Literature, Politics & Society — April 23, 2014 at 11:18 pm

The Psychology and Social Responsibility of Arthur Miller


All My SonsThis is a longer version of an article written for the London Open Air Theatre production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (which will show from 15 May – 7 June 2014 in Regents Park).  Unlike the programme article it contains ‘spoilers’ about the play itself (so do not read unless you want to know what happens!).

All My Sons

Arthur Miller’s All My Sons is very much a morality tale about a family being consumed by a father’s secret and a mother’s unwillingness to accept the truth about the death of a son. Written after the Second World War, it hints at a dark side of the post-war American dream. Unlike the period following the Vietnam War, where American arts delved into the dark recesses of the personal and collective psyches, the post-WWII period was one where people simply wanted to get on with their lives and yearned for what would today be characterised as traditional family values – work, marriage, children, and the home.

The play focuses on the impact of a single decision on a collection of individuals – some guilty, but most simply caught up in the web of circumstances that family and business relationships create. It harkens back to the essence of Greek tragedy, where the flawed character and bad decisions of the protagonist impact not only themselves, but also those they love and care for. In All My Sons the sins of the father are paid for materially by both the father (Joe Keller) and the son who haunts his wife but never appears (Larry Keller) and psychologically on all of the other family members left behind.

Joe Keller is an ordinary American small scale capitalist. In his role as the owner of a factory producing cylinder heads for the American P-40 Warhawk fighter, he made the fateful decision to allow flawed parts to pass through the supply chain. This decision ultimately led to the death of twenty-one pilots. While Joe made the decision and told his partner he would accept the responsibility, when the truth became public, Joe reneged on this promise and placed the blame on his partner, Steve Deever. Steve ends up in jail – ostracised by his daughter (Ann) and son (George) – while Joe appears to get away with the crime and returns to his living of the American dream.

However, this dream is just an edifice waiting to fall. George Deever comes to believe his father is innocent and Joe is the real criminal. He works to bring down the Keller’s, starting initially by undermining the marriage of his sister to Joe’s other son (Chris). In the end, everyone in his world turns on Joe. His neighbours – superficially friendly – never really believed that Joe was innocent. Ann reveals that the missing son took his own life because of the guilt associated with Joe’s complicity in the death of the twenty-one pilots. In the end it is all too much for Joe. He believed that he was doing everything for his sons but learns that what he has achieved was hollow. He admits his guilt. And pays the penalty at his own hand.

While written in 1947, All My Sons is very much relevant to us today. It tells the story of not just a mistake (the decision to allow a flawed product into the supply chain) but the compounding of that mistake by attempting to cover up the crime. Rather than thinking about the cylinder heads of P-40s, we can simply read the news and see examples of automobile safety faults, lead paint in children’s toys, and baby formula tainted with melamine to increase the protein content to remind us that the morality tale constructed by Arthur Miller has a universality that reveals much about human behaviour.

I have spent a considerable part of the last 10 years of my academic career attempting to understand the nature of ethical and moral decision-making in everyday life. One of things that my own work and that of many other scholars reveals is the powerful role of context plays in not just driving the decisions people made but also the ex-post rationales they use for justifying those decisions. Joe Keller is a classic example of the psychology of context.

We can see this in two very interesting examples.

The first is the famous Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971. In this experiment, volunteers were randomly assigned to roles as either prisoners or guards and required to live in a makeshift prison on the Stanford campus. What Zimbardo and his colleagues found was that independent of the personality of the volunteers (they were randomly assigned), nearly all the volunteers played to the role: prisoners became submissive and guards became abusive.

The second is what are known as the Good Samaritan experiments. In these JM Darley and CD Batson, recruited seminary students and told them they were going to be giving a lecture at the university on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. When the seminarians arrived on campus, the experimenters directed them to another building. When entering the building they were met by an actor feigning illness and slumped in the doorway. The genius of this experiment was that the experimenters manipulated the time that the seminarian had to get to the lecture theatre. So where told that had little time to get to the lecture theatre while others were given sufficient time to make it to the building easily. What they discovered was that when that the seminarians where not time constrained 63% stopped to help. However, when they had to rush to get to the lecture theatre only 10% stopped to help. Some literally stepped over the actor as they entered the building!

Both of these experiments highlight how behaviour follows context. Change the roles and change the context and you see dramatic changes in the outcomes. Zimbardo’s guards and prisoners and Darley and Batson’s seminarians reveal that free will is sometimes an illusion when roles and contexts we find ourselves in demand that we behave in specific ways. They also hint that rather than focusing on making people more ethical, we may need to think more about put them into situations where ‘the right thing’ is demanded and expected.

Although these experiments appear abstract, they account for a lot of behaviour we see in everyday life and reveal why there is such a gap between what we intend to do and how we actually behave (what is known as the attitude-behaviour gap).

For example, we constantly hear about reports of surveys where consumers say that they will save the planet by purchasing ethically and live a sustainable life. However, when we look at actual purchases we see little if any of that enthusiasm. In the book, The Myth of the Ethical Consumer, my colleagues Pat Auger and Giana Eckhardt and I show that there is virtually no relationship between stated ethical consumption stances and day-to-day purchasing. Individuals are radicals in the context of answering a survey and conservatives in the context of spending their hard earned wages.

Similarly, we hear a lot about how individuals want to work in ethical companies and will be willing to give a significant portion of their salary to do so. However, when we ran experiments on over 2,000 workers ranging from hard nosed MBAs to hard bodied construction workers we found that few if any would put their salary where their supposed ethics were. Like in the consumer studies we also found that what people say they would do is nothing like what they actually do when given the chance.

Other researchers have found similar results and we know quite a lot about what makes for the types corporate and personal decisions made by Joe Keller.

For example, just as with Darley and Batson’s seminarians, stress and time pressure lead to less moral and ethical decisions. They even go so far as to question whether “ethics become[s] a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases”. Joe was pressured to meet his quotas and cut corners to do so. While it was wrong, science implies that it was not unexpected. We only have to look at the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster to see how the pressure to perform leads reasonable and smart people to make catastrophic decisions.

It is also the case that power does indeed corrupt. Joris Lammers and Adam Galinsky manipulated the power that people possessed and looked at the extent to which they behaved hypocritically. Unsurprisingly, the more power they thought they possessed the more hypocritical they were – believing that somehow they possessed a right to do things that others did not. Not only did they believe they had this right, they also felt that their rationales were purer and that the transgressions of others were more worthy of punishment. In their relationship Joe is the more powerful partner and Steve defers to him. However, when he needs to cover himself, Joe shows a powerful indignation at what his partner has done.

In addition, it is well known that the more potentially ‘public’ a decision is the more likely it will meet with social norms. This does not mean that the decision itself need be public but that it has the potential to be revealed publicly and credibly. For example, in one experiment we varied the extent to which we monitored the purchaser (publicly or privately). People were not only more likely to purchase the ethical product when monitored but also when they thought they might be being monitored. However, this does not tell us much about the ethics of the person making the decision; just that public social contexts lead to more norm compliance than private ones. Joe’s final decision is not dissimilar to what we see of Japanese executives when their firm’s failure is revealed.

Reviewers normally commend Arthur Miller for making Joe Keller an ordinary, even likeable, character possessing a fatal flaw. However, my own view is that perhaps Joe was possessed of a latent evil that was only kept in check by the fact that both his wife and Ann Deever knew that he was guilty and that most of his neighbours believed he was guilty. Like Zimbardo’s prisoners he played the role his fateful decisions had created. His years of good behaviour represented a personal prison, with the walls being the truth that many knew. By the end, he knew he was a “dead man”.

All My Sons presents a stark and uncomfortable view of human nature. But it also hints at how we can make the best of human nature. Would Joe have made that fateful decision if he knew that everyone he loved would be destroyed because of it? Would he have been so quick to make that decision had his partner not acquiesced to his position of power? I have my own answers but leave it to you to think of how his decisions would have differed had the context been different.

Arthur Miller presents his morality play with a contrast of Joe’s business and family persona. This also tells us something about the nature of context and how simply changing the focus and the goal can lead to very different decision outcomes. Consider the two biblical ‘rules’ – “as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” and “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him” – and ask yourself the question, what would be the implications of a context in which the moral norms defined the context of a decision being made about punishment?

For example, one of the reasons that people tend not to live up to their own ideals by purchasing ethically is that the context of purchasing implies that they play the role of consumer. Consumers make rational, cost effective and, in many cases, ego satisfying decisions. In your role as consumer in a purchasing context your goals are consumer goals. However, suppose we change the circumstances so that the role and context change and with that the goals being achieved. My colleagues and I did just this in a set of experiments where we compared how people responded to persuasive advertising aimed at making them more environmentally conscious versus how they responded when the context was related to helping their children with school projects linked to environmental sustainability. In the case where they were in the role of a parent in a family context they behaved much more sustainably than they did when they were in the role of a consumer facing advertising (where they just ignored the attempt at persuasion). Not only did they reduce their energy usage when they were playing the role of parent, but that effect persisted long after the experiment. When the goal is related to your child’s education and development you will make a very different decisions than if the goal is to be a consumer.

Earlier I made the point that we can be mislead into believing that our decisions are driven by free will. It is also true that we might be complicitous in our own psychological con game. One of the great ironies of the human psyche is that we are very good at deceiving ourselves. In Fooling Ourselves Harry Triandis notes that “self-deception occurs because we often see the world the way we would like it to be rather than the way it is”. It thrives because we select confirmatory information and down play or ignore those things that do not fit our idealised conceptions. We see this in the case of Joe’s son Chris. He simply cannot see the information that implies that his father may not be the man he hopes he should be. When forced to confront the reality, his internal conflicts become revealed not just to us, but also to himself.

All My Sons is a morality play conceived in post WWII America. To many it was un-American. To others it was anti-capitalist. But it is a more cautionary tale when looked at through a scientific lens. It warns us that what we think we think about who we are and why we do the things we do is an illusion. We are – to a very great extent – manipulated by the contexts and roles that we find ourselves in and it is no simple task to not give into what those rules and context demand.


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