Author Interviews
3:13 pm
Wed August 28, 2013

Taking A Closer Look At Milgram's Shocking Obedience Study

Originally published on Wed August 28, 2013 4:39 pm

In the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist at Yale, conducted a series of experiments that became famous. Unsuspecting Americans were recruited for what purportedly was an experiment in learning. A man who pretended to be a recruit himself was wired up to a phony machine that supposedly administered shocks. He was the "learner." In some versions of the experiment he was in an adjoining room.

The unsuspecting subject of the experiment, the "teacher," read lists of words that tested the learner's memory. Each time the learner got one wrong, which he intentionally did, the teacher was instructed by a man in a white lab coat to deliver a shock. With each wrong answer the voltage went up. From the other room came recorded and convincing protests from the learner — even though no shock was actually being administered.

The results of Milgram's experiment made news and contributed a dismaying piece of wisdom to the public at large: It was reported that almost two-thirds of the subjects were capable of delivering painful, possibly lethal shocks, if told to do so. We are as obedient as Nazi functionaries.

Or are we? Gina Perry, a psychologist from Australia, has written Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments. She has been retracing Milgram's steps, interviewing his subjects decades later.

"The thought of quitting never ... occurred to me," study participant Bill Menold told Perry in an Australian radio documentary. "Just to say: 'You know what? I'm walking out of here' — which I could have done. It was like being in a situation that you never thought you would be in, not really being able to think clearly."

In his experiments, Milgram was "looking to investigate what it was that had contributed to the brainwashing of American prisoners of war by the Chinese [in the Korean war]," Perry tells NPR's Robert Siegel.


Interview Highlights

On turning from an admirer of Milgram to a critic

"That was an unexpected outcome for me, really. I regarded Stanley Milgram as a misunderstood genius who'd been penalized in some ways for revealing something troubling and profound about human nature. By the end of my research I actually had quite a very different view of the man and the research."

On the many variations of the experiment

"Over 700 people took part in the experiments. When the news of the experiment was first reported, and the shocking statistic that 65 percent of people went to maximum voltage on the shock machine was reported, very few people, I think, realized then and even realize today that that statistic applied to 26 of 40 people. Of those other 700-odd people, obedience rates varied enormously. In fact, there were variations of the experiment where no one obeyed."

On how Milgram's study coincided with the trial of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann — and how the experiment reinforced what Hannah Arendt described as "the banality of evil"

"The Eichmann trial was a televised trial and it did reintroduce the whole idea of the Holocaust to a new American public. And Milgram very much, I think, believed that Hannah Arendt's view of Eichmann as a cog in a bureaucratic machine was something that was just as applicable to Americans in New Haven as it was to people in Germany."

On the ethics of working with human subjects

"Certainly for people in academia and scholars the ethical issues involved in Milgram's experiment have always been a hot issue. They were from the very beginning. And Milgram's experiment really ignited a debate particularly in social sciences about what was acceptable to put human subjects through."

On conversations with the subjects, decades after the experiment

"[Bill Menold] doesn't sound resentful. I'd say he sounds thoughtful and he has reflected a lot on the experiment and the impact that it's had on him and what it meant at the time. I did interview someone else who had been disobedient in the experiment but still very much resented 50 years later that he'd never been de-hoaxed at the time and he found that really unacceptable."

On the problem that one of social psychology's most famous findings cannot be replicated

"I think it leaves social psychology in a difficult situation. ... it is such an iconic experiment. And I think it really leads to the question of why it is that we continue to refer to and believe in Milgram's results. I think the reason that Milgram's experiment is still so famous today is because in a way it's like a powerful parable. It's so widely known and so often quoted that it's taken on a life of its own. ... This experiment and this story about ourselves plays some role for us 50 years later."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel. In the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist at Yale, conducted a series of experiments that became famous. Unsuspecting Americans were recruited for what purported to be an experiment in learning. A man who pretended to be a recruit himself was wired up to a phony machine that supposedly administered shocks. He was called the learner. In some versions of the experiment, he was in an adjoining room.

The unsuspecting subject of the experiment, the teacher, read lists of words that tested the learner's memory. Each time the learner got one wrong, which he did intentionally, the teacher was instructed by a man in a lab coat to deliver a shock. And with each wrong answer, the voltage went up. From the other room came recorded and convincing protests from the learner.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPERIMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Incorrect, 150 volts. Sad face.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That's all. Get me out of here. I told you I had heart trouble. My heart's starting to bother me now. Get me out of here, please.

SIEGEL: The results of Stanley Milgram's experiment made news and contributed a dismaying piece of wisdom to the public at large. It was reported that almost two-thirds of the subjects were capable of delivering painful, possibly lethal shocks, if told to do so. We were as obedient as Nazi functionaries. Or are we? Gina Perry, a psychologist from Australia, has written "Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments."

She has been retracing Milgram's steps, interviewing his subjects decades later, and his colleagues as well. Welcome to the program.

GINA PERRY: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Is it fair to say that you've gone from a great admirer of these experiments to a real critic of what Milgram claimed he showed?

PERRY: Yes. I think that was an unexpected outcome for me, really. I regarded Stanley Milgram as a misunderstood genius who'd been penalized in some ways for revealing something troubling and profound about human nature. By the end of my research, I actually had quite a very different view of the man and the research.

SIEGEL: As you have described both in your book and also in a radio documentary in Australia, there were actually many formats of this experiment and while the original news was about a sample of, I guess, about 40 men, hundreds of people actually took part in Milgram experiments.

PERRY: Yes. Over 700 people took part in the experiments. When the news of the experiment was first reported and the shocking statistic that 65 percent of people went to maximum voltage on the shock machine was reported, very few people, I think, realized then and even realize today that that statistic applied to 26 of 40 people. Of those other 700-odd people, obedience rates varied enormously. In fact, there were variations of the experiment where no one obeyed.

SIEGEL: How did Milgram describe his goal of this experiment? What did he say he was looking at to find out?

PERRY: He was looking to investigate what it was that had contributed to the brainwashing of American prisoners of war by the Chinese.

SIEGEL: In the Korean War, this was.

PERRY: Yes.

SIEGEL: All this was happening, the experiments were being conducted and later made public, at a time when the Nazi functionary, Adolf Eichmann, was on trial as the organizer of the Holocaust. And Milgram's experiment very much reflecting his view of it, I gather, presented Americans with this horrible thought that it wasn't some old world deference to authority that made Nazis out of ordinary citizens.

We are all capable of becoming Nazis. He felt that, didn't he?

PERRY: He felt it strongly. And the Eichmann trial was a televised trial and it did reintroduce the whole idea of the Holocaust to a new American public. And Milgram very much, I think, believed that Hannah Arendt's view of Eichmann as a cog in a bureaucratic machine was something that was just as applicable to Americans in New Haven as it was to people in Germany.

SIEGEL: Her famous phrase, the banality of evil was the description of Eichmann's behavior and he agreed with that, you say.

PERRY: Yes.

SIEGEL: The title of your book refers to the notorious Milgram experiments. One element of their notoriety was the situation they put unsuspecting people in, the people who were the subjects of these experiments.

PERRY: Yes. Well, I think it depends on your point of view about what makes them notorious. Certainly, for people in academia and scholars, the ethical issues involved in Milgram's experiment have always been a hot issue. They were from the very beginning. And Milgram's experiment really ignited a debate, particularly in social sciences, about what was acceptable to put human subjects through.

SIEGEL: Here's one of the people who unwittingly was the teacher in one of these experiments half a century ago. Bill Menold is one of people you found and tracked down as he was presented in your radio documentary.

BILL MENOLD: The thought of quitting never - it's really strange. It never occurred to me to say, you know what, I'm walking out of here, which I could've done. And it was like being in a situation that you never thought you would be in, not really being able to think clearly, being so far out of your own world of experiences, because that's all you know.

SIEGEL: This man describing a very scary experience, but he doesn't sound resentful about it.

PERRY: He doesn't sound resentful. I would say he sounds thoughtful and he has reflected a lot on the experiment and the impact that it's had on him and what it meant at the time. I did interview someone else who had been disobedient in the experiment, but still very much resented, 50 years later, that he'd never been de-hoaxed at the time and he found that really unacceptable.

SIEGEL: If Stanley Milgram's obedience experiments were - and I think they were arguably the most famous experiments in social psychology that we could cite, at least for the public at large - and if they really can't be replicated by scientists anymore because of what would be regarded as the unethical treatment of experimental subjects, where does that leave social psychology?

Is this a field that has any wisdom for us if its most famous results are, as you would say, notoriously flawed?

PERRY: I think it leaves social psychology in a difficult situation because, as you say, it is such an iconic experiment. And I think it really leads to the question of why it is that we continue to refer to and believe in Milgram's results. And I think the reason that Milgram's experiment is still so famous today is because in a way it's like a powerful parable.

It's so widely known and so often quoted that it's taken on a life of its own. And that's interesting to me, that this experiment and this story about ourselves plays some role for us 50 years later.

SIEGEL: Gina Perry, thank you very much for talking with us today.

PERRY: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Gina Perry is the author of "Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.