The film ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’, which is currently on general release, tells the story of a fictional division of ‘psychic-warriors’ within the United States (US) military.
Whilst clearly a tongue-in-cheek portrayal, it is evident from the original book that much of the film is based on actual happenings, such as the MK-ULTRA project, or the controversial recent involvement of US military psychologists in interrogation and torture.
Such military involvement in psychology is apparent even within classic social psychological studies such as Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, which was funded by the US Office of Naval Research.
Whilst the ‘feel-good’ moral of the film is that belief is perhaps more important than any true abilities, such a suggestion can be seen as somewhat more questionable when human lives are at stake.
This is highlighted by the widespread use at military checkpoints within Iraq of a dubious explosives detection device that is accused of working solely “on the same principle as a Ouija board — the power of suggestion”. Although this ‘hi-tech dowsing-rod’ apparently functions effectively for its usual operators, third-parties find themselves unable to replicate this.
Although explainable as a “lack of training”, this can also be viewed as a consequence of ‘expectation bias’, a form of self-fulfilling prophecy. Within experimental psychology the dangers of such a phenomenon were clearly illustrated by Rosenthal, who found that researchers obtained different results for ‘maze-bright’ and ‘maze-dull’ rats, despite these labels having been randomly assigned.
Film review from the Guardian
Book review from the Guardian
Strohmetz, D. B. (2008). Research Artifacts and the Social Psychology of Psychological Experiments
Lord, C. G. & Taylor, C. A. (2009). Biased Assimilation: Effects of Assumptions and Expectations on the Interpretation of New Evidence