Early in my career, I was confidentially briefed about a powerful discovery with unexpected adverse consequences. My mentor, a senior top corporate HR executive, told me the tale as an object lesson about how human organizations should behave honorably.
A relatively tiny advanced research lab owned by a well known pharmaceutical corporation found disturbing side effects among the student test population participating in the FDA in vivo approval stage of an innovative drug designed to enhance intelligence. The students getting the real formula rather than the placebo exhibited remarkable classroom behavior. Their ability to retain information soared. Their classroom test scores rose dramatically. Subsequent IQ examinations confirmed great improvement.
However, the teachers reluctantly identified these particular members of their classes as quite difficult to please. With some discomfort, the instructors admitted that they found those kids too challenging, with a seemingly unquenchable search for knowledge. They got the subject content right away, in the first take, as soon as it was presented. No repetition was required. They were too impatient for wait for the rest of the class to catch up. While other students struggled to master rote details, these exceptional experimental drug-takers demanded that the teachers supply more information ... frequently insisting to be taught more than the instructor knew, in fact. But that wasn't the worst problem.
Some recipients of the IQ-enhancing drug were found standing patiently immobile at campus street crosswalks. They had been instructed to wait by a crossing guard who then went off duty without releasing them. They stayed, remaining on the curb as commanded. Information received was immediately accepted and seared into their brains without challenge. The judgmental filters that caused untreated people to weigh, judge, consider, challenge and ponder new instructions were disabled. What was said by an authority figure was accepted as absolute truth to be literally obeyed without question.
This shed light on the learning process, suggesting that the more you know, the more resistance these now-disabled intellectual filters may offer to inhibit learning anything different. If a new fresh fact is offered that conflicts with prior experience, its veracity tends to be challenged. While a blank slate has plenty of room to permit new information to be written, a crowded mind may have stronger buffers that block inputs replacing what you thought before. When you know less initially, perhaps it is easier it is to learn new stuff; there is no prior knowledge which must be overwritten, shuffled or re-configured. The more you know, the more processing is required for new ideas ... if your filters are working. This drug seemed to disable those protective evolutionary instincts to challenge different ideas. They became highly impressionable and quite susceptible to authoritarian commands.
The implications for social mind control applications were obvious. This happened well before 1984, but the scientists in charge of the research were quite aware of Orwell's cautionary tale.
The formula was quietly and secretly destroyed. All the records of its development and the notes about the trial results were burned and the key players sworn to silence. I wasn't a key player.
All this occurred long ago and far away in a world of Big Pharma that modern society would now consider implausible. Maybe it was all a fable, of course ... because no one today could ever believe such a thing would happen. Every corporation is an evil enterprise run by soulless capitalistic predators, right? That's conventional wisdom in a nutshell, even if we who actually labor in those vineyards see the actual behaviors of well-meaning executives making difficult decisions behind the scenes. Reality is not as simple as some would have us believe.
Wonder what other secret good acts our readers could safely disclose today?
E. James (Jim) Brennan is a total rewards advisor with extensive multi-industry corporate HR and consulting experience. Past Compensation Editor of the Personnel Journal and last Senior Associate of pay surveyor ERI, he recently returned to consulting. Author of the Performance Management Workbook, popular speaker and frequent expert witness in executive compensation trials, Jim also serves on the Advisory Board of the Compensation and Benefits Review.
"Hypnotized" image by Trevor Williams, courtesy of Creative Commons