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September 03, 2013

A closer look at the Milgram Experiments

The other day, I heard this NPR interview with Gina Perry, the author of a new-ish book, "Behind the Shock Machine:  The Untold Story of the Notorious Psychology Experiments," and was intrigued.  My Criminal Law professor, Joe Goldstein, used the experiments in our unusual (but really fun) introductory course, as part of a discussion about consent and human-subjects research. 

I have not read Perry's book (yet), but it sounds like she's established that Milgram was pretty set all along on reaching his "regular people will do really bad things if told to by an authority figure" (or, as this reviewer put it, his "most of us are potential Nazis") conclusions and troublingly uninterested in the possibility that his subjects could have been harmed by their experiences.  Here's a bit, from a review in MacLean's:

To start with, Milgram was—in layman’s terms—nuts. He began the shock tests without any clear theory of what he was aiming to prove, and had to cobble it together afterwards, some of which he gleaned from a pamphlet entitled, “How to Train Your Dog.” He refused to consider that many people took it as a given that the stated aim of any psychological test was never its true purpose: A large proportion of the volunteers simply didn’t believe Yale would allow people to administer potentially fatal shocks. Among those who did accept what Milgram told them, far fewer than the 65 per cent he claimed actually continued to up the voltage. Worst of all, for fear the truth would leak out to other prospective volunteers, Milgram refused to fully debrief his subjects, many of whom were haunted for years by guilt at what they thought they had done.

If any readers have had a chance to read the book, I'd welcome and appreciate reactions.

Posted by Rick Garnett on September 3, 2013 at 03:20 PM in Garnett, Rick | Permalink

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