Author(s): Gina Perry
APA Style Citation
Perry, G. (2012). Behind the shock machine: The untold story of the notorious Milgram psychology experiments. Brunswick, Vic: Scribe Publications.
This book will change many notions you have regarding what really happened in the now infamous Milgram shock experiment at Yale University in the 1960’s. Australian writer Gina Perry ventures to Yale to examine the original transcripts from Milgram’s work. Much has been written regarding the debriefing and reuniting of teacher and learner prior to the departure of the teacher from the lab. Perry argues that perhaps as many as two-thirds of participants left the lab never knowing that they did not actually harm the learner. Some of the nearly 3,000 participants in the study may not have learned about the results until nearly three years after their participation in the study while other participants were tested. It seems that Milgram was worried about word of the study getting around the relatively small town of New Haven before he concluded his work. He believed the debriefing had the potential to confound the results of the study and from his perspective was enough of a reason to deny debriefing directly after the experiment ended. Perry interviewed a number of the former participants, many of whom still have particularly bad feelings and recollections about the study. One past participant explains calling all of the local hospitals after participating, believing that he had harmed someone so badly that they must have checked into a nearby hospital. Another describes sitting in his car for an hour after he left the lab pondering what he had just done and feeling terrible. The wife of one participant describes her despondent husband who had trouble sleeping for an extended period after the study.
These first hand descriptions are a far cry from the description Milgram provided of participants stating they were glad they participated in the study. The experimenter (a high school science teacher) was provided with four prompts to encourage participants to continue with the shocks. If the participants still refused to continue after all four prompts were exhausted, he was instructed to stop the study and allow the participant to leave. As the experiments continued over multiple years, Perry cites instances in which the experimenter went through eight attempts to urge the participants to continue. This likely had the effect of creating higher participation rates, which Milgram then published.
Milgram described defiant participants as “bad” and complying participants as “good” in his personal notes, which according to Perry demonstrates a strong confirmation bias. Perry argues that Milgram knew the result he wanted and expected far ahead of the “live” study. Milgram ran a number of “practice trials” before the experiment went live which produced nearly the same result. In addition, Perry addresses Milgram’s argument that events surrounding WWII had inspired this work. In her research she did not find any references to this until after the study’s conclusion when Milgram gained popularity for the study.
While this is a harsh assessment of Milgram’s infamous study, it is a revealing snapshot of what occurred behind the scenes of the famous study and the personal reflections of the participants alone make this a necessary read.
Other Related Resources
Podcast with Gina Perry
Psychological Figures and Concepts