sharing. The people of wealth, in particular, felt apprehensive about this process, so we took time to go around and put up on newsprint all the projections that each of us thought people from the other class backgrounds might feel about us.
The person with the most money had four times more than anyone else and so grappled with a sense of isolation even from fellow wealthy caucus members. A woman from a working-class background, by working multiple jobs, had managed to save a fair amount of money, and another member of the working-class/poor caucus was shocked by the amount. Another woman struggled with the shame she felt about having so much debt, even though it was her huge, unavoidable, and class-related health care bills that had put her in that position.
But they decided to go further. Next experiment:
Following the retreat, we decided to wade into even more revealing territory: telling each other exactly how much we had spent the previous year, and on what. This was an even scarier exercise for some, because all kinds of desires are exposed in one’s check register or Quicken files. Although we are not personally responsible for our inheritances, or our lack thereof, we are all responsible for our spending choices. It was also painful to witness how unmindful or mindful we are with money. For example, one wealthy woman could not account for $8,000 that she had withdrawn from her ATM, while a woman in the working-class/poor group reported that she feels compelled to write down every cent she spends, since she needs to know exactly where she stands. Some of the folks from working-class/poor backgrounds found it hard to hear the amounts spent by people of wealth on self-care, from travel to massages.
I’m shocked, simply shocked! As Dr. Marvin Monroe said, “Well, my theory is that the subject will be socially maladjusted and will harbor a deep resentment towards me.”
These experiments could probably ruin the friendships of eight people with identical incomes. To run them in an economically mixed group must have taken true masochists. Of course, the claim is that this was a great learning experience, but sounds more like a maniacal effort to cultivate envy and guilt. Why couldn’t they have tried Gratitude Journals instead?