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]