One of the most famous experiments in psychology is that of Stanley Milgram who in 1962 purported to show how a surprisingly high percentage (65%) of ordinary people could be persuaded by authority figures to inflict extremely high levels of pain on others, well beyond what one might expect normal people to do. I wrote about this back in 2008.
Now Cory Doctorow says that a new book Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments by Gina Perry suggests that Milgram may have fudged some of his conclusions, throwing doubt on what might have been learned from it.
After examining the original tapes of Milgram’s experiments and interviewing the surviving subjects and researchers, Perry concludes that Milgram’s experimenters didn’t stick to a set script (as has always been reported), but rather wheedled and nagged the subjects into turning up the shock dial. What’s more, it seems that a substantial fraction of the subjects realized that there were no actual shocks, seeing through the ruse — they were also recorded as people who were willing to shock strangers to death on the say-so of a man in a labcoat.
If all Milgram had done was fudge his account of the dehoaxing process, his findings could still be completely valid. But Perry also caught Milgram cooking his data. In his articles, Milgram stressed the uniformity of his procedures, hoping to appear as scientific as possible. By his account, each time a subject protested or expressed doubt about continuing, the experimenter would employ a set series of four counter-prompts… But on the audiotapes in the Yale archives, Perry heard Milgram’s experimenter improvising, roaming further and further off script, coaxing or, depending on your point of view, coercing participants into continuing. Inconsistency in the standards meant that the line between obedience and disobedience was shifting from subject to subject, and from variation to variation—and that the famous 65 percent compliance rate had less to do with human nature than with arbitrary semantic distinctions.
The field of psychology has recently been reeling from repeated revelations of experiments that could not be replicated or were downright fraudulent. This latest report is not going to help the field in its attempt to rehabilitate itself.
But apart from the damage to psychology, a repudiation of the Milgram conclusions may be a good thing in that it restores some faith in the ability of people to resist pressure by those in authority to inflict harm on others. The original Milgram results were deeply discouraging on that score.