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Shock Tactics: Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Experiments Revisited

You may have heard of Stanley Milgram's obedience experiments. Perhaps you've read about them in a textbook at school, as I did. Even if you haven't, you've likely come across them without knowing it — in the episode of The Simpsons, for example, where a therapist hooks the family up to a shock machine, and they zap one another as Springfield's electricity grid falters and the streetlights flicker. You might have seen them referenced in other TV programs, from Malcolm in the Middle to Law and Order: SVU. Perhaps you read in the news about an infamous 2010 French mock game show where contestants believed they were torturing strangers for prize money. Or you might have heard the experiments mentioned in a documentary about torture or the Holocaust.

Milgram's obedience research might have started life in a lab 50 years ago, but it quickly leapt from academic to popular culture, appearing in books, plays, films, songs, art, and reality television.

The routine description of the research goes something like this: Stanley Milgram found that 65 percent of people will deliver lethal electric shocks to a stranger because they are told to do so by an authority figure.

Here's how he did it. In the summer of 1961, Milgram, a 27-year-old assistant psychology professor at Yale, set up what he called a memory test. His volunteers — ordinary people from the New Haven area — were urged by a lab-coated experimenter to punish a learner's wrong answers with electric shocks.

Despite the victim's cries of pain and the volunteers' own agitation and distress, the experimenter ordered volunteers to continue and to give increasing levels of shock with each wrong answer. Milgram reported that more than half of the volunteers obeyed instructions and gave what they believed were dangerous and perhaps even fatal electric shocks to a stranger they'd just met.

What Milgram's volunteers didn't know was that the electric shock machine was a prop, both the experimenter and the victim were actors, and the subject of the experiment was not memory but how readily we obey authority. Milgram, it seems, discovered something profound and troubling about human nature in his laboratory.

Since they were first published in 1963, Milgram's sensational findings have been offered as an explanation for mass genocide during the Holocaust and events such as the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam and the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.

But there's something missing from the story of these experiments — the voices of the people who took part in them. Like Henrietta Lacks, the men and women who unwittingly took part in Milgram's research have been forgotten in a larger scientific narrative. But for me they have always been a missing piece of the puzzle that is the obedience research.

What happened to Milgram's volunteers after the experiment was over? How did they reconcile what they had done in the lab with the people they had believed themselves to be? What did they say to their families when they returned home, and what did they think about their experience a day, a decade, 50 years later? These questions had always intrigued me, and I set off to find some answers.

I started my research with no intention of reexamining the story of the science of the obedience experiments or the results. My intention was to tell the human story of the research, to find and interview Milgram's subjects and staff, to find out what impact the experiment had had on them back then, and ever since.

But I soon found inconsistencies between the stories I was hearing and the story of the research that I thought I knew so well. It prompted me to visit the archives at Yale where Milgram's papers and audio recordings of the original experiments are kept.

What I found was a troubling mismatch between the unpublished and published accounts of what transpired in Milgram's lab that led me to question the methodology and findings of social psychology's most famous experiment. What I uncovered caused me to question my own profession and the stories passed on in textbooks and training.What I uncovered caused me to question my own profession and the stories passed on in textbooks and training.

We have relied on the power of numbers in the discussion of Milgram's results in the form of statistical summaries about the number of subjects who went to which voltage. Hard data certainly lends the weight of authority to any conclusions we may like to draw from the obedience research. But even the numbers are misleading. Milgram conducted 24 different experiments. Each mini play had a different script, characters, dialogue, and result. The 65% majority so often used to make generalizations about human nature applied to the first of the 24 variations and involved just 40 people.

It was discoveries like these that caused me to look more closely at the material in the archives to check the facts I thought I knew so well.

The archives are full of subjects' voices. There are letters and questionnaires they sent to Milgram, recordings of the original experiments, and transcripts of group interviews in which they discuss with each other what they were thinking and feeling as the experiment unfolded.

A more complex picture of the experiments and the man behind them emerged as a result. Evidence from my interviews and archival research shows that the highly controlled, ethically thorough, and thoroughly convincing scenario that Milgram described was more ideal than real. What I discovered was that the reality of these experiments was more shocking than I could have imagined.

Milgram's role was less that of scientist and more that of storyteller who edited, shaped, and presented his results as part of a compelling narrative that appeared to shed light on pressing issues of his generation.

When I set out on my quest to find and talk to people who had been his volunteers, I didn't expect that the stories they told me or the research I conducted in Milgram's archival materials would cause me to reevaluate the story of these famous experiments.

I realized in writing this book how much we've trusted Milgram as the narrator of his own research, and how important it is to question the stories we've been told.

÷ ÷ ÷

Gina Perry is a psychologist and writer, and the author of Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments. She wrote the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's award-winning Radio National documentary Beyond the Shock Machine. She lives in Melbourne, Australia.

Books mentioned in this post

Gina Perry is the author of Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments

3 Responses to "Shock Tactics: Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Experiments Revisited"

    Barbara August 27th, 2013 at 11:09 am

    Thank you for research, and writing to this complicated and rather scary issue of motivation and response in human nature.

    BobboMax August 29th, 2013 at 10:16 am

    "I realized ... how important it is to question the stories we've been told."

    Including even this story... Oh, to be a Republican and sure of everything I think I know.

    Justin September 11th, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    It sounds like what so often threatens to be the case in this type of social research, or in so many other research fields. The researcher brings in his/her intended conclusion before they have the hard evidence to support the conclusion. From that point forward, you have to question how much of the evidence being cited is indeed objective, persuasive and adequate to reach such influential conclusions.

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