Sunday, September 25, 2016

Stanford Prison Experiment, Deemed Universities, Situational Attribution

Can your employer volunteer your services to someone else without you being under any duress and without your informed consent?
The above question has haunted me over the past three days.
As I was looking for some parallels for a situation that has come to pass in the place of my work, I thought of the psycho-thriller type, US military funded experiment conducted at Stanford University in 1971 – Stanford Prison Experiment.
I will lay out the experiment as skeletally as possible. About two dozen students were paid (not an insignificant amount) to take part in an experiment where each would be assigned the duties of a prison guard or treated as a prisoner to be guarded by the chosen “guards”. Note that these students were and were not volunteers, depending on the way you look. They opted to take part in the experiment. But, they were paid too. They also had, in the words of John Rawls, a “veil of ignorance”. That is, they did not know whether they would be chosen as “guards” or “prisoners”. However, we must admit that their consent was “informed”, possibly driven by the utilitarian calculus of money for fun. This choice was random. We now come to the fun part of it.
To make a long story short, the participants, after the experimental programme was curtailed because of moral quandaries, were surprised that they acted the way they did; “guards” quite cruelly towards the “prisoners”, their fellow students. They were surprised that their “evil” tendencies were lying so shallow, to be brought out in full force merely by scratching the surface.
The psychological analysis tended to attribute the behaviour of the students to the situations they were put in – situational attribution. As a “guard” you are expected to behave that way; as a “prisoner” you were expected to be submissive, acknowledge the power of the guards. The situations were internalized by both the set of participants.
Now, shifting gears and also jumping forward more than four decades and to somewhere in Tamil Nadu. The staff and teachers of a Deemed University were told that even without their explicit informed consent they had volunteered for participation in some kind of real-life democratic exercise. The faculty seem to have “internalized” this demand – no volunteerism evident anywhere – from the management of the Deemed University. The management, on its part, seem to have internalized the idea that this demand on their employees is par for the course – expected of it. So, as you can see, my effort to locate a parallel sent me back across the oceans and some four decades earlier. Yes, situational attribution is alive and kicking.
Given this, can the management be faulted for, what appears to be its callous treatment of its employees? Could you have blamed the student “guards”? No. The situation may be the same here. What about the staff? No different. What drove both the sets in both the instances temporally and spatially so far apart?
One word answer – money.
The US military wanted an experiment conducted. They threw money at the willing. Here, the Indian government has done the same, in the guise of promoting education through education entrepreneurs and throwing freebies at them. The entrepreneurs were more than willing. The salary the employer pays is the precise equivalence of the money offered to participate in the experiment. The “uninformed consent” the staff ostensibly gave is the equivalence of the “veil of ignorance” mentioned in the context of the Stanford experiment.
To answer the opening question – YES.
The salary you draw from your employer makes up for all the “informed consent”, lack of volunteerism and whatever else one can think of. The salary is the yoke and you are the bullock.
Raghuram Ekambaram


Aditi said...

Informed consent is a misnomer in case of a power-play situation.In a narrow context,wish of the Government to draw manpower for election related activities is a command for the institutions, private or public, and those in charge of administration/HR in such institutions merrily offer services of those the institution pays salary to (carefully and invariably exempting themselves from the begins at home).

mandakolathur said...

Absolutely Aditi.

The government can and does commandeer the services of the citizens; look at the US. One can be called upon to serve as jurors and one's employer picks up the tab as the salary of the employee cannot be cut on the days of jury duty. In my place, the time off is seen as a "gift" of the management to its employees. Some gift! Have the courage to admit you are forcing people and you do not have the courtesy of acknowledging that your employee is doing his/her civic duty. You are protecting your bottom line. This is as cheap as cheapness can get.