Revisiting Milgram's obedience experiment: what did he actually prove?

We all know about Stanley Milgram's obedience experiments, in which volunteers believed that they had shocked other volunteers to death, just because the experimenter had told them they were expected to. But a new book called Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments by Australian journalist and psychologist Gina Perry revisits Milgram's original research documentation and concludes that Milgram fudged his conclusions.

After examining the original tapes of Milgram's experiments and interviewing the surviving subjects and researchers, Perry concludes that Milgram's experimenters didn't stick to a set script (as has always been reported), but rather wheedled and nagged the subjects into turning up the shock dial. What's more, it seems that a substantial fraction of the subjects realized that there were no actual shocks, seeing through the ruse -- they were also recorded as people who were willing to shock strangers to death on the say-so of a man in a labcoat.

If all Milgram had done was fudge his account of the dehoaxing process, his findings could still be completely valid. But Perry also caught Milgram cooking his data. In his articles, Milgram stressed the uniformity of his procedures, hoping to appear as scientific as possible. By his account, each time a subject protested or expressed doubt about continuing, the experimenter would employ a set series of four counter-prompts. If, after the fourth prompt (“You have no other choice, teacher; you must go on”), the subject still refused to continue, the experiment would be called to a halt, and the subject counted as “disobedient.” But on the audiotapes in the Yale archives, Perry heard Milgram’s experimenter improvising, roaming further and further off script, coaxing or, depending on your point of view, coercing participants into continuing. Inconsistency in the standards meant that the line between obedience and disobedience was shifting from subject to subject, and from variation to variation—and that the famous 65 percent compliance rate had less to do with human nature than with arbitrary semantic distinctions.

The wrinkles in Milgram’s research kept revealing themselves. Perhaps most damningly, after Perry tracked down one of Milgram’s research analysts, she found reason to believe that most of his subjects had actually seen through the deception. They knew, in other words, that they were taking part in a low-stakes charade.

Gradually, Perry came to doubt the experiments at a fundamental level. Even if Milgram’s data was solid, it is unclear what, if anything, they prove about obedience. Even if 65 percent of Milgram’s subjects did go to the highest shock voltage, why did 35 percent refuse? Why might a person obey one order but not another? How do people and institutions come to exercise authority in the first place? Perhaps most importantly: How are we to conceptualize the relationship between, for example, a Yale laboratory and a Nazi death camp? Or, in the case of Vietnam, between a one-hour experiment and a multiyear, multifaceted war? On these questions, the Milgram experiments—however suggestive they may appear at first blush—are absolutely useless.

Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments

Electric Schlock: Did Stanley Milgram’s Famous Obedience Experiments Prove Anything? [Peter C. Baker/Pacific Standard]

Notable Replies

  1. So...humans not as totally scummy as we thought?

  2. Even if the experiment is discredited or disproved. It did get people talking and has been used as a inspiration for other experiments. Experiments don't really succeed or fail, they just test assumptions, theories, and hypotheses.

  3. I was a subject in this experiment performed at the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1975. Subjects were offered extra credit in the intro Psychology class. I am proud to say that I was disobedient. Once I was shocked once, I didn't want to do it to the other person. To me that makes it more of an experiment in empathy than obedience.

  4. Caveat: I haven't read the book Cory's referencing. However, the allegations he mentions are not new, and when I studied the matter extensively years ago I found them very unconvincing, to say the least.

    I will give you Milgram's own response: "Orne's suggestion that the subjects only feigned sweating, trembling, and stuttering to please the experimenter is pathetically detached from reality, equivalent to the statement that hemophiliacs bleed to keep their physicians busy." (1972)

    Milgram's experiment is repeatable and has been repeated.

  5. As I've mentioned before, I was one of the student archivers of the Milgram tapes at Yale, working under the actual librarians in charge of the project. There were a number of conditions that Milgram divided the experimental protocol into, and not all of them had the strict script of four prompts. Not having read Perry's book, I can't say that this is what she is talking about. But merely having the existence of these multiple researcher scripts on tape doesn't mean Milgram was faking it. Regarding the other point--of people knowing that it was a set-up--this too is pretty obvious from the tapes. There was nervous, inappropriate laughter, but there were also some people who laughed and didn't sound nervous--it sounded like they knew that they weren't shocking someone.

    But I'm not sure how you would separate the believers from the non-believers, given that once you asked someone who crossed the line and shocked another person into unconsciousness "Did you think it was real?" there are going to be people who claim they knew it was a ruse to cover up their behavior.

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