In the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram set out to see whether ordinary people would administer painful shocks to a stranger if told to do so by someone in a white lab coat. He found that most people (65 percent) would continue to administer the shocks even when the stranger protested, complained of a heart condition, and stopped responding. The shocks were fake, and the stranger was an actor, but what the findings seemed to say about human nature was real and disturbing. Milgram, then at Yale University, wrote that a subject “divests himself of responsibility by attributing all initiative to the experimenter” and views himself “not as a person acting in a morally accountable way but as the agent of external authority.” Most of us, in other words, are potential Nazis.
A forthcoming book, titled Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments (The New Press, September), questions Milgram’s methods and conclusions. The author, Gina Perry, an Australian psychologist, dug into the archives at Yale and tracked down subjects from the experiments. She questions, among other things, Milgram’s accuracy in explaining whether subjects thought the shocks they were delivering were genuine. Milgram reported that some saw through the ruse and played along, but he claimed they made up only a quarter of subjects. Perry argues, by going back to the original data, that it was closer to half.
Milgram’s rationale here was that subjects who had shocked a stranger—seemingly to death—had an incentive to say, after the truth was revealed, that they knew the whole time it was a hoax. Perry dismisses this as too convenient: “When it suited him, he used his data; when it didn’t suit him, he ignored it.” That said, as Perry discovers, some former subjects have been haunted for decades by the orders they willingly obeyed. The shocks seemed genuine enough to them.
Poking around in the archives, Perry stumbled on the results of experiments that Milgram chose not to publish. She calls these the “secret” experiments. Milgram wanted to see what would happen if people knew the person getting (fake) shocked. As in the original experiment, the supposed victim was aware of the true purpose and was only pretending to cry out in pain from behind a wall. The subject giving the shocks was told it was a memory test. Below is part of a transcript that Perry unearthed. Larry and Doug are neighbors. Larry is the subject (the teacher) and Doug is the supposed victim (the learner). Williams is Milgram’s assistant. At this point in the experiment Larry has just shocked Doug.
Doug: Ow! Hey, Larry, let’s stop it. I wanna get out of here, come on!
Williams: Continue, please.
Larry: Even though he’s against it?
Williams: Continue, please.
Doug: Hey, Lar?
Larry [calling out to Doug]: He told me to keep going! [To Williams.] Even if it’s against his will?
Williams: Please continue, teacher. The experiment requires that you go on.
Larry: Oh, boy. [Pause.] Short time. Sharp: axe, needle, stick, blade. [Answer lights up.] Wrong. One-eight-oh. [Gives shock.]
Doug: Ow! Hey, Larry, that’s too much!
Larry: Sharp needle.
Doug: Come on, let me out.
Doug: Let me out of here, come on.
Larry [to Williams]: Look, I’m not going to do this against his will.
Doug: Get me out of here. Come on, Lar!
Larry: If he’s against it, I can’t do it.
Williams: The experiment requires that you continue.
Larry: Yeah, but if he’s against it I’m not going to continue. I mean, this guy’s in pain. I can’t do it.
Williams: As I said, the shocks may be painful, but they’re not dangerous.
Larry: Would you ask him if he wants to continue?
Williams: No, we can’t have any contact once we’ve started the test. We should avoid any talking, as a matter of fact. It’s absolutely essential that you continue.
Larry: All right. Slow: walk, dance, truck, music. [Answer lights up.] Wrong. One ninety-five. [Gives shock.]
Doug [yelling]: Ow, Lar, get me out of here these straps. Come on!
Larry doesn’t give any more shocks after this, telling the experimenter, “I can’t. I can’t go on.” The experiment is discontinued, and the truth is revealed to Larry.
When subjects knew the victims, Milgram found, they were more likely to refuse to continue. Three pairs were family members: brothers-in-law, a nephew and uncle, a father and son. (Perry mentions that Milgram briefly considered using husbands and wives as subjects but decided that “could generate ill-feeling between people.”) In each of these cases the subject insisted that the experiment be halted. None of them went to the maximum of 450 volts. Perry writes that Milgram had failed in his attempt to sever the “bonds of family and friendship” and that “instead of measuring obedience … he’d measured the power of love.”
But is it really as rosy as that? While Larry does bail eventually, he shocks Doug even after Doug twice begs him to stop. That’s a funny kind of love.