Dec 11, 2013
Beyond the Shock Machine
Posted on Sep 13, 2013
By Gabriel Thompson
“Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments”
In the summer of 1961, as the televised trial of Adolf Eichmann riveted the nation, hundreds of men responded to an advertisement in The New Haven Register seeking participants in a “scientific study of memory and learning.” When volunteers arrived on the Yale University campus, they were assigned either the role of “teacher” or of “learner.” The study, a researcher in a lab coat explained, was exploring how punishment might affect learning. A “teacher” was instructed to take a “learner,” seated in an adjacent room, through a series of simple memory questions. At each incorrect answer, the teacher was told to press a lever on a machine to administer a shock to the learner. To better spur concentration, the strength of the shocks increased after each error. There were 30 switches on the shock machine, beginning with a tame 15 volts and proceeding all the way to 450 volts, with visible warnings that included “danger: severe shock” and finally an ominous “XXX.”
The study had nothing to do with memory or learning. Aside from the volunteers assigned the teacher role, all people involved were actors. The real topic of study was obedience: Would someone administer what they believed were painful, perhaps lethal, shocks to another person, for no reason other than being told by an authority figure to do so? In the most famous version of the experiment, the learner stated that he had a heart condition while being strapped in, but was told by the researcher not to worry. As the shocks progressed, the learner’s grunts turned to yells; soon he was screaming about heart pain and demanding to be released. By the end he failed to make a noise, even when supposedly receiving powerful jolts.
When volunteers verbally protested, the researcher fed them a series of statements, such as, “The experiment requires that you continue” or “You have no other choice.” As the voltage increased, volunteers trembled, sweat and let out shrieks of nervous laughter, but were assured that Yale would take full responsibility for the well-being of the learner. According to psychology professor Stanley Milgram, who dreamed up the experiment, nearly two-thirds of the volunteers continued administering shocks to the maximum voltage, even after the learner went silent.
The obedience experiments showed, Milgram later told “60 Minutes,” that if “a system of death camps were set up in the United States of the sort we have seen in Nazi Germany, one would be able to find sufficient personnel for those camps in any medium-sized American town.”
The results of the experiments were captivating, hinting that we all carry the latent seeds of Eichmann in our DNA, and it’s no surprise that the findings, initially published in an obscure academic journal, took only a few days to land on the pages of The New York Times. There were some early critiques, questioning the validity of the results and the ethics of placing subjects under extreme duress, but this was a freight train of a finding, and it flung off any detractors.
Now, some 50 years later, Australian psychologist Gina Perry has re-examined the experiment to determine what exactly happened, and what it might mean. As she writes in “Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments,” “The standard account of Milgram’s experiments suggests that ordinary people can be manipulated into behaving in ways that contradict their morals and values—that you or I could be talked into torturing a man. But could we?”
The Milgram experiments become an overriding obsession for Perry. She tracks down participants, interviews graduate students who worked on the project, and rummages through Yale archives. Her doggedness pays off in many ways: She reveals that a number of participants claimed they didn’t actually believe the shocks were real; that Milgram failed to publicize segments of his research that undermined his dramatic findings; and that in more than half the experiments—Milgram conducted 24 variations—the majority of people didn’t obey the orders.
Especially fascinating is her account of the disturbing history of “social psychology” experiments, which placed unknowing subjects in stressful situations in order to “reveal” something about human nature. Though Milgram would come under heavy criticism for subjecting people to immense stress—he waited nearly a year to tell most volunteers that the shocks they administered were fake—at the time it was common to overlook the trauma such experiments might cause. Most researchers were amazingly cavalier: babies (often non-white, often orphans) were plunged into cold water, startled with loud noises, and placed alone in dark rooms; smoke was pumped into classrooms to see how students would respond to an emergency; Army recruits were told that they had triggered an explosive device that had probably killed people. One positive consequence of the Milgram experiments was that they sparked a debate regarding this ethical blind spot and prompted reform within the profession.
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