One evening in 1974, at a home in New Haven, the family of the late Jim McDonough gathered around their television to watch The Phil Donahue Show. To their horror, a piece of 1960s black and white footage was being shown in which Jim was having electrodes attached to his body. Jim was apparently the learner in an experiment whereby he would receive increasingly strong electric shocks whenever he failed to deliver a correct response to a question.
Bearing in mind that Jim had died of a heart attack in the mid-60s, his late wife Kathryn must have been concerned that there might be a connection with this extraordinary piece of research. She wrote to the show’s producer, asking to be put in touch with the man who’d run the experiment, Dr Stanley Milgram. Shortly afterwards, she received a phone call from Milgram, who provided reassurance that her late husband had not in reality received any electric shocks at all. He also sent her an inscribed copy of the book that had caused the media interest: Obedience to Authority.
The Milgram shock experiments are the subject of an enthralling book by psychologist Gina Perry, published in 2012: Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments. By sifting through Milgram’s archive material, as well as interviewing some of his experimental subjects and assistants (or their surviving relatives), Perry shows that the popular account of the shock experiments, as promoted by Milgram himself, is but a pale and dubious version of what really happened and what the research means.
The popular account goes as follows. Milgram wanted to know whether the behaviour of the Nazis during the Holocaust was due to something specific about German culture, or whether it reflected a deeper aspect of humanity. In other words, could the same thing happen anywhere? In order to investigate this question, Milgram created an experimental scenario in which people would be pressured to commit a potentially lethal act. His subjects were recruited through newspaper advertisements in which they were promised payment for taking part in a study of learning and memory. As they arrived at Milgram’s laboratory in Yale University, a second subject (actually a paid staff member) would also appear. The experimenter (also a paid confederate of Milgram’s) explained that they were to take part in a study of the effects of punishment on learning. One of them would be the teacher and the other the learner. The two men drew a piece of paper to determine which would be which, but this was of course rigged: the subject was always the teacher. The teacher was told that any shocks received by the learner would be painful but not dangerous. He would then receive a small shock himself as an illustration of what he would potentially be delivering to the learner. During the experiment, the teacher and learner would be in separate rooms, unseen to each other but connected by audio.
At the beginning of the experiment, the teacher would read out a list of word pairs to the learner. After this, he would read out each target word followed by four words, only one of which was paired with the target. The learner would supposedly press a button corresponding to the word he thought was correct. If the learner picked the wrong word, then the teacher had to flick a switch on a machine in order to deliver an electric shock to the learner. The level of shock increased with each word, varying from 15 volts to 450 volts. The two highest settings on the shock machine were labelled ‘XXX – dangerous, severe shock’. The experimenter was always present to oversee the teacher and, if the teacher began to show concern or balk at giving further shocks, would deliver an increasingly stern series of commands (according to a script) requiring the teacher to carry on.
In the first version of the experiment the teacher did not hear from the learner, but in other experiments the learner would begin to call out in increasing levels of distress once the 150V level was reached. There were additional variations, too, such as having the learner and teacher in the same room, having the teacher place the learner’s hand on the shock plate, changing the actors, changing the location to a downtown building, having the learner mention heart trouble, and using female subjects. The experiments began in August 1961 and concluded in May 1962. During the last three days of the experiments, Milgram shot the documentary footage that would form the basis of his film Obedience.
Obedient subjects were defined as those who delivered the highest possible supposed shock of 450V. In most scenarios about 65% of subjects were classed as obedient, though some of the variations (such as teacher and learner in the same room) did lead to lower levels of obedience. By the time Milgram came to write up his research, the Nazi Adolf Eichmann had been tried and hanged in Israel and Hannah Arendt had coined the phrase “the banality of evil”. The observation that dull administrative processes could lie behind the most atrocious war crimes was an ideal peg on which Milgram could hang his research. In an era when the Korean war had given rise to concerns about brainwashing, the concept of ‘American Eichmanns’ took hold.
Milgram’s first account of his work was published in October 1963 in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, but his famous book – still in print – did not appear until 1974. The original publication of Milgram’s work, and the later publication of his book, met with a mixed response from academics. Critics raised ethical concerns about the treatment of his subjects, pointed to the lack of any underlying theory, and wondered whether it all really meant anything. Wasn’t Milgram just showing what we all knew already, that people can be pushed to commit extreme acts? In response, Milgram pointed to a survey of psychiatrists in which most of them believed that his subjects would not be willing to cause extreme harm to the learners. He also cited follow-up interviews with subjects by a psychiatrist, Dr Paul Errera, which concluded that they had not been harmed and that most had endorsed Milgram’s research.
In his 1974 book, Milgram provided the theory to explain the behaviour of his obedient subjects. This was the notion of the ‘agentic shift’, according to which the presence of an authority figure leads people to view themselves as the agents of another person and therefore not responsible for their own actions. I can recall reading Obedience to Authority as a student in the late ’80s and being confused. To me, the agentic shift theory didn’t seem to be explaining anything. It simply begged the question of why people might give up their sense of responsibility in the presence of an authority figure. Gina Perry points out that the theory also fails to explain the substantial proportion of people who didn’t obey, not to mention the discomfort, questions and objections of those people who nonetheless ended up delivering the maximum supposed shock (these objections figured in Milgram’s earlier publications but less so in his book). In suggesting that ordinary Americans could behave like Nazis, Milgram was also ignoring the entire counterculture movement and especially widespread protest and civil disobedience in relation to America’s involvement in the Vietnam war.
But Perry goes deeper than merely questioning Milgram’s theory, which many other academics have also done. Her research into the archives resulted in the realisation that, over time, Milgram’s paid actors began to depart from their script. The experimenter was provided with a series of four increasingly strict commands that he was expected to give when faced with a subject who was reluctant to continue. If the subject still refused to continue, then the experimenter was expected to call a halt. But John McDonough, Milgram’s usual paid experimenter, began to extemporise some of his commands and to cycle back through the list of four. In other words, some subjects were classed as obedient when in fact they should have been classed as disobedient.
It also turns out that many or most of Milgram’s subjects were not told straight away that the study they had taken part in was a hoax. In a relatively small community, he didn’t want the word to get about that this was the case. Despite this, in the published reports Milgram referred to “dehoaxing” the subjects at the end of the study. Subjects were sent a report about the study, including that the procedure had been a hoax, a little while after the entire series of studies had been completed. However, for whatever reason, some of the people that Gina Perry tracked down said they had never received such a report. They had gone most of their lives not knowing the truth.
Worse than this, contrary to what Milgram claimed, it is clear that some subjects were not happy about the nature of his research, either at the time (the usual experimenter, John Williams, appears to have been assaulted on more than one occasion) or later on. Some appear to have been adversely affected by their participation. In some cases, Milgram did manage to mollify people by taking them into his confidence. He then cited them as evidence that subjects were happy to endorse his studies. Some of Milgram’s subjects were Jewish, an ironic fact given Milgram’s linkage of his research to the Holocaust (Milgram himself was Jewish, but this was not something he disclosed in his earlier writings).
It also turns out that the clean bill of health given to Milgram’s research by the Yale psychiatrist Paul Errera was not quite what it seems. In fact, Errera’s interviews with some of Milgram’s subjects had taken place at the insistence of Yale University after complaints had been made. Only a small proportion of subjects were contacted and an even smaller number agreed to be interviewed, but in his book Milgram referred to these – against Errera’s wishes – as the “worst cases”, who had nonetheless endorsed his work. Milgram actually watched the interviews from behind a one-way mirror and, in some instances, revealed himself to the subjects and engaged in interaction with them. Perry suggests that Errera’s endorsement of Milgram’s work may have been influenced by his reluctance to derail the career of a young psychologist who clearly had so much riding on his controversial research. In any case, the presence of Milgram at the interviews was hardly ideal.
Milgram moved to Harvard University in July 1963. Perhaps mindful of the controversy surrounding his work, his research there avoided personal contact with subjects. In 1967, having been denied tenure at Harvard, he left for a job at the City University of New York. Perry notes that with both staff and students Milgram could alternate between graciousness and rudeness. She wonders if his mood swings might have been influenced by his drug use. This doesn’t feature highly in the book, but Milgram had been using drugs since his student days, including marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine. When writing Obedience to Authority he used drugs to help overcome his writer’s block and occasionally kept notes on the influence of his intake on the creative process.
Did his research ultimately tell us much at all? It seems unlikely that it really sheds light on the Holocaust, an event involving the actions of people working in groups and in the grip of a specific ideology. By contrast, Milgram’s subjects were acting as individuals in a highly ambiguous context. On the one hand they believed they were being instructed by a scientist, a highly trusted figure whom they would have been reluctant to let down. On the other hand, the setup didn’t make sense. Why was it necessary for a member of the public to play the role of the teacher in the experiment? Why didn’t the experimenter do this for himself? Also, some of Milgram’s own subjects were aware that punishment is not an effective method for making people learn, something that was well-established by the time that he ran his studies. One of Milgram’s research assistants, Taketo Murata, conducted an analysis that showed that the subjects who delivered the maximum shock were more often the ones who expressed disbelief in the veracity of the setup. Whilst Milgram argued that their responses after the study couldn’t be trusted, he was nonetheless happy to use these when it suited him.
Gina Perry shows that in private Milgram often shared many of the doubts that critics voiced about his work, including their ethical concerns. Publicly, though, he strongly defended his work, and more so with the passage of time. He wanted to be seen among the greats of social psychology, including his own mentor Solomon Asch, whose work on conformity was an obvious precursor to Milgram’s work. It seems, though, that Asch eventually stopped responding to Milgram’s letters, presumably increasingly uncomfortable with the ethical issues surrounding the shock experiments. Another famous psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg, had watched some of the experimental trials with Milgram behind the one-way mirror. Yet he subsequently regretted his own passivity in the face of unethical research. In a letter to the New York Times he described Milgram as “another victim, another banal perpetrator of evil”.
What about Milgram’s paid actors, Williams and McDonough? Were they also culpable in perpetrating evil? Perry is sympathetic to these men. Like the subjects, they had been duped. They needed the money and had responded to an advertisement for assistants in a study of learning and memory. Possibly as the trials proceeded, they themselves became desensitized to what was happening. In any case, they received two pay rises from Milgram in recognition of the efforts they were making on his behalf. Another actor, Bob Tracy, took part in some trials but quit after an army buddy arrived at the lab and he couldn’t go through with the deception. But what kind of pressure were Williams and McDonough under? We know that Williams was assaulted more than once in the lab. And both men were dead of heart attacks within five years of the research ending. This is ironic, as many of the experiments featured the learner stating at the outset that he had a heart problem. There is also evidence that McDonough did experience a heart ‘flutter’ during one of the trials. Did Milgram know about his heart problem and deliberately incorporate this into the experimental scenario?
In conclusion, it is undeniably true that human beings, under certain circumstances, can do terrible things. But Gina Perry has done us a great service by showing that the behaviour of authority figures does not automatically turn us into unthinking automata who will commit atrocities. Through an exemplary piece of detective work she has shown that the people who served as Milgram’s subjects were, by turn, concerned, questioning, rebellious and even disbelieving. Some, though, were affected by the experiments for years afterwards. After all, if you had been pressured into delivering very painful shocks, and possibly a lethal shock, in the name of science, only to be told that you were the person being studied, and possibly not being told that no real shocks were delivered, how would you feel about yourself later on?
Note: Gina Perry is also the author of a new book ‘The Lost Boys’, which I hope to write about in due course.