The truth about Milgram

Some new evidence about what really happened in Milgram’s studies has recently come to light. About 10 years, Australian journalist and psychologist Gina Perry discovered that Yale University had an archive with hundreds of audiotapes documenting Milgram’s research. Her study of these tapes have recently been published in a book (‘Behind the shock machine‘, 2013) where she reveals a number of major concerns.

Perhaps most importantly she reveals that the description the procedures does not reflect what actual happened. In reality the experimenter did not limit himself to the four standard prods but used a variety of different commands amounting to being quite coercive. He insisted that the true participant (the ‘teacher’) must keep going and blocked their efforts to swap places with the learner or to check on him. themselves.

A further issue the fact that participants were actually quite suspicious of the setup. Unpublished reports show that some participants noticed that the learner’s cries seemed to be coming from a speaker in the corner of the room, suggesting it was a tape recording. Others noticed that the check given to the learner looked dog-eared and worn, an indication that it had been handed over many times before.

A final issue relates to the debriefing – or ‘dehoax’. Apparently 75% of the participants had no debriefing at all and, of those who were debriefed, nothing was said about the shocks not being real.

You can listen to a report of these findings on BBC’s All in the Mind or read a report here.

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  1. Keith E Rice December 16, 2013 at 9:08 pm #

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Cara.

    Increasingly new research seems to be chipping away at the orthodoxy of what MIlgram did and what his studies actually mean for our understanding of obeidence.

    Alex Haslam & Steve Reicher have been amongst the most fervent chippers. Their notion that the participant’s behaviour was strongly infuenced by whom they identified with most – the ‘learner’ or the experimenter – is increasingly gaining traction and, as such greatly undermines the simplistic notion that MIlgram’s studies were straightforward IV/DV cause-and-effect experiments. Riecher & Haslam point out that Milgram greatly simplified his explanations for his results between 1962 and 1974 – implying the same kind of ‘ecomomy with the truth’ as Cara reports Perry presenting.

    Milgram certainly was a convoluted character who, as he progressed, seemed determined to reduce complex findings to simplistic conclusions. For example, his later writings and the emphasis he puts on situationalism almost totally ignore the Elms & Milgram (1966) dispositional findings that authoritarian personalities gave longer shocks and more of them went to 450v.

    Haslam & Reicher spent February and March in the Yale archive too, looking in part at the questionnaire responses Milgram got. Alex gave me a preview of their report – unpublished yet as far as I know so I can’t say too much – but there may be real issues as to whether the way Milgram weighted his questions predicated certain, favourable responses.

    Personally I’m not always too comfortable with the fervour with which some of the newer researchers chip away at Milgram. I get concerned that, if we overstate the flaws in the methodology and the manipulation of the presentation, we risk losing sight of the importance of Milgram’s work: that, in certain conditions, some people can be ordered successfully to carry out destructive harm to others simply because they were told to by someone in authority.

    • Cara Flanagan February 3, 2014 at 8:53 am #

      A belated reply Keith but I agree with both your key points – that Milgram may have tried too hard to find a simple answer and that the flaws with his research shouldn’t make us overlook some of the essential truths.

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