Sunday Times, 17 September 2013
Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments
By Gina Perry.
That all humans are capable of evil is the foundational truth of Christian civilisation. This insight — known as “original sin” — has been around for at least 2,000 years. It has been repeatedly underwritten by the crimes of history. Yet, mysteriously, people still find it shocking.
The most common response is denial of the universality of evil — others may be evil but we are not. This was the primary form of the initial reaction to the Holocaust. People argued that there was something about the Germans that made it possible; excessive obedience perhaps.
This was a hot topic in 1961-62 because of the trial in Israel of Adolf Eichmann, one of the managers of the Holocaust. Eichmann’s dull, bureaucratic demeanour inspired Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase “the banality of evil”. It also inspired a psychologist at Yale who, in 1961, had begun what was to become the most celebrated and notorious experiments in the history of psychology.
Stanley Milgram — who was, perhaps crucially, Jewish — did not think there was something wrong with the Germans; he thought there was something wrong with humanity and he set out to demonstrate this with an experiment of brutal ingenuity. Milgram was a theatrical man who loved spectacle. He was also ambitious. Everything about his highly contrived procedure was designed to mislead — to produce, in fact, the result he wanted.
Volunteers (“teachers”) were told that the effect of punishment in education was being studied. They were told by a stern supervisor to test a subject who, it was also claimed, was a volunteer. If the subject responded incorrectly or refused to respond, the “teacher” was to administer electric shocks of ever-increasing intensity. Goaded on by the supervisor, many volunteers went on to give potentially fatal shocks, even when they had been told the subject was suffering from a heart condition.
But it was all faked. There were no shocks, and the subject was in on the trick. His protests, his screams and his ominous silences were an act. The experience stunned and shamed many of the volunteers, who had responded to adverts offering them $4.50 to spend an hour helping with a memory study. Many emerged pale and shaking, and some could not even tell their spouses what had happened. Years later, one of the volunteers who agreed to talk to students about the experience was abused as a fascist.
Milgram went public with the claim that 65% of the “teachers” went all the way to 450 volts, up to the point where they often believed they had killed the subject. The story went round the world, always accompanied by pictures of Eichmann and of Jews being herded on to cattle trucks. The Holocaust, it seemed, had been explained by science.
From the start the claim was questioned. How could Milgram assert that these contrived laboratory conditions matched the SS-incubating climate of Germany in the 1930s? Was he really testing obedience, or simply the misallocation of trust? Had he overstepped the ethical red line?
Nevertheless, the Milgram experiment became one of the central stories in the education of psychologists and is still repeatedly evoked by people determined to celebrate this demonstration of original sin.
Gina Perry’s book should finally lay this scientistic superstition to rest. This is a gripping read, primarily because the Milgram experiment is a game of very high stakes — good and evil — and because Perry leads the reader effectively by the hand through some complex territory. An Australian psychologist and writer, she has done years of legwork through archives and interviews and the story she comes up with flatly contradicts the popular conception of the experiment.
The important point here is that the teachers needed a lot of provoking, most protested vehemently and were horrified and drained by the experience. These were not potential Eichmanns, these were confused and bullied victims
Take the 65% claim. That was only in the first round of the test. There were to be more than 20 variations and, progressively, the number of subjects going all the way fell. But, even in the first round, the number is shown to be exaggerated by one of Milgram’s own results charts. Perry found that many of the subjects correctly guessed that the screams and protests coming from the person being tested were faked. They simply did not believe Yale would allow such torture. If they didn’t believe that they were causing suffering, then going all the way to 450 volts just meant they were going along with the game.
So the truth about the figures is that, in Perry’s words, “Only half of the people who undertook the experiment fully believed it was real and, of those, two thirds disobeyed the experimenter.” In other words, the true number was not 65% but under 20%. One psychiatrist claimed that the disbelievers were, in fact, an even higher figure, because many disbelieved subconsciously. With all that, the Milgram experiment falls to pieces.
It was always a pretty rickety structure. The role of the supervisor was all too crucial. Milgram chose a dry, authoritarian man named Williams. When a “teacher” protested about inflicting pain, he would goad them on at least four times with carefully scripted encouragement. In fact, Perry shows that Williams often goaded more than four times and intensified the scripted goads. The important point here is that the teachers needed a lot of provoking, most protested vehemently and were horrified and drained by the experience. These were not potential Eichmanns, these were confused and bullied victims.
Perry has unearthed many other devastating failures of experimental design. But perhaps the most interesting thing about the book is Milgram himself. Perry obviously feels some distaste for his theatrical antics, but, at the same time, she sees that the theatricality is the point and that Milgram was fully aware of this.
In his notes and letters he often questions the scientific validity of the experiment but consoles himself that it is true in the same sense that art is true. In public, however, he never betrayed such doubts, showing, instead, a hucksterish determination to sell his ideas. His usual answer to people who questioned his methods was that they were in denial about the deep truth that he had unearthed.
Perry writes in a slightly rambling way, constantly digressing to report her own feelings. The depth of her research suggests she has earned these small indulgences. But I am not sure if she is trying to do more than discredit the experiment. Is she trying to prove that Milgram was more fundamentally at fault, that original sin is not true, that we do not all have the capacity for evil?
If so, she is wrong. Original sin captures a great truth and Milgram was, in this sense, right; being human includes being, if the occasion arises, evil. If you need science to tell you that, then you haven’t been paying attention. The Milgram experiment was not only cruel and poorly designed, it was unnecessary.