(From “The Daily Dish” by by Jonah Lehrer)
I’m still trying to shake some haunting thoughts of Cameron Todd Willingham, the Texas man who now appears to have been executed for a crime he didn’t commit. I linked yesterday to David Grann’s exhaustive New Yorker article, which chronicles the chronic incompetence of his criminal prosecution.
These stories of a failed justice are important, and not just because they expose specific errors. (Such as: arson investigators who got every important fact wrong, psychiatric diagnoses based on music posters and juries that should have been more skeptical.) Instead, I think these harrowing tales need to be told because they contradict a powerful moral intuition we all share, which can unfortunately lead us to turn a blind eye: Because we believe in justice, we ignore stories of injustice.
I’m talking about the Just World Hypothesis, a scientific theory first developed by the social psychologist Melvin Lerner. Consider this clever experiment, conducted in 1965: Several volunteers are told that they are about to watch, on closed circuit television, another volunteer engage in a simple test of learning. They see the unlucky subject - she is actually a graduate student, working for Lerner - being led into the room. Electrodes are attached to her body and head. She looks a little frightened.
Now the test begins. Whenever the subject gives an incorrect answer, she is given a powerful jolt of electricity. The witnesses watching on television see her writhe in pain and hear her scream. They think she is being tortured.
One group of volunteers is now given a choice: they can transfer the shocked subject to a different learning paradigm, where she is given positive reinforcements instead of painful punishments. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of people choose to end the torture. They quickly act to rectify the injustice. When asked what they thought of the “learner,” they described her as an innocent victim who didn’t deserve to be shocked. That’s why they saved her.
The other group of subjects, however, isn’t allowed to rescue the volunteer undergoing the test.
(Read More at the link.)