Behind the shock machine

In 1961, Stanley Milgram, a young psychologist and an assistant professor at Yale, recruited ordinary people through an advert in the local newspaper offering them $4.50 each to take part in an experiment on memory and learning.

None of the volunteers could have imagined that, once in the lab, they would be asked to sit behind a box known as a shock machine and ordered to give electric shocks to a man they’d just met.

At the conclusion of the experiment, the volunteers learned that the shock machine was a prop; the shocks were fake; the ‘victim’ was an actor; the screams were scripted; and the subject of the experiment was not memory at all.

What was really being tested was how far they, the true subjects of the experiment, would go in obeying orders from an authority figure.

When Milgram’s results were released, they created a worldwide sensation. He reported that people had repeatedly shocked a man they believed to be in pain, even dying, because they had been told to — linking his findings to Nazi behaviour during the Holocaust.

But some questioned Milgram’s unethical methods in fooling people. Milgram became both hero and villain, and his work seized the public imagination for more than half a century, inspiring books, plays, films, and art.

Gina Perry investigates this fascinating story. Interviewing participants and delving into Milgram’s unpublished papers, she uncovered an incredible story: Milgram’s results differed from what he reported, and his plans went further than anyone imagined.

This is the gripping, unforgettable tale of one man’s ambition and an experiment that defined a generation.

Further details of Behind the shock machine can be found on the main catalogue, available in ‘Catalogues’ on the Library’s website.