Electric Schlock: Did Stanley Milgram’s Famous Obedience Experiments Prove Anything?

Peter Barker on Gina Perry’s book Behind the Shock Machine, about the problems with Stanely Milgram’s famous shock experiments:

The wrinkles in Milgram’s research kept revealing themselves. Perhaps most damningly, after Perry tracked down one of Milgram’s research analysts, she found reason to believe that most of his subjects had actually seen through the deception. They knew, in other words, that they were taking part in a low-stakes charade.

Gradually, Perry came to doubt the experiments at a fundamental level. Even if Milgram’s data was solid, it is unclear what, if anything, they prove about obedience. Even if 65 percent of Milgram’s subjects did go to the highest shock voltage, why did 35 percent refuse? Why might a person obey one order but not another? How do people and institutions come to exercise authority in the first place? Perhaps most importantly: How are we to conceptualize the relationship between, for example, a Yale laboratory and a Nazi death camp? Or, in the case of Vietnam, between a one-hour experiment and a multiyear, multifaceted war? On these questions, the Milgram experiments—however suggestive they may appear at first blush—are absolutely useless.

It is likely that no one understood this better than Milgram himself. In his notes and letters, Perry finds ample evidence that, privately, he had significant doubts about his work.

Full Story: Pacific Standard: Electric Schlock: Did Stanley Milgram’s Famous Obedience Experiments Prove Anything?

1 Comment

  1. I’ve always wondered if some participants may have realized the “shock victims” were actors. It’s a shame the study was done so sloppily. Obedience to authority is a serious phenomenon that deserves real examination.

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