Tuesday, October 8, 2013
ARGUABLY, there is no more famous experiment in psychology. In 1962, Dr Stanley Milgram took a group of normal people, put them in a laboratory, and ordered them to electrocute someone.
Two thirds obeyed - applying, they thought, 450V shocks to an actor who writhed in apparent agony. For a world looking to explain how the Holocaust had happened, how ordinary people could commit unspeakable acts simply because they were ordered to, the Milgram experiment offered an insight. It is an experiment that has found new resonance with each generation - with those looking to understand the My Lai massacre, the Rwanda genocide and Abu Ghraib.
There is just one problem. According to an Australian psychologist who has reviewed the original recordings of the test and spoken to some of those involved, it could be that Milgram's experiment explains nothing at all - except his willingness to manipulate results. "It became clear to me that Milgram had an idea of the kind of results he wanted," Gina Perry said. "He enacted the experiment to ensure that result".
Ms Perry's investigations began as an attempt to interview the original subjects of the experiment for a book. However, the more she researched, the more she became concerned that they had been treated unfairly by Milgram - and by history. "It's a bit heart breaking to listen to the recordings. These people have been so unjustly depicted. They have been portrayed as evil incarnate."
The volunteers were told that they were testing the extent to which punishment aided learning. Split into two groups, one half would be learners - who would have to remember word pairs - the other half teachers, who would electrocute the learner if he or she made a mistake. In fact, the learners were all actors.
If the teachers refused to electrocute the learners, an experimenter would prompt them to do so four times before giving up. What is not widely known though is that there were 24 iterations of this experiment, with slightly different setups. In only one - the famous one - did 65 per cent obey. "Overall, over half disobeyed," said Ms Perry.
Even among those who obeyed, the experiment was not as described. On one occasion far from having only four promptings, a subject was ordered 26 times before obeying, Perry recounts in her book Behind the Shock Machine.
"The common perception is that they were all slavishly obedient - that they entered a zombie-like state of compliance," Ms Perry said.
"When you listen to the recordings you can hear people bargaining. They're concerned, they're worried, they're distressed.
"You can hear them emphasising the right answer, wanting to get the learner to pick up the right answer." On several occasions, people even offered to swap places with the learner.
Then there was the issue of how many actually believed it was real. Candid Camera was the most popular TV show in the US at the time. A lot of people told Ms Perry they expected to see a TV crew afterwards. A lot said they had spotted tell-tale flaws in the experiment. "The whole focus of this experiment is that there's a Nazi camp guard inside all of us," Ms Perry said.
"We've come to accept it as a statement about humankind." She added, however, that it simply cannot show that.
Other psychologists cautioned that Milgram, who died in 1984, could not be so easily dismissed. "Yes, this undermines certain findings, but this effect has been found in many other experiments," Gisli Gudjonsson, from King's College London, said.
"In those days ethical rules were different. We mustn't lose sight of the fundamental truth though, that ordinary people - most people - are capable of very cruel things when put in certain circumstances," she said.