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Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments [Hardcover]

Gina Perry

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Book by Perry Gina

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.8 out of 5 stars  30 reviews
69 of 73 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too much bias, too little understanding 20 Oct 2013
By Sharon L. Presley - Published on
I write this review with some trepidation, not only because [full disclosure here] I was one of Milgram's graduate students and I liked him very much, but also because I have corresponded with and met Gina Perry. She is a pleasant, likable person and I think she is sincere but wrong. The disclosures about Milgram are disturbing but at the same time, it's my opinion that Perry's book is also unintentionally dishonest in a number of ways.

You might imagine that being a student of Milgram's, I'd be very upset by this book, which reveals that many things he said about the shock experiments were less than totally honest. But in fact I think it allows me to see things in a more balanced way than Perry does. She went into the book with an awe of the experiments and knew very little negative about Milgram. But the book reads as if she felt betrayed (I freely admit this is speculation on my part) and went to the opposite extreme as a reaction; she savagely flays Milgram in her book over and over again. I knew too much about Milgram to feel betrayed. I always knew Milgram had flaws. He was so brusque and intimidating in the first class I took with him that I almost didn't take another one. But I eventually grew to like him and found that he was very gracious and kind to people he liked. Fortunately this included me.

Perry went through the archives at Yale University and does document much of what she writes. We were all led to believe, for example, that everyone was thoroughly debriefed immediately after they finished their part in the experiment they were part of (there were many variations published). This is the real bombshell of the book. She shows from the archive records that many people didn't learn that the Learner (the real subject) wasn't really being shocked till months later, and some not at all. The thought that they had really hurt someone was distressful to many of the subjects so this constitutes a real breach of ethics. Psychologists are ethically obligated to be careful not to harm their subjects.

The other disturbing fact that she discovered was that the experimental procedure, which was supposed to be the same for every version, was not in fact the same. This is a big no-no in research methodology. In some versions the experimenter (not Milgram) pushed the subjects far beyond the original script, constantly demanding that they continue over and over again. Milgram did not object. Furthermore Milgram was often absent and thus could not know whether the procedures were being followed. The debriefing also varied, with some subjects being told that the Learner didn't really get any shocks and some learning much later. Very messy and not the way it should be.

Thus Perry takes him severely to task for being dishonest and deceptive. However, in my opinion, she is also less than honest in some of what she writes as well. In an early chapter, she pulls a fast one. In a sentence about Milgram, she has a quote on p. 58 of the hardcover but doesn't identify it as being by someone else. I read the sentence to a friend and asked him if he thought Milgram said it. He said yes. If one believed that the quote was Milgram's, it would have the effect of making him sound like a cad. I was suspicious and sure enough, it was someone else. No excuse for this. Perry may not have done it intentionally but I know I would never have written something that deceitful. In academia, careful citations are part of the drill. If this were the only time she did something like this, I could have overlooked it. But it wasn't. Throughout the book she continually inserts hostile speculations about Milgram without any support. To say that this book is biased against Milgram is an understatement. Every chance she gets to castigate him, whether based on fact or merely her speculation, she does it. This goes way beyond journalistic license.

One example of what is either journalistic license or great naivety occurred when Perry visited the first former subject of Milgram's. She writes that she expected "a kind of monster" and found the fellow to be very nice. I was taken aback. Nothing Milgram wrote should have led her to expect this. Milgram never said in his book that the subjects were "monsters;" instead he emphasized that they were "ordinary people." So either Perry didn't really understand Milgram's book or she was trying to juice up her writing.

I also found statements that I don't think are even true. She says several times that Milgram believed that everyone was capable of evil and that anyone "could have...staffed the death camps." (p.11)when in fact what he clearly said in his book was "I am certain that there is a complex personality basis to obedience and disobedience. But I know we have not found it." (p. 205, hd., 1974) Even in the same situations, some subjects in his experiments did disobey. So either, once again, Perry either fails to understand one of the major points of Milgram's book--that most people are influenced far more by the situation than they realize (*not* that "everyone" could potentially be a "monster")--or she is simply juicing up the narrative.

Perry also claims that Milgram believed that obedience to authority is inborn. No, he didn't. Aside from the fact that some people disobeyed the Experimenter in almost all of the variations,aside from the fact that he never said this, there is what he did say: "The key to the behavior of subjects lies not in pent-up anger or aggression but in the nature of their relationship to authority." "This was said in the context of Experiment 11, where the subjects could use any level of shock they wanted. Almost all of them administered the lowest possible shock. Where is the Nazi-like behavior that Perry claims that Milgram said was inborn? Nowhere in Milgram's book, that's for sure. Furthermore, in his capacity as my dissertation chair, Milgram approved of my study of the personal aspects of resistance to authority. Not once did he ever say to me that he thought everyone could be a Nazi. Perry's book is filled with strawmen and inappropriate speculation of this kind.

Want more examples: here's another. In regard to the movie, "The Tenth Level" loosely based on Milgram's book, Perry quotes me as saying "he wasn't too happy with it and wouldn't let his name be associated with it" then disagrees, saying that in his notes while watching the movie, he seemed to like it. But that wasn't speculation on my part; it's actually what Milgram said to me when I asked him his reaction to the movie. I don't appreciate being misrepresented as merely expressing an unfounded opinion. Perry got my quote from an online blog but she could have asked me about it at any time in the last year. And if Milgram was the publicity hound she claims he was, why wouldn't he want his name in the credits? Not explained by Perry.

Another point that bothers me, though certainly minor in the overall picture, is a great deal of vagueness about Perry's claim that she is a psychologist. She never told me this so I decided to investigate. That turned out to be a challenge. I found nothing about her educational background on her website. I finally found some information on LinkedIn. There she says that she has a BA in psychology but doesn't state what her MA is in. I went to the website of the University of Melbourne where she got this degree. It turns out that this school doesn't give MAs in psychology so we have no idea what the subject matter of her MA is. No wonder she was vague. This sounds deceitful to me. It is not appropriate to call oneself a psychologist with only a BA in the subject. I know because I taught undergraduate psychology for many years; not nearly enough training for professional purposes. If she has some other reason to call herself a psychologist, I haven't found it yet.

The most important point, in my opinion, is that Perry's analysis of the importance of Milgram's research is seriously flawed. She asserts over and over again that what Milgram found was not really "obedience to authority" but simply a belief in "science." My question is what shouldn't people be critical of "science" as well as more obvious authority? Many things done in the name of science were terribly unethical and not just the ones done by the Nazis. The infamous Tuskogee experiments on poor black men comes to mind. In talking of the power of "overarching ideology" to influence obedience, Milgram included science as one of the ideologies. So why shouldn't we be leery of science that harms?

Perry keeps insisting that the experiment proved little. But she barely touches on the replications of Milgram. She does briefly discuss the recent one done by Jerry Burger but mainly to quote him giving a slightly different interpretation, not to discuss his findings which were similar to Milgram's. In fact there were several other similar experiments, including ones she doesn't mention at all. Every single one that I am aware of with the exception of Kilman and Mann's found very nearly the same degree of obedience, including Burger's. The Kilham and Mann study, which she misrepresents and gives no details about, was done on students in the early 70s when student protest was hot but they still found a much higher level that anyone would have anticipated before the Milgram study. Perry argues that the pressure from the experimenter in the Milgram study amounted to "coercion" and is not representative. Leaving aside what I consider to be a dubious use of the word "coercion," how does she explain all the other studies? Unless she wants to argue that they too exercised undue pressure, even though they used different methodology, her main argument falls totally flat. I have to conclude that her analysis is very shallow. She has in no way proven her contention that the Milgram study proved little. It may, as some psychologists have argued, tell us little about the Nazi Holocaust, but that is hardly the only destructive or unjust obedience to authority that has ever occurred.

In fact Milgram's book tells us a great deal about, for example, how pilots can drop bombs on civilian populations in wartime. Based on several experimental variations, Milgram points out that it is easier to obey unjust authority when one is not directly faced with the consequences of one's actions. It helps us understand how the scientists in the Tuskogee study could justify to themselves the suffering they allowed. After all it was in the name of "science." It tells us that the long-held notion that women are more obedient than men is not supported. In fact virtually no gender differences have been found in any of the major follow-up studies. It helps us understand how atrocities like the one at My Lai (where one American lieutenant commanded his men to kill every man, woman, child and baby) could occur. An authority says do this and they did it. [There *were* disobedient soldiers, BTW, a fact Milgram knew.]

Should you read this book? If you have a deep interest in the Milgram experiment, then yes. It does reveal some flaws in Milgram's work and indeed in Milgram. [Although as others here have pointed out, he was not unique at that time in his casual debriefing techniques.] If you want to understand obedience, however, this book won't help you at all. If you do read it, do so with your critical thinking faculties turned up high. You're going to need them.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Obedience" through a prism 29 Aug 2013
By Robert McDonough - Published on
Before reading Gina Perry's book, I thought the findings of Dr. Milgram's obedience experiments were as cut and dry, black and white, as the film of my father(James McDonough) getting shocked in that Psych 101 classic, "Obedience to Authority." So when Perry contacted me a few years ago and asked to interview me about my father's involvement for a radio documentary, I was quite surprised. Hadn't everything that needed to be said about these experiments already been said? Isn't Milgram's thesis that ordinary people, under the right set of circumstances, are capable of great evil, a foregone conclusion? And besides; what could Perry rediscover some 50 year after the experiments that we didn't already know? As it turns out...a lot. After reading "Behind The Shock Machine" I was amazed that Perry could pick up this old gem of an experiment, put on her loupe and examine it from so many different angles. Like inspecting a diamond prism, she searches the teacher's angle, the learner's angle, the experimenter's angle, and yes, Milgram's angle. Not an easy task considering most of the experiment participants have gone on to their great reward. What she finds isn't always pretty, and yes there are plenty of flaws in Milgram's results and his sometimes uncaring attitude toward the experiment's "teachers" and their debriefings. But I don't believe it was ever Perry's desire to debunk Milgram; just to give us the whole picture and humanize and maybe colorize that classic old black and white "Obedience" experiment.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Perhaps ... 21 Oct 2013
By Randall - Published on
Ms Perry really dropped the ball because what could have been a provocative, important, and readable biography of a controversial study in the late 1950s, turns out to be nothing more than a crude attempt to discredit its author, Milgram, worthy more of the National Enquirer than the "New Press." The title of this book might better have been "Perhaps." It is riddled with statements that are based on nothing more than her conjectures (prejudices?).

"Perhaps it was three years before he got around to finishing..."

"Perhaps he was just nervous .... or perhaps he just sensed ...."

"Perhaps it was that he wanted Abse's approval...Perhaps Milgram identified with Abse."

Or such statements as: "It is probable that he wanted..."

Is this book supposed to be non-fiction, or some kind of historical fiction? What kind of serious non-fiction book has no index? These days, it is pretty simple to create one.

Her psychological insights made me wonder: "Didn't Milgram just seem ... a bit strange...."
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A revolutionary new take on a psychology classic 30 Aug 2013
By Dr. Augustine Brannigan - Published on
What I loved most about this work was it's use of archival materials created in the period when Milgram was doing his research. None of the standard histories and absolutely none of the textbooks will give you what Perry found. This was an extremely provocative experience for the 760 subjects who took part. Here are three key things that Perry uncovered. First, contrary to what Milgram reported, the majority of the subjects were not de-hoaxed in a timely fashion. Many left the experiment believing that they had shocked a man quite severely. Some continued to suffer trauma as a result of their behavior even decades later. Second, there was another large number of subjects who were totally sceptical about the cover story -- many saw through the deception and continued to give shocks believing they were harmless. This was exactly what commentators suggested at the time.. And finally, Milgram suppressed one particular condition in which people intimate with one another were paired as teacher and learner. Here the defiance level was so high it called into question the explanation that authority figures can turn ordinary people into callous brutes. Milgram never reported it. Perry's book will appeal to students who feel that they never get the full story behind these classic studies. The narration is on the casual side, which will make this appeal to the non-academic reader. Readers will also appreciate Perry's BS detector -- she reports her reactions to tough questions with key informants, and you can tell she does not believe everything suggested to her. Great read. Great supplement to any course in experimental social psychology.
38 of 51 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Is this really an "untold" story? 28 Aug 2013
By Astrotraveler - Published on
Looking at a series of experiments conducted in the 1960s through the lens of today's accepted experimental protocols and procedures does not really create a new story. The protocol was not notorious then and it's not notorious now. It's accepted that the experiments could not be conducted now.

Perry's premise that some (unknown number or percentage) of the teachers "suspected" that the experiment was not real at the time (that they were not really administering the shocks) is based on interviews 50 years after the fact. The experiments placed the teachers under some severe stress (as can be borne out through the videos). It is not surprising that over the intervening years these teachers would find excuses to reconcile this stress. This is what Perry calls a nefarious plot and finds Milgram guilty of perpetuating a fraud! There may be some fraud somewhere, but it is not on the part of Milgram or his reporting of his findings. I'd suggest that anyone wanting to look into the experiments further do so - the original study may have had 40 participants but the literature shows 780 participants when one looks at the various combinations and permutations (the experiment was replicated with different levels of contact with the controller, in different countries, etc.). Watch the videos and it becomes apparent just how distressing the teacher role proved to be. The video's also include the debriefing when the teacher gets to learn the shocks were not real and meets and shakes hands with the learner. Perry glosses this over as if it did not happen.

The author has nothing good to say about Stanley Milgram and appears on a mission to discredit his work at any cost. It may be valid to question the sincere, underlying beliefs of the teachers - but to do so 50 years later and call it a book is not journalism, it is creating a story where none exists.
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