Behind the shock machine

I had actually studied the Milgram experiment before I was randomly chosen to participate in just such an experiment while an arts student at the University of Toronto. And I have always wanted to know how others had reacted to having been part of this experiment so now I will be able to find out. It is one of the main reasons ethics approval is now required and I can tell you that anyone who conducted these experiments ought to be hunted down and their licence to practise psychology withdrawn. This is the text of an article titled, How many people really went through with the Milgram Experiment? by Esther Inglis-Arkell:

We’ve all heard of the infamous Milgram Experiment, in which subjects, with a little pressure from an authority figure, participated in a process that they believed shocked someone to death. But did far fewer people than reported actually go through with it?

The Milgram Experiment is arguably the most famous psychology experiment in the world – probably because bad news travels fast, and it has some very bad news regarding all of humanity. It seems that sixty-five percent of us would torture a human being to death if an authority figure asked us to. For those who don’t know, the Milgram experiment involved subjects coming in and hearing that they would be participating in a memory-improving experiment. A person in the next room – connected via intercom – would be tested on their memory, and the subjects would be in charge of giving them ever-increasing shocks when they screwed up. The person was actually an actor, and not hooked up to anything, but would scream in pain as the shocks got worse. If the actual experimental subject objected to shocking the person, the experimenter would give them more and more menacing orders to continue with the experiment. At last the “line” would go quiet, making the subjects believe that they’d murdered someone.

Although some people considered the experiment a positive experience, and one subject corresponded with Milgram for years and credited the experiment for making him a conscientious objector, others were traumatized. One woman was prodded into participating by her roommate, who turned out to be the one being “killed” in the other room. One hopes that, after the experiment, either the murderer or the psychologist moved out. The Milgram experiment prompted psychologists to call for more exacting standards regarding human experimentation.

The results overshadowed the ethical standards. It appeared that sixty-five percent of people would torture someone to death, if pressured to do so. The results made their way into both psychology and cocktail party conversation. But were they correct? At least one woman doesn’t think so. Gina Perry, for her book, Behind the Shock Machine, traced as many participants in the Milgram experiment as she could, and re-examined the notes of the experiment. Milgram claimed that seventy-five percent of the participants believed in the reality of the experiment, but Perry puts the number at about half. The change makes a big difference in the results. The people who didn’t buy that they were actually shocking people were far more willing to increase the intensity of the shocks. They wanted to know how far the experimenters would go in the ruse, while the experimenters were wondering the same thing about them. Those that believed that they were shocking people were much more likely to keep the shocks down low. While Perry still thinks about a third of the people would crank up the shocks even if they believed, that’s a big drop in overall percentage. While no one can deny that people can do some terrible things, perhaps, overall, people are neither as evil or gullible as we imagine.

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