PHIL 181: Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature

Lecture 7

 - Flourishing and Attachment


The discussion of the disordered soul continues with a reflection on the Stanley Milgram’s famous studies, in which participants were directed to perform harmful actions that ran counter to their reflective moral commitments. Interestingly, such demands were more likely followed when the commander was closer to the subject and the victim further away. What is it about proximity to others that has this effect on us? Professor Gendler goes on to discuss the relationship between social attachment and human flourishing, reviewing Harlow’s wire mother/cloth mother experiments on non-human primates, studies of attachment styles in infants, and cross-cultural research demonstrating the importance of social relationships for flourishing and health.

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Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature

PHIL 181 - Lecture 7 - Flourishing and Attachment

Chapter 1. The Milgram Studies [00:00:00]

Professor Tamar Gendler: So I want to begin today by continuing at the point where we left off the in the previous lecture. Which was to talk about, in the context of Jonathan Shay’s work, Achilles In Vietnam, the costs that seem to arise when people find themselves through circumstance engaging in behavior that they, on reflection, believe to be immoral or unjust.

So in 1961, in newspapers throughout the New Haven area, the following advertisement appeared. It said, “Public announcement. We will pay you $4”–that was quite a bit of money at that time–”$4 for one hour of your time. Persons needed for study of memory. We will pay 500 New Haven men to help us complete a scientific study of memory and learning. The study is being done at Yale University. Each person who participates will be will be paid $4, plus $0.50 in carfare, for approximately one hour’s time. We need you only for that one hour. There no further obligations. You may choose the time that you would like to come, evenings, weekends, or weekdays.” And then the ad continued by saying that “no special training, education, or experience was needed,” that they wanted “factory workers, city employees, laborers, barbers, businessmen, clerks, professional people, telephone workers, construction workers, salespeople, white collar workers, and others.”

So when people answered this advertisement, they were invited to come to a building whose exterior should be familiar to you. The building was Linsley-Chittenden Hall. And when they walked into that building, they encountered the study of a gentleman who looked like this. [Milgram image] The advertisement that I’ve just shown you is, of course, the advertisement recruiting subjects to participate in the famous Milgram study.

So the participants filled out the coupon at the bottom of the ad and came to laboratory in what is now Linsley-Chittenden Hall. The configuration of the building was different then, but the facade was grand, and the lab was elegant.

When subjects entered the lab, they were told that they would be participating in a study of learning and memory, and they were told that there were two roles that they might play. They might be the teacher, or they might be the learner. But as a matter of fact, when they drew the folded pieces of paper, both of them said “teacher,” and the other subject, who was apparently participating in this study, was in fact the collaborator.

So when the study was actually carried out, the people who played the role of teacher were forty men from the New Haven area who had responded to these ads who ranged in age from twenty to fifty, who had a wide range of occupations and education levels. And all of them were told that that they were going to engage in a task that involved testing the role of punishment on learning, and they were told that the second character, the learner, who was a forty-seven-year-old accountant of Irish-American stock whom almost all of them described as mild-mannered and likeable, would be presented with a series of pairs of words, and that their task would simply be to provide him with an electric shock every time he got the answer wrong.

And in order to supervise the study as it went on, there was a third person present–the experimenter–who was a stern, impassive thirty-one-year-old high school biology teacher. So in every single one of the cases, two of the figures, the experimenter and the learner, were the same, and one of the figures, the teacher, varied.

The task was as follows. They were presented with a machine that had on it a series of switches that began with the label “slight shock:” 15 volt, 30 volt, 45 volt, 60 volt, and continued in increments of 15–75, 90, 105, 120, et cetera, all the way through “intense shock: 255, 270, 285, 300, “danger severe shock”, and finally (don’t search for this on Google!)-“XXX.”

So they were each given a shock, purportedly by the machine, of 45 volts, which most of them estimated to be 70 volts. That is, they felt it quite intensely. And then they were told that they would need to administer a shock to the learner every time he made a mistake.

Now, before Milgram conducted this study, he surveyed a bunch of Yale senior psychology majors who made predictions about how many shocks the teachers would be willing to give. And if you can see from this graph, that prediction was that no more than 3% of subjects would give shocks at the level 20, which is down at the level of danger, and that virtually no one would go to the highest level.

What happened instead, all of you know, with respect to the slight shocks (15, 30, 45, 60), 100% of the teachers gave them. With respect to the intense shocks (255, 270, 285, 300), 88% of the subjects went there. When they expressed dissatisfaction at continuing, they were told by the experimenter, “Please continue,” or “The experiment requires that you continue” or “It is absolutely essential that you continue,” or “You have no other choice, you must go on,” but no other encouragement was provided. Nonetheless, up to the level of “danger, severe shock,” 68% of the subjects continued, and all the way up to the very last level, 65% continued.

This much is frequently emphasized when people discuss the Milgram experiment, and its extraordinary fact about human beings that Milgram was prompted to investigate because, of course, this possibility had just been demonstrated profoundly for the world outside of the laboratory. The research that Milgram conducted was inspired by an attempt to understand what could possibly have explained the behavior of ordinary German citizens in Nazi Germany.

That said, what I want to bring out about the Milgram study is in fact the part of the discussion that comes subsequent to what I’ve just presented. Which is the discussion of what it felt like, subjectively, to these subjects, when they felt themselves to be perpetrating painful behavior on another. As, as you can see from this slide, so many of them did.

The psychological response of the subjects sounds like what we read in Jonathan Shay’s book for the last lecture. Many subjects showed “signs of nervousness, especially upon administering the more powerful shocks. In a large number of cases, the degree of tension reached extremes rarely seen in such laboratory subjects. They were observed to sweat, to stutter, to bite their lips, to groan, to dig their fingernails into their flesh.”

These were characteristic rather than exceptional responses. And if you’ve never seen the film that Milgram made in conducting the experiments–which are not public domain, but I here just give you information about something that’s on the Internet–you can listen to the experimenter’s calm voice, and watch the subjects’ agitation.

Here’s a description. “One might suppose,” says Milgram, reporting, “that a subject would simply break off, or continue as his conscience dictated. Yet this is far from what happened. There were striking reactions of tension and emotional strain. One observer related, ‘I observed a mature and initially poised businessman enter the laboratory, smiling and confident. Within twenty minutes, he was reduced to a twitching, stuttering wreck. He constantly pulled on his earlobe. He twisted his hands. At one point, he pushed his fist into his forehead, and muttered, “Oh God, let’s stop it,” and yet, and yet he continued to respond to every word of the experimenter, and obeyed to the end.’”

So it’s a funny thing about we human creatures. That on the one hand, we seem to have a sense of what we can comfortably put up with. And we have, on the contrary, an ability to go beyond that. That capacity can be exploited for the good or for the bad. Those of you who are on sports teams know the experience of being pushed past what you thought could possibly be your limit, and finding yourself carrying through, despite the fact that initially it seems like something impossible.

But it’s always the case that things with which we feel repulsion are things that we may find ourselves carrying out. Nonetheless, that carries with it psychic costs. And that’s the second answer that I want to give in the context of the lecture on themis to Glaucon’s challenge.

Chapter 2. Personal Interaction and Moral Behavior [00:10:54]

I want to turn now to the topic of today’s lecture, flourishing and attachment, by actually continuing with a variation on the Milgram studies. Because after Milgram found these results through the 1961 work, he was gripped by the question, under what circumstances was compliance more or less likely? So in a follow-up study done the next year, Milgram explored the question in its most general form, as follows.

In its most general form, the problem is this: “if X tells Y to hurt Z, under what conditions will Y carry out the command of X, and under what conditions will he refuse? In the more limited form possible in laboratory research, the question becomes: if an experimenter tells a subject to hurt another person, under what conditions will the subject go along with this instruction, and under what conditions will he refuse to obey?”

Milgram set out to test this by varying along a continuum the degree of human interaction in the study. So in one series of studies, the experimenter, the one telling you to continue, was either in the room with you, or on the phone with you, or such that you only received written instructions. And the tendency of subjects to collaborate, to cooperate, to do what was asked of them, declined directly with whether the experimenter was present in the room with them.

Likewise, Milgram varied the extent to which the subject received feedback from the person being shocked. Did they receive no feedback, called the remote condition? Did they receive the sort of voice feedback, as in the initial experiments, where you’d hear the person shouting through the wall, “It’s painful, I’m hurting, please stop?” Were they in the room with the subject, observing him suffer, or did they finally, in the most extreme condition, need to take the subject’s arm, put it onto a metal plate, and hold the there in order to give him a shock?

What Milgram discovered is that although compliance is extremely high when there’s no feedback from the sufferer, it’s lower when there’s voice feedback, lower still when you’re in the room with the person you’re harming, and lower still when you yourself need to use your body to cause harm.

You’ll recall in the very first lecture, the introductory lecture, when I was telling you about one of the questions we would discuss this term, that I presented you with something called the trolley problem, a case where a trolley is hurtling down a track, and it’s headed towards five people. And in the first version of that study, I asked you whether it would be morally acceptable to divert the trolley in such a way that it went onto a track where there was only one person, and most of you thought that was all right.

In the second variation of the study, I asked you whether it would be OK to stop the trolley by pushing into the track of a trolley a fat man who was standing next to you on a bridge overlooking the tracks. And most of you thought that was NOT OK.

There’s something in the human perception of our interactions with one another that seems to give rise to anxiety in the face of caused harms whose consequences we see. Milgram articulates it thus. He says, “In the remote, and to a lesser extent, the voice feedback condition, the victim suffering possesses an abstract, remote quality for the subject. He’s aware, but only in a conceptual sense.” His reason knows, in Plato’s terminology, but the other parts of his soul haven’t registered what’s going on.

“This phenomenon,” Milgram continues, “is common enough. The bombardier can reasonably suppose that his weapons will inflict suffering and death. In fact, they do just as good a job killing people as bayonets do. But this knowledge is divested of affect, and does not move him to have felt emotional response to the sufferings of his actions.”

Similar observations had been made in wartime. Visual cues associated with the victim’s suffering trigger empathic responses in the subject and provide him with a more complete grasp of the victim’s experience. And it turns out that one of the major strategies in Nazi Germany to enable people to commit harm against their neighbors was to use a language of dehumanization that referred to the groups being harmed–the Jews, the gypsies, the homosexuals–as non-human in some way. When we perceive another as human, it is difficult to overcome the tendency not to want to harm them.

And though I’ve given you a number of examples of the way in which military resistance can be a powerful mechanism for pursuing one’s will, this fact that Milgram observed is actually what underlies the possibility of another form of resistance which has been, in some circumstances, shockingly effective.

Here’s Gandhi, engaging in nonviolent protests in India in the 1940s. Here’s a sit-in at the lunch counters in Selma, Alabama in 1963. And here, of course, is one of the most famous pictures of the last two decades. An individual standing alone before tanks in a way that causes them to halt their motion in Tiananmen Square.

So what is it in about human beings that makes it easier for us to avoid demands when the person making the demands of us isn’t present, and harder for us to carry through demands when we have to look face to face at the person we are harming? Well, what it is about human beings is the unsurprising fact that we are fundamentally, deep down, and profoundly social entities. And we’re social entities in a way that is continuous with our non-human primate ancestors.

Chapter 3. Attachment in Infants and Non-Human Primates [00:18:26]

So Harry Harlow, in the first half of the century, conducted a number of studies using non-human primates to try to figure out what role emotional connection and social bonding played in allowing them to flourish. So in the famous wire versus cloth mother studies, monkeys–there’s a little one right there–were presented with two beings, wire beings with whom they could spend their time. The wire mother had milk, and they needed to go to her to get food, but the cloth mother had comfort, and if they wanted to be consoled, they needed to go to her.

And monkey after monkey after monkey did what you see in this picture. Went–and the fact that you’re saying “aw” is evidence of the point that I’m making. So we think this is adorable. We think–in fact, it’s very hard to control your facial muscles when you look at that picture. Right? All of us are looking at it, seeing these big warm eyes, and this expression of affection.

It is part of the primate maturation experience that in order to become a healthy and flourishing member of the species, early social contact is crucial. And indeed, some of Harlow’s more morally problematic studies involved subjecting young monkeys to complete social deprivation, and discovering afterwards that when they came out of that deprivation, their behavior was incompatible with living in a community. Not only were they hostile and aggressive towards their peers, even with respect to the children that they had, they were incapable of engaging in nurturing.

So one might wonder, as Harlow’s student John Bowlby and his collaborator, Mary Ainsworth, did, whether there’s anything that can be said about what’s required for human beings to flourish that can be learned from the picture that we see in the Harlow wire baby cloth baby studies. That is, is it possible that for human beings to thrive, we need a certain sort of warmth and interaction that isn’t limited merely to the receipt of nutrients required for maturation from a wire mother?

So I take this next slide, this next chart, from a website called “Positive Parenting,” because I want you to recognize how much the picture that Bowlby and Ainsworth have advanced has permeated contemporary conceptions of how it is that it’s appropriate to parent one’s children.

So famously, Mary Ainsworth brought young children, roughly two years old, into a laboratory setting along with their primary caregiver. And the question she wanted to see was, how comfortable were the children in what was known as a strange situation, a situation in which they would be required to set out on their own, away from their caregiver, in order to engage with some appealing toys.

And on the basis of that, that she identified three–it’s now been expanded to four–three styles of attachment that children might have to their caregivers. The first, which she called secure attachment, results from early childhood experience that involves predictable responsiveness to one’s needs by somebody who feels affection for you. If you are hungry, somebody responds by providing you with food. If you are sore, somebody responds by comforting your pain. If you are cold, somebody responds by warming you up.

And all of this is done in such a way that you begin to form an impression of yourself as an agent in the world whose expression of needs and desires can evince in other conscious beings responses that reflect what it is that you need and desire. The world becomes a place in which social trust is possible, and the early instincts that you come to have, when presented with the faces and bodies of conspecifics, cause you, later on, to have as your most primitive response pattern an expectation that, if there’s no evidence to the contrary, that conspecific is going to be responsive to your honest and expressed needs.

By contrast, a smaller percentage of the children exhibited what Ainsworth called avoidant attachment. They were unwilling to explore the room, and they were unwilling to do so, hypothesized Ainsworth, because their early childhood experience had been one with a disengaged or distant caregiver. Upon expression of need, there was no sense that if there’s a social other, that social other will respond to what it is that you are asking for. So there’s a sense that develops that the world is not a safe and cooperative place.

The third group were children that she called ambivalently attached. Ambivalently attached children experienced a regimen of response which was sometimes in keeping with what they asked, and sometimes ignoring them entirely. So although they didn’t have the sense that the world never does what you ask it too, they did have the sense that the world doesn’t reliably do what you ask it to.

And finally, into a fourth category added subsequently, fall children who are not merely ignored, but who are in fact abused or mistreated in the face of expression of need.

Now, this taxonomy is not of a level of precision that it will tell you easily for every child into which category they fall as a result of their treatment. There are lots of issues about innate dispositions that children have, and there are lots of cases where it might not be clear how to put children into this taxonomy.

Nonetheless, it has served as the basis for one of the most extraordinary scientific studies conducted in the last century, which is a thirty-year longitudinal study conducted by people who took attachment theory seriously, who looked at the extent to which predictors of subsequent flourishing could be traced to early childhood experience. And this book, The Development of the Person (which I read over the summer) is extraordinary in the sense that it shows what it takes to establish a complicated social scientific hypothesis with even a reasonable degree of certainty.

Because of course, if you want to find out about whether early childhood experience affects subsequent development, we can’t use you guys, because we lost our time machine. We left it in the future. So we can’t go back and look at what your childhoods were like. All of these studies needed to be done prospectively.

So what this group did was to study hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of children, with incredible effort to follow them even when they moved away. And the basic conclusion that they draw–the book is several hundred pages long, but the basic conclusion that they draw confirms the thesis that attachment theory hypothesizes. That early childhood experience, and particularly early childhood experience of a trusting and responsive relationship, significantly shapes later patterns of response to the world.

But of course, we’ve heard that before. We heard it when we were told that “it’s not unimportant to acquire one sort of habit or another right from youth. It is, in fact, all-important.”

Now, none of this is to say that those whose early childhood experiences were not optimal will never flourish or thrive. The human spirit is remarkably resilient, and it is possible, through certain kinds of therapeutic interaction, or certain kinds of cultivation of other trusting relations, to overcome early childhood deprivation. But there is an easier path to flourishing, and that is the one that goes through trusting early childhood.

Chapter 4. Importance of Social Interaction in Human Flourishing [00:28:53]

Now, the fact that human beings are social beings affects us not just at the beginning of the lifespan, but also at the end. “If you want to predict,” points out Jonathan Haidt, “how happy someone is, or how long they’re likely to live, you should find out about their social relationships. Having strong social relationships strengthens the immune system. It extends life more than quitting smoking. It speeds recovery from surgery, reduces the risk of depression and anxiety disorders.” Social interactions are crucial to human flourishing.

And this is not just something that we discover in the West. Here are some titles of articles that I pulled out of Google Scholar when I was doing my directed exercise three: “Effects of Social Integration: On Preserving Memory Function in a U.S. Elderly Population.” Here’s one about ten-year survival rate in friendships in an Australian society. Here’s one about social integration and mortality in France. Here’s one about social interaction and mortality in Sweden. Here’s one in Finland. Here’s one in Japan. Here’s one in China. In every culture, which anybody has looked at, social engagement is crucial to human flourishing.

Now, we might want ask whether this tells us anything about the question that we’re concerned within this segment of the course–the question of human flourishing–and whether this tells us anything about the questions that we’re going to address in the subsequent units of the course: our discussions of morality and our discussions of political philosophy.

So Harrow and Bowlby and Ainsworth and the Minnesota study have pointed out that in order for human beings to develop the kind of trusting relationships that enables a society even to get off the ground, it’s crucial that there be a certain sort of stable social connection in infancy. We’ll ask, in the context of our discussion of political philosophy, whether this has any implications for how a society needs to be structured if we hope to cultivate in it just citizens capable of domestic and democratic participation.

Does it mean, astoundingly, that something we might think would be of no concern as far as political philosophy goes, the internal structure of the family, is of concern, as far as political philosophy goes? And if so, does that turn out to be a victory for the left? For the right? For something else altogether?

We’ll ask–in the context of Haidt’s discussion of romantic love as an extraordinary combination, as you read, of our capacity for attachment, our capacity for caregiving, and our capacity for mating–whether any moral code we have needs to respect the fact that we will have special relationships to certain individuals that will render us incapable of treating them as one among many, even though what morality seems to demand of us is that we treat everybody equally.

We’ll ask–in the context of Nozick’s discussion in the paper that we read of love as a formation of a we–whether when we form connections that extend beyond individuals connections to things like neighborhoods or religious communities or nations, whether that itself has any moral or political bearing.

We’ll turn back to the question raised by Shane [correction: James] Stockdale who pointed out to us the importance of friendship, of unit cohesion, and of close camaraderie in permitting resilience in the face of suffering, whether it’s in fact incumbent upon political structures to promote stability in communities so as to allow people to weather the storms that fortune brings.

And in so doing, we’ll be able to make sense of this extraordinarily strange phenomenon, which is that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, a book about ethics that grounds the Western ethical tradition, includes within its twelve chapters, two full chapters devoted to the question of friendship, in which Aristotle begins by pointing out that if you are young or if you are old, if you are rich, if you are poor, if you are at a time of your life when things are going well, or if you’re at a time of your life where things are going badly, nothing plays a more central role in allowing you to flourish than friendship does.

Chapter 5. Questions [00:34:33]

Thanks to all of you for coming by for an extra lecture. I’m happy to take questions, though technically we’ve come to the end of the fifty minutes that we were allotted. But I’m happy to answer questions, because there’s no deadline. Hello, yeah.

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Tamar Gendler: No, people can go! Ask your question. I’d love to answer it.

Student: [inaudible] between early childhood nurturing, which leads to flourishing, and neglect, which would lead to something bad. But that seems to be kind of morally charged, there’s a value judgment inherent in all of this. And I’ve been wondering because I think that book that you mentioned about different facets of our personality [unintelligible] experience because we can’t say that necessarily there’s a good way to know how to raise your child.

Professor Tamar Gendler: OK so the question was, look, I made a statement that a certain kind of early childhood nurturing seems to lead to social capabilities of a certain kind, whereas early childhood neglect seems to lead to social disabilities. In making that statement, A, am I making a value judgment that’s illegitimate about how we want to be able to function in society, B, am I making a value judgment that’s illegitimate about what’s appropriate in child rearing?

So let me turn to the second first. The claims about early childhood nurturing that are made here are primarily about roughly the first eighteen months of life. There is great dispute here on campus and elsewhere about what is appropriate after those first eighteen months. But there seems to be pretty clear evidence, both domestically and cross-culturally, that during the first eighteen months, the idea of too much nurturing, too much responsiveness, is one on which it’s hard to get a handle. That is, being such that your needs are responded to seems to be a way of promoting stability and trust.

OK. Back to your first question: are we making value judgments about what it’s like to be a good person when we say: we’re looking to cultivate in ourselves the possibility of trust and connection instead of a life of distrust? I suppose there are circumstances, societies in which being trusting would be a detriment. Being able to respond to somebody without constantly being on guard would be dangerous. And in those circumstances, it would perhaps make sense to cultivate a different kind of early childhood experience. Whether that shows that we’ve found two equally good forms of flourishing is something we’ll talk about when we talk about moral relativism in a few weeks. Good. Thanks.

[end of transcript]

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