When social psychologist Stanley Milgram invited volunteers to take part in an experiment at Yale in the summer of 1961, none of the participants could have foreseen the worldwide sensation that the published results would cause. Milgram reported that fully 65 percent of the volunteers had repeatedly administered electric shocks of increasing strength to a man they believed to be in severe pain, even suffering a life-threatening heart condition, simply because an authority figure had told them to do so. Such behavior was linked to atrocities committed by ordinary people under the Nazi regime and immediately gripped the public imagination. The experiments remain a source of controversy and fascination more than fifty years later.
In Behind the Shock Machine, psychologist and author Gina Perry unearths for the first time the full story of this controversial experiment and its startling repercussions. Interviewing the original participants—many of whom remain haunted to this day about what they did—and delving deep into Milgram’s personal archive, she pieces together a more complex picture and much more troubling picture of these experiments than was originally presented by Milgram. Uncovering the details of the experiments leads her to question the validity of that 65 percent statistic and the claims that it revealed something essential about human nature. Fleshed out with dramatic transcripts of the tests themselves, the book puts a human face on the unwitting people who faced the moral test of the shock machine and offers a gripping, unforgettable tale of one man’s ambition and an experiment that defined a generation.
Perry puts one of the 20th century s most contentious psychological studies under a microscope in this truly shocking history of the Milgram obedience experiments, examining their origins, methodologies, aftermath, and criticisms. Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram s 1961 series of tests showed that 65% of participants would, under various circumstances, willingly administer high-voltage shocks to other participants. The findings made waves in scientific circles and in popular culture, and were used to account for atrocities like the Holocaust by demonstrating the disturbing ease with which seemingly normal people could be impelled to commit cruel acts. Perry, herself a psychologist, focuses largely on the means by which these devastating conclusions were drawn; in constructing her case, she draws from her own interviews with participants and recorded dialogue from the experiments. These details, combined with her journalistic approach, make the book easily accessible to laypersons yet it s incisive enough to appeal to other psychologists as well. Perry s palpably unfavorable opinion of Milgram may leave some readers doubting the objectivity of her project, but there s still much rewarding and entertaining material here (her discussion about the scientific experiment as a form of theater is particularly interesting). No matter how shocking, it seems that the show must go on.