Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Authoritarianism: The ultimate role-playing game

I invite your attention to Chapter 1 of The Authoritarians (pdf format), a recent book by Bob Altemeyer upon which John Dean drew substantially for his own Conservatives Without Conscience.

For this story, you should probably read the first couple of pages to get used to the author's unacademic style (especially the end notes) as well as to get what he's after conceptually, then skip over all the methodology and validity and reliability stuff to page 30 and the Global Change Game experiment. (Not that methodology, validity, and reliability aren't important; just read that part on your own time.)

That section, titled "Unauthoritarians and Authoritarians: Worlds of Difference," tells this story:

The experimenters identified two subject groups, one group composed highly authoritarian personality types and the other strongly non-authoritarian. (Basically, the study defines the authoritarian personality type as characterized by a high degree of submissiveness to established or legitimate authority, a high degree of aggression in the name of that authority, and high levels of conventionalism. There--now you probably don't even have to read those first two pages!)

In the first part of the experiment, they put the group of several dozen non-authoritarian types together to play a complex board game in which the players take the role of world leaders to manage and maneuver their way through 40 years of global climate change.

Then the simulation was repeated with a like number of highly authoritarian personality types running the world and facing problems of simulated earth political/climatological history.

The outcome is pretty depressing, but also funny as hell, in a Mark Twain "Damned Human Race" kind of way. I'll leave you this one quote as a teaser:
By the time forty years had passed the world was divided into armed camps threatening each other with another nuclear destruction. One billion, seven hundred thousand people had died of starvation and disease. Throw in the 400 million who died in the Soviet-China war and casualties reached 2.1 billion. Throw in the 7.4 billion who died in the nuclear holocaust, and the high RWAs [high-authoritarians] managed to kill 9.5 billion people in their world--although we, like some battlefield news releases, are counting some of the corpses twice.

Not bad for an experiment, eh? The remark about "another" nuclear destruction refers to an all-out nuclear exchange that happened early in one of the two simulations--I'll leave it to you to read or guess which group accomplished this.

Whether in the interest of humanitarianism or cleaner data-gathering, when the researchers realized that the participants had managed to render the earth's surface inhabitable long before the simulation's 40-year time span, they set the game clock to back two years before the missiles were launched, giving those players a sort of evolutionary do-over. Apparently that group managed--only just--not to annihilate themselves the second time through.

No comments: