Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments

By Eisenman, Russell | Journal of Information Ethics, October 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments


Eisenman, Russell, Journal of Information Ethics


Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments Gina Perry. New York: The New Press. 2013. 340 pp. $26.95 hardbound

Stanley Milgram's shocking (pun intended) research seemed to show that obedience to authority was strong in the United States. It appeared to say that in regard to obedience to authority, we were not that different than Nazi Germany. The studies, begun in 1961, involved people, called "teachers," using a bogus shock machine to administer electric shocks to a "learner" when the learner got things wrong. Presumably, the teachers thought they were really giving shocks, and when encouraged by the experimenter, many gave what they thought were very painful shocks to the "learner" who was actually a confederate pretending to be a subject. There were various conditions. In some cases the learner would complain of pain, say he had a bad heart, yell, and demand to be let out. Yet, with the encouragement of the man playing the role of the experimenter, often as many as 65 percent of the subjects would continue to administer the highest level of shocks. The real subjects often seemed shaken by what they had done, giving further credibility to the idea that they believed the bogus shock machine to be real. This research was greatly respected at the time and helped Milgram get tenure at Yale and later a job at Harvard.

Later, there were critiques of the shock studies, on the grounds that they were unethical, that they put too much stress on subjects, who typically did not learn until much later that the shock machine and the "learner" were bogus. After the criticisms, Milgram lost his bid for tenure at Harvard and his research grant was not renewed. Perry is highly critical of Milgram and his research. She thinks he did a terrible thing and that the research, per se, does not deserve the praise it has received. To me, she overdoes her criticisms of Milgram and his various shock studies (he had many different conditions, such as the real subject, the "teacher," being or not being in the same room with the "learner," having or not having to hold his hand down so he would receive a shock, etc. …

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