Milgram's Obedience Study Shocks Students with Inattention to Ethics

Skype interview with Gina Perry

Dr. Amy Werman, an adjunct professor at the Columbia School of Social Work, decided that for her class on social work research this semester, she would ask Australian psychologist Gina Perry to Skype in for a discussion of her highly acclaimed book, Behind the Shock Machine, which retells the story of one of the most famous psychological experiments of the 20th century: the Milgram Experiment on obedience to authority figures.

According to Perry, who talked to CSSW students, along with other interested members of the School community, on the evening of Wednesday, February 5th, she wrote the book because she thought it was time to hear from Milgram’s research subjects about their side of the experience. What was it like to be told to administer increasingly powerful electric shocks to other human beings?

As Perry explains on her Website, the results of the experiment—65 percent of the participants proved willing to go the maximum (450 volt) shock because they were instructed to do so by an authority figure—have been commonly interpreted to show why Nazism was so effective.

But did all of the participants go along with the experiment, or did some think it must be a ruse? And for those who believed that the shock machine worked, how did they feel afterwards? Was it ethical to use human beings for this study? Or was it a case, as one of Perry's reviewers has put it, of research scientists trampling over their human subjects on the road to personal posterity?

"It seemed to me," said Perry over Skype, "that accounts of the research ended far too soon—I wanted to know what people said to their wives and their families when they got home at night after they’d been in Milgram’s lab, what they felt about the experiment five years or ten years later.”

To find answers, Perry tracked down and interviewed former study participants, including one defector. That person told Perry he felt angry at false reports claiming that participants were debriefed afterwards to restore their sense of well-being. He said that in most cases this debriefing did not happen until much later, with the result that many participants spent months thinking they had harmed other people—plagued by what psychologists call “inflicted insight,” which Perry defines as “a sort of unwelcome and uninvited self-knowledge.”

Compounding participants’ anxieties was the comparison the media was making, in the study’s aftermath, between them and Nazis—because their behavior suggested that they, too, would have followed German authorities in participating in genocide. “The potential harm to Milgram’s subjects was enormous,” Perry said. She went on:

Milgram’s subjects have been done a terrible disservice over the last fifty years. They have been described in the same breath as Nazi perpetrators; they have been described as despicable.

Perry told the class that as her research progressed, she began to question not only Milgram’s ethics in his treatment of his subjects, but also the conclusions he came to about the human race.

Dr. Werman often hosts this kind of enhanced and interactive lecture for her classes—she finds it a “more dynamic” classroom experience, she says. In this case, she happened to hear an interview with Perry about her book on NPR and decided it made a good fit for her class’s discussion of ethical issues in research. She found the book interesting and relevant because it demonstrates both diligence on Perry’s part and the biases inherent to the study of human psychology.

Her students reacted to the interview positively, noting that Milgram had failed to take many of the steps that are designed to prevent the abuse of human subjects. Several of them admitted to having been taken aback by the harshness shown to Milgram’s subjects. For instance, according to Perry, one participant had a seizure and still was not allowed to end the experiment.

—Contributed by ML Awanohara & Nidale Zouhir (CC'15)