Unpublished data from Stanley Milgram’s experiments cast doubt on his claims about obedience

An analysis of previously unpublished data raises serious questions about Stanley Milgram’s landmark obedience experiments.

The findings, which have been published in Social Psychology Quarterly, indicate that many people were willing to engage in seemingly reprehensible behavior because they saw through the researchers’ cover story. Those who believed the cover story, on the other hand, tended to be more defiant.

The Milgram experiment was designed to test people’s willingness to bow to authority — in this case, scientists in lab coats. Subjects were led to believe that they were participating in a study about learning, and were asked to deliver increasingly powerful electric shocks to another subject whenever he got an answer wrong during a memory test.

No shocks were actually delivered, but the other subject (who was actually a research assistant) made increasingly desperate cries of agony and pleas to stop.

“I was surprised to discover an unpublished analysis in Stanley Milgram’s archives of the relationship between the amount of shock subjects gave in the experiment and their belief that the learner was really being hurt when I was researching my book ‘Behind the Shock Machine: the untold story of the notorious Milgram psychology experiments,'” explained study author Gina Perry, a science historian and an associate in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne.

“I also came across feedback in the archives from Milgram’s subjects that detailed what kinds of things made them suspicious that the experiment was a hoax and their hunch that the learner was not really being hurt.”

“I summarised the findings of the unpublished analysis in my book but my co-authors of this paper and I thought that we would look at the data in more detail and re-analyse it using more sophisticated statistical techniques to establish how subjects’ belief in or suspicions about the experiment affected their behavior,” Perry said.

“So if someone was suspicious that the experiment was a hoax how did they react when it came to ‘shocking’ the learner? And how did those subjects who really believed the man was receiving painful shocks respond when they were told to continue to administer what they thought were painful shocks?”

The researchers examined data from 656 post-experiment questionnaires, which asked the subjects to report how much they believed the learner was receiving painful shocks.

Most of the subjects (56 percent) were defiant and at some point refused to continue administering the electric shocks. These subjects were also more likely to have believed that the learner was suffering. Those who were less successfully convinced that the learner was in pain, however, were more obedient.

“Milgram publicly dismissed any suggestion that his subjects might have seen through the experimental deception and his work stresses his success in convincing his volunteers that the experiment was ‘real’ even though his unpublished research showed that this was not the case,” Perry told PsyPost.

“While Milgram reported on the amount of shock that subjects were prepared to administer he suppressed data that gives us insights into why people behaved the way they did. Our study shows that the believability of the experimental scenario was highly variable, contrary to Milgram’s claims and that it affected subjects’ behavior. Some subjects were convinced the learner was receiving painful shocks, others were sceptical and suspicious.”

“Our analysis shows that people who believed the learner was in pain were two and a half more times likely to defy the experimenter and refuse to give further shocks. We found that contrary to Milgram’s claims, the majority of subjects in the obedience experiments were defiant, and a significant reason for their refusal to continue was to spare the man pain,” Perry said.

“This upends the traditional narrative about the obedience experiments as a demonstration of our slavish obedience to the orders of authorities and as an explanation for events such as the Holocaust. Our results shift the focus to the issue of defiance of authority, and empathy and altruism as the dominant reactions of subjects who volunteered for this research.”

The new research builds upon findings from a previous study, which analyzed recordings of 91 conversations conducted immediately after the termination of the experiments. The recordings showed that most of the obedient subjects justified continuing the experiment because they believed the learner was not really being harmed.

“The key findings of our study, that obedience to authority is not as unreasoning and automatic as Milgram would have us believe, but was based on commonsense judgements by subjects who were variously convinced and unconvinced by the experimental scenario and responded accordingly, should prompt textbook writers to significantly revise their presentations of the research,” Perry said.

The study, “Credibility and Incredulity in Milgram’s Obedience Experiments: A Reanalysis of an Unpublished Test“, was authored by Gina Perry, Augustine Brannigan, Richard A. Wanner, and Henderikus Stam.