Mixing Psychology and Theatre; Some of the Most Eyebrow-Raising Psychological Experiments of the 20th Century Are the Substance of a New Play Opening in Newcastle, as David Whetstone Reports

The Journal (Newcastle, England), March 29, 2016 | Go to article overview

Mixing Psychology and Theatre; Some of the Most Eyebrow-Raising Psychological Experiments of the 20th Century Are the Substance of a New Play Opening in Newcastle, as David Whetstone Reports


Byline: David Whetstone

In 1961, shortly after the start of the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, psychologist Stanley Milgram, of Yale University, devised an experiment to see how far people would go to obey authority ("I was only following orders" was a common response to accusations of war crimes).

In the Milgram experiment, American volunteers were told by an authority figure to administer electric shocks of mounting severity to a person (whom they couldn't see) who failed to answer some simple questions correctly.

Confounding most people's predictions, in the first round of his experiment Milgram found that 65% of volunteers were prepared to administer a final massive 450-volt shock to their unseen subject.

No electric shocks were administered, of course, but the volunteers didn't know that. Many were shocked by the findings of the experiment.

The Milgram experiment was one of 10 psychology experiments selected by author Lauren Slater - also an American psychologist - for inclusion in her book Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychology Experiments of the Twentieth Century, published in 2004.

Skinner, incidentally, was Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-90), an American psychologist and behaviorist who believed free will is an illusion and that human actions are dependent on the consequences of previous actions. Lauren Slater's book sparked a lot of interest, as you can imagine. While some academics criticised her research methods and disapproved of her readable, fiction-like style, she reached a wide non-academic readership.

Now, after the book, comes the play.

Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson, cofounders of theatre company Improbable, are directing it together in a co-production with Northern Stage in Newcastle and West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. It marks the 20th anniversary of Improbable which is known for its innovative and pioneering productions (you might have seen their excellent production of The Tempest at Northern Stage last year).

Lee Simpson says of Opening Skinner's Box: "It's like a really great BBC4 science documentary but with dramatic reconstructions that aren't embarrassing. …

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