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A Better Title for The Trap

Adam Curtis named his 2007 3-part documentary The Trap (although according to Wikipedia, he originally intended to call it “Cold Cold Heart”). Through three hours and many, many engaging sound transitions, Curtis details the history of the second half of 20th century and into the 21st, as told through the lens of game theory.

According to Curtis’ history, today’s political reality can be explained by studying the application of game theory to social theory, economic policy, political philosophy, and political practice.

The problem with the title The Trap is its dynamic, implicating connotation. Trap means springloaded potential energy, something ready to snap, something somebody trips, something that somebody sets for somebody/thing else. It implies a before and after, cause and effect, hunter and hunted. It gives you a clear mental picture and even a sound – snap! “Something’s caught in that trap and I’m not touching it.”

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InSANEity – The “Thud” Experiment

While watching Adam Curtis’s excellent (in my opinion) three part documentary, one part in particular stood out for me, the “thud”experiment. I honestly found this short segment of the film to send a shiver down my back, i couldn’t believe what i was watching and hearing.  Based on the beliefs of RD Laing, who considered the psychiatric and medical establishments as corrupt elites that used their practice as a form of political control. The man that performed the experiment to test this theory was a man named David Rosenhan. He sent 8 people (who of course had no history of mental issued, unlike our good friend John Nash…), including himself, to different mental hospitals across the country. They presented themselves as they normally were, 100% sane, except that they were to say that they heard a voice in their head that said “thud”.

Shockingly, 100 % of them were diagnosed as insane by the hospital. When they tried to tel the doctors that they were sane, they were in no way listened to. In the end, the only way to get out (Rosenhan himself was detained for 2 MONTHS!) was to agree with the doctors perceptions of them and say that they were indeed crazy but that they were getting better.  This experiment was published, and unsurprisingly caused an uproar among the psychiatrists, as it challenged their categories of sanity and madness.  One hospital invited Rosenhan to send other fakes, claiming that they would be able to root them out if they knew that there was a possibility of impostors. A month later, they delightedly reported that they had discovered 41 fakes, when in fact Rosenhan had sent NO ONE.

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As if the first part of the experiment wasn’t damning enough, the psychiatric establishment outed themselves as frauds in their attempt to prove their validity to the public. It clearly shows that their categories for diagnoses were severely flawed, if not completely off the mark. I mean, when 8 normal sane men are diagnosed as bipolar and paranoid schizophrenics, it might be time to make some changes.

However, the most surprising effect of this is the aftermath, in which psychiatry made a dramatic shift to a more self-diagnosis type of medicine, in which potential patients would examine lists of symptoms and use them as a “checklist”.  This has created a massively medicated society, as it has propagated the idea that there is a “normal” way to feel, and that emotions such as sadness, anxiety, and anger shouldn’t be ways of coming to terms with events in one’s life. I myself was told in 6th grade that I might have ADD because I happened to be social and chatty in class; since when are good social skills something abnormal? The real irony of the thud experiment is that by dismantling the way that psychiatry was viewed, it inadvertently caused it to move into a more dangerous direction, a direction in which “patients” are all too happy to find out they have a “mental condition”.



The Trap in Psychology and Education

Watching the Trap at this point in my life is timely on so many levels. For the obvious reasons of the way the world is right now, and also for the reason that as an individual, I am at a point where I question everything, especially what freedom and liberty mean to me.

There are so many ways in which this documentary got me thinking, and it is hard for me to choose one to talk about here. But, based on my background and what I am studying right now, the easy parallels for me to draw are to psychology and education.

The way that psychiatrists and economists reduced human beings to machines that can be analyzed and dissected by symptoms and behaviors mirrors the early behaviorist and conditioning approach in psychology as pioneered by Pavlov (you can also play a dog drooling game here!), Watson, and Skinner. It even extends to the popular cognitivist analogy which took advantage of the age of the computer to approach the workings of the mind as though it were a computer. At the time, these approaches made sense, and I believe that both situations are examples of people trying to make sense of who we are and how we work. I don’t think it is inherently wrong, but, having said that, I do believe that the eagerness with which to apply these ‘theories’ to populations with the promise of a ‘better life’ is definitely stretching it. Jerome Bruner’s article (Bruner, J. (1990). The proper study of man. In Acts of meaning. London: Harvard University Press.) talks about how computers were used as an analogy for the human mind. Howard Gardner also gives a great overview of how the landscape of psychological thought changed over time. (Gardner, H. 1985 – The Mind’s New Science, Chapter 3)

It also reminds me of the whole quantitative vs qualitative methods of research. Quantitative methods were born from the ‘hard’ sciences as they are sometimes called – chemistry, physics and other physical sciences. This being a proved method of achieving results, was forced into the social sciences and was set as a standard by which social scientists could ‘prove’ human behaviors, etc. Of course, with time, it became obvious that following a purely quantitative methodology ignored many aspects of human behavior and culture. Guba and Lincoln wrote a great article about the ‘received view’ as they called quantitative methodology and the pros and cons of these, focusing on the fact that these methods completely ignored individual differences and hence could not really be applicable to the population. (Guba, E G. & Lincoln, Y. S. (1994). Competing paradigms in qualitative research. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.).

There are many parallels from an educational standpoint as well. One that stands out for me and relates most to ‘revolution’ is Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.Besides other wonderful ideals that were also followed by revolutionaries like Guevara, Freire talks about the ‘banking’ method of education in which an elite, knowledgeable group of people ‘deposit’ factual knowledge into learners without supporting any real ‘learning’. He espouses a reciprocal relationship between teacher and student in which the teacher is also the student and the student is also the teacher – both working together to create a learning environment in which the teacher is not a dictator but a facilitator and guide who is also learning or relearning along with the student.

Overally, I loved what Nash said towards the end that although he stood by his Game Theory, he believes that people wrongly emphasized certain aspects of it to their advantage which should not have happened.

Through the documentary, and also through history, I think that human beings, in their search for balance, take to one or another viewpoint in the belief that it will help them achieve an ‘ideal’. Of course, this ideal is planted by the media, politicians, generations before… everyone wants to be better than they are right now and each person’s definition of that ‘better’ is different. I think it’s healthy to explore what makes us work as a race and to attempt to take on certain ways of living, but I do certainly believe that government, while it has its important roles to play in some aspects of life, should not be in charge of telling us what’s good for us. Berlin said it well when he said he didn’t want to be treated like a school boy and told what to do!

Fetishizing Human Conflict

The Trap, through the exploration of our concept of freedom, gives a bleak look at how theory and science have attempted to preserve an idea of freedom, but essentially give into an underlining aspect of our fetish with the gaze that removes the privacy in the individual life.   It all comes down to the idea that the more we try to understand people, the smaller the box becomes that we can stick everyone in, thus putting everyone constantly under a microscope to be examined and coded.  The use of game theory in The Trap attempts to do this by making people and their actions predictable, on a grand scale, but it will always be those small variables that elude us, while at the same time allow us to still grow as a society.  Within our current society, we have become obsessed with this observation of the individual and the conflicts that arise between individuals, whether or not actions are predictable. Read More »

Trapped- Mental Illness and Computers

In The Trap, we witness how we have followed the carrot of freedom, dangling endlessly in front of us, only to look up at a world that is anything but free.  For me personally, one of the more bleak aspects of the film was the extension of game theory into psychology and the desire to categorize and list all mental health disorders in the same rational ways applied to other areas of life.

I could only imagine this drive having a terrible human impact beyond what is described in the film itself- experimental treatments such as electroshock therapy, lobotomy and more.  As a testament to the problems associated with these treatment, Gordon Brown has recently apologized for the treatment of computer scientist Alan Turing- PM Apology After Turing Petition.

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The Trap as a loop: Floating between positive and negative liberty

Parts 1 and 2 of Curtis’ mini-series, The Trap, do a great job explaining the ways in which western culture is permeated by determinism (mathematical, technological, biological, economic, and otherwise).   Curtis shows us how the Nash Equilibrium found a home in foreign policy (through Cold War era Brinksmanship); then wove its way through pop psychology; then “mashed up” with Watson & Crick’s discoveries on DNA to usher in a new vision of the human being as a simple collection of “selfish” genes; culminating in the era of market-driven democracy in the US, and New Labor in the UK.  It isn’t until Part 3, however, that Isaiah Berlin’s theory of negative and positive liberty pulls this mode of thought into clearer focus; we can read it as the manifestation of the West’s struggle between these two ideological poles.  Hence the full title of the documentary: “The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom.”

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“Juking the Stats”

The Trap by Adam Curtis is an informative yet very narrow exploration of our current model of freedom and the various forms of social control that we’re subjected to. While the viewer should remain selective about what to retain from the film, one of the less menacing themes is our society’s obsession with numbers as applied to the public sector. While The Trap provides us with countless examples of this obsession, I find the issue of government mandated performance targets to be quite relevant.

The rise of performance targets in Britain took place during the 1990s under Jonathan Major. Based on the premise that public servants weren’t working to their full potential, the government sought to improve society by implementing a system that would provide objective data and therefore increase individual accountability. Read More »

The Trap and The Great Depression

According to the Centers for Disease Control, anti-depressants have become the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. After watching Adam Curtis’ The Trap, it was fascinating to learn where it all began. 

I couldn’t help but parallel the segment of the rise of psychiatry movement, which in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s put into place a checklist of symptoms to determine if someone was “mentally ill” with depression or anxiety, with what we see in our country today. By answering the questions on this checklist created by Dr. Robert Spitzer, consumers were able to discover whether or not they were dealing with “abnormal” emotion and functioning in the way humans were meant to function. It was later realized that this guide took only an objective look at these symptoms. The feelings were never contextualized within the consumer’s life, and normal emotions such as sadness, fear and anxiety were easily medicalized.

While the checklist created by Spitzer is no longer in place, I see a similarity between this and the direct-to-consumer advertising of anti-depressants (and many, many other pharmaceuticals) we are now prestened with, often leading to self-diagnosis. Read More »

Would the Numbers Game Still Exist: The Trap’s Adam Curtis Afraid of Statistics

Adam Curtis’s documentary film The Trap attributes all the ill wills of the world on the supposed Pandora’s Box of Game Theory that was developed as a response to the Cold War. He rails against statistics and quotas used by the government to help regulate modern life. According to Curtis, the British government began using these statistics to allow its citizens to behave in a self serving way.  I argue that because the computer in its nascent form already existed and digital technology was being developed, governments would have utilized statistical models to try and help serve and do what is best for the majority of its citizens.

Game theory was applied—or as the documentary argues misapplied—to human behavior by a well known academic and Hollywood biopic subject John Nash.  Game Theory’s main tenets according to the film are that a given party will act in their own self interest, that their actions will be logical, and that therefore based on situation you can predict behavior.  Adam Curtis goes on to argue that Game Theory paints a pessimistic view of human nature and alludes that this view is incorrect. (He provides no counter argument as to the true nature of people.) Much to the documentarian’s chagrin, John Nash’s ideas about human behavior were subsequently applied to psychology, economics, and government by R.D. Laing. Curtis postulates that Because of the ‘negative’ view of human beings’ nature and the overwhelming pervasiveness of the notion in society, modern people are treated by their governing institutions as living machines. We all supposedly behave in a given pattern, or rather; we all play the game of life. Everyone’s behavior can be predicted by statistics. Adam Curtis goes on to argue that governments set targets and goals determined by statistical modeling to free people from pretending that they care about anything other than their own self interest in work, government or any aspect of life.

After reaching the conclusion that we all play by the numbers, I had to ask myself, why does Adam Curtis marginalize statistics? Read More »

The Trap As Poultry

I often think about Chicken Little, the beloved fowl of children’s lit who shouts to farm and country that “the sky is falling, the sky is falling.”  Of course, maybe CL was right, perhaps that acorn was sinister, but did the wee bird ever offer a way out of the apocalypse?  No, it was all squawking until Foxy Loxy came along and prepared for dinner.

The Trap, a BBC documentary, reminds me of our fabled feathered friend, but in a dour, prep school uniform.  The program presents the greatest hits (or rather failures) in modern political theory/practice with a focus on the blunders of the American and British governments.  Don’t get me wrong; it is a film well worth watching, especially if you, like me, are way behind on the philosophy train.

I learned more about Game Theory (by the way, the experiment didn’t work when they tested it with a bunch of women-read what you will into that), Isaiah Berlin, and the list continues.  More important, raising awareness of the sins of our past is too often neglected and a worthy pursuit in any medium. Avoid the trap; message received. Yet the documentary seemed to say that no matter which school of thought you choose, we are all, in a word, fucked. Read More »