Stanley Milgram and his ‘Shock Machine’ Exposed: How Much of Modern Science Requires Re-Evaluation?

Stanley Milgram’s famous ‘shock’ experiment led scientists to believe there was a Nazi lurking in all of us. The recent examination of his archives at Yale University has revealed the farcical nature of his data.
By Casey Abel
A participant in Stanley Milgram’s ‘Shock’ experiment in 1960. Photo Credit: Yale University.

In his recent work, Humankind a Hopeful History, historian Rutger Bregman attempts to disprove the common (mis)perception that humans are inherently greedy, selfish and apathetic. Or in the words of William Golding, author of the famous children’s novel, Lord of the Flies,

Men produce evil as bees produce honey.

Source: The Hot Gates, 1965, pg. 87.

Bregman’s book has received largely positive reviews beyond its optimistic re-evaluation of human nature. The book is a work of social science and hosts a thoroughly fleshed out bibliography of 784 references. In arguing his thesis, Bregman tackles big names across anthropology, evolutionary biology, and the psychological sciences. Perhaps most incredulous is his highlighting the farcical nature of several landmark science experiments.

The scientific experiments of Muzafer Sherif, Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram are pillars of modern social psychology. Not just because the findings of these mens’ research made headlines around the world in the 1950’s and 60’s, but because much contemporary literature is premised upon their experiment’s results. In the last few years, Bregman and other researchers have discovered these scientists were deceptive in the conduct of their experiments and manipulative of their data.

The 1960’s were a time of social upheaval in the West. In tandem with the Civil Rights movements many Westerners were captivated by human nature’s darkening reputation. The Holocaust remained fresh in Western social conscious. High profile trials of surviving Nazi leaders were in full swing, and many people were wondering what could cause someone to rise in the morning and work at a concentration camp.  Many of the Nazis on trial stated they were simply ‘following orders’, as if the mere existence of a chain of command had removed their personal agency.

The war crimes of the Nazis and those who served them had become synonymous with ‘evil’ and as the Nazi trials were broadcast around the world, viewers and attendees reflected on whether to be ‘evil’ is an innate aspect of human nature. At the time Stanley Milgram was a young scientist at Yale University and he claimed he sought to answer this question. Albeit in more scientific language.

Milgram’s experiment was simple. He advertised a call for volunteers in the local newspaper and told them they were participants in an experiment examining the effects of punishment on learning. The participants were told to administer an electric shock to a ‘learner’ (an actor), who was in the next room, via a panel of thirty switches in front of them.

Each switch was labelled an ever-increasing voltage of electricity from 15 volts up to 450. Each time the ‘learner’ made a mistake in their activity, the participant was ordered by one of Milgram’s assistants to administer an electric shock – with the voltage increasing each time.

What Milgram was really testing was the participants obedience to a perceived authority figure. Would the volunteers, regular everyday American people, continue to administer electric shocks up to 450 volts despite the cries of pain and pleading from the ‘learner’ to stop? Apparently yes, for the most part. Milgram published his results showing that 65% of participants administered the full voltage and ‘killed’ their learner despite cries of pain and terror from the other room.

If a system of death camps were set up in the United States, one would be able to find sufficient personnel for those camps in any medium sized American town.

Stanley Milgram, 1979.

Stanley Milgram Exposed

Bregman had a lot of help researching his thesis and debunking Milgram and especially from Australian writer Gina Perry. Perry had published a book on Muzafer Sherif and his ‘Cave Robbers Experiment’, and was completing another on Milgram and his antics. 

The short of it is, that Milgram was encouraged not by the pursuit of scientific advancement but by achieving ‘prestige and fame’, according to Bregman. The original experiment was conducted in 1962, and the assistants (directing the volunteers) had a clearly flawed script to follow. When a volunteer refused to administer an electric shock, the assistant would state the following:

  1. Please continue.
  2. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  3. You have no other choice, you must go on.

.

The validity of Milgram’s experiment should have been called into question immediately given that only the third prompt from the assistant is a genuine order. The degree to which Milgram was testing obedience is vastly diminished. Milgram’s archives at Yale opened to the public in 1993 and have only recently been thoroughly examined.

Perry, Bregman and other researchers have discovered that Milgram manipulated his data, and the means by which he attained them, to suit his narrative. For instance, rather than simply giving orders, the assistant in the experiment made as many as nine attempts to convince participants to continue administering electric shocks. There was clearly resistance to authority present in the experiment. Perry discovered, listening to hundreds of audiotapes recorded during the experiment, that the behaviour of the assistant was tantamount to bullying.

The slavish obedience to authority we have come to associate with Milgram’s experiments comes to sound much more like bullying and coercion when you listen to these recordings.

Gina Perry, writing in Discover Magazine, 2013.

Milgram’s deception gets worse. The validity of his results hinge upon whether or not his participants genuinely thought they were actually electrocuting a person in the opposite room. Milgram administered a questionnaire to his participants after the experiment which found 56% of the volunteers believed the experiment was fake.

Furthermore, one of Milgram’s assistants conducted an analysis after the experiment to determine participants’ beliefs and attitudes thereto. The analysis was never published, however, Perry and other researchers recently did a study on this analysis and concluded that,

…defiance was associated on the one side with the perception of (causing) pain and obedience was associated with subject skepticism on the other.

(p. 103).

In other words, participants were more likely to ‘electrocute’ the ‘learner’ if they believed the experiment was fake. More importantly, the majority of participants who believed the experiment was real refused to administer electric shocks.

            Where does this leave Modern Social Psychology?

The implications for the modern sciences are gargantuan. Bregman’s thesis is that humans are inherently ‘friendly’ and ‘peaceful’ by nature. Much of modern science is premised upon the results of cynical experiments like Milgram’s who claim to demonstrate human nature to be bestial.

The scientific experiments of Stanley Milgram’s ‘Shock Machine’, Philip Zimbardo’s ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ and Muzafer Sherif’s ‘Cave Robber’s Experiment’ have each been shown to be farcical. Despite this, there seems to be little recognition in the academic community, particularly given that these experiments are the go-to for psychologists when answering questions relevant to human nature.

I was introduced to Milgram when studying for my Psychology Major in 2018. I was taught Milgram’s experiment was true – probably because the academic world still largely believes his experiments to be authentic. Psychology 4th Edition, published in 2015, was my core textbook. It upholds Milgram’s experiment as a pillar of psychology, telling students that,

The results of Milgram’s studies are in sharp contrast to what most of us believe about ourselves… how we [think we] would behave and the way most of us would actually behave highlights a consistent finding in social psychology – that is, our blindness to the power of situations over our own behaviour.

(P. 762).

The latest edition of the textbook was published in 2018. It also continues to uphold Milgram’s experiments and findings, and remains standard reading for tertiary courses in Australia and New Zealand.

Today, students are taught that there is a potential Nazi lurking within all of us – that we are slaves to authority. Milgram’s experiment actually revealed the opposite: that humans are intrinsically opposed to authority. As per the original recordings of the experiment, when the assistant gave the third prompt (the only one that is a genuine order) participants immediately refused to administer an electric shock.

Science is living knowledge in that it exists in a state of perpetual correction. Clearly, the psychological sciences require an extensive re-evaluation and overhaul. Whether or not Bregman’s prime thesis that humans are essentially ‘friendly’ by nature is true, we clearly cannot continue to create knowledge on the premise that humans are inherently greedy, selfish and apathetic.

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