Most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and right place, they’re capable of anything,” says John Huston’s character, Noah Cross, in the movie “Chinatown” — dialogue that seems especially apt watching this engrossing docu collaboration to be simulcast by Sundance Channel and Court TV. Following up on their “First Amendment Project,” the cable nets tap filmmaker Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) to craft this thought-provoking examination of three controversial psychological studies whose chilling results still resonate today.
For anyone who skipped their social science requirements: In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram famously explored how the Nazis could have found Germans willing to carry out their barbarous crimes through experiments in which ordinary guys remarkably obeyed an authority figure and inflicted ever-stronger electric shocks on test subjects. Inspired by the Kitty Genovese murder case — in which 38 neighbors sat idly by as a young woman was brutally killed — Columbia U. also determined that people are less apt to respond to a crisis in group situations, a phenomenon known as “diffusion of responsibility.”
Finally, there is the 1971 Stanford prison experiment, in which randomly chosen students were divided into prisoners and guards in a mock prison environment, only to see the “guards” gradually subject their charges to increasingly cruel and shocking punishments — until the experiment was prematurely halted.
In each case, Gibney finds modern parallels, most obviously in the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, raising the question of whether those events were the work of “bad apples,” as the U.S. military has maintained, or an example of what normal soldiers can do when cast into a rotten barrel.
Two less showy examples illustrate the other studies: frat boys who ignored a pledge suffering what turned out to be a fatal episode, and store managers who complied with directions from an unseen caller falsely claiming to be the police and compelled employees to endure degrading strip searches.
At times, the grainy research footage almost humorously brings to mind the Dharma Initiative from ABC’s “Lost,” but the underlying issues — including the willingness to follow orders, even when people implicitly know what they are doing is wrong — remain as fascinating and significant now as when these experiments were conducted. As Philip Zimbardo, mastermind of the Stanford study, notes, certain environments “elicit the worst from good people” — a more complex and troubling scenario than the popular “monsters on the loose” image that dovetails with our collective desire for justice and retribution.
Gibney fleshes out the hoary video with interviews, including surviving test subjects and academics, creating a stimulating hour that would have made most of those college-level communications studies classes a lot less boring. It’s the kind of cerebral documentary programming that’s too rare, sadly, in the increasingly loud but not very bright basic cable space.
Of course, human nature being what it is, odds are no one will watch it.