Remember that Famous Study About Obedience to Authority? Here's How Stanley Milgram Got it Wrong
What if one of the most famous and influential psychology experiments of the twentieth century was proven invalid? In October 1963, the New York Times reported the findings of an experiment by psychologist Stanley Milgram: "Sixty-five Percent in Test Blindly Obey Order to Inflict Pain." The headline is typical of the standard version of the story, which Milgram himself promoted: In his lab, he established a disturbing, universal truth about human obedience to authority.
In Behind the Shock Machine, Gina Perry shows that nearly every crucial detail of that standard version is either misleading or false. We already knew that aspects of Milgram's experiment were deceptive. He led his research subjects to believe that, by pushing a button on an electronic device, they would give painful, perhaps dangerous, electric shocks to another volunteer when he responded incorrectly. In fact, the machine was fake and the other volunteer was a member of Milgram's staff, who feigned cries of protest each time he was "shocked."
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Perry's reassessment of the experiment reveals the depth of deception that Milgram undertook in order to "discover" and promote his findings. Although popular understanding focuses on a single experiment, Milgram in fact conducted more than 20, with varying conditions, involving nearly 800 volunteers. Overall, a majority of his subjects actually refused to obey. Milgram either de-emphasized or actively suppressed evidence that ran contrary to his desired conclusions.
What Milgram counted as "obedience" is equally misleading. Recordings of the experiments reveal subjects who repeatedly refused to comply, but reluctantly continued when the researcher insisted. Some protested as many as 24 times before continuing.
To Milgram, as long as they pushed the button, they were "blindly obedient."
Perry's richly detailed reassessment of the Milgram experiments makes for terrific reading. Her absorbing narrative redeems the humanity of the people who participated in those experiments and challenges us to rethink what we take to be their fundamental lesson about human nature.
Andy Lee Roth wrote this article for How To Eat Like Our Lives Depend On It, the Winter 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. Andy teaches sociology at Sonoma State University.
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