Rethinking One of Psychology's Most Infamous Experiments
In 1961, Yale University psychology professor Stanley Milgram placed an advertisement in the New Haven Register. “We will pay you $4 for one hour of your time,” it read, asking for “500 New Haven men to help us complete a scientific study of memory and learning.”
Only part of that was true. Over the next two years, hundreds of people showed up at Milgram’s lab for a learning and memory study that quickly turned into something else entirely. Under the watch of the experimenter, the volunteer—dubbed “the teacher”—would read out strings of words to his partner, “the learner,” who was hooked up to an electric-shock machine in the other room. Each time the learner made a mistake in repeating the words, the teacher was to deliver a shock of increasing intensity, starting at 15 volts (labeled “slight shock” on the machine) and going all the way up to 450 volts (“Danger: severe shock”). Some people, horrified at what they were being asked to do, stopped the experiment early, defying their supervisor’s urging to go on; others continued up to 450 volts, even as the learner pled for mercy, yelled a warning about his heart condition—and then fell alarmingly silent. In the most well-known variation of the experiment, a full 65 percent of people went all the way.
Until they emerged from the lab, the participants didn’t know that the shocks weren’t real, that the cries of pain were pre-recorded, and that the learner—railroad auditor Jim McDonough—was in on the whole thing, sitting alive and unharmed in the next room. They were also unaware that they had just been used to prove the claim that would soon make Milgram famous: that ordinary people, under the direction of an authority figure, would obey just about any order they were given, even to torture. It’s a phenomenon that’s been used to explain atrocities from the Holocaust to the Vietnam War’s My Lai massacre to the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. “To a remarkable degree,” Peter Bakerwrote in Pacific Standard in 2013, “Milgram’s early research has come to serve as a kind of all-purpose lightning rod for discussions about the human heart of darkness.”
Others continued shocking even as the victim pled for mercy, yelled a warning about his heart condition—and then fell alarmingly silent.
In some ways, though, Milgram’s study is also—as promised—a study of memory, if not the one he pretended it was.
More than five decades after it was first publishedin the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychologyin 1963, it’s earned a place as one of the most famous experiments of the 20th century. Milgram’s research has spawned countless spinoff studies among psychologists, sociologists, and historians, even as it’s leapt from academia into the realm of pop culture. It’s inspired songs by Peter Gabriel (lyrics: “We do what we’re told/We do what we’re told/Told to do”) and Dar Williams (“When I knew it was wrong, I played it just like a game/I pressed the buzzer”); a number of books whose titles make puns out of the word “shocking”; a controversial French documentary disguised as a game show; episodes of Law and Order and Bones; amade-for-TV movie with William Shatner; a jewelry collection (bizarrely) from the company Enfants Perdus; and most recently, the biopic The Experimenter, starring Peter Sarsgaard as the title character—and this list is by no means exhaustive.
But as with human memory, the study—even published, archived, enshrined in psychology textbooks—is malleable. And in the past few years, a new wave of researchers have dedicated themselves to reshaping it, arguing that Milgram’s lessons on human obedience are, in fact, misremembered—that his work doesn’t prove what he claimed it does....