May 22, 2024

The Experimenter’s pessimism

A new film highlights the controversial experiments by Stanley Milgram

Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments are so famous that that they have almost become a cliché, and now, even more hackneyed, a Hollywood biopic. In Experimenter Director Michael Almereyda retells the familiar story of the 1961 experiments in which people administered potentially lethal electric shocks to a stranger in another room because they blindly followed orders by a white-coated researcher.

The lesson that most people have taken from the textbook accounts of the experiments is that ordinary people will obey orders, no matter how cruel or unethical. With the horrors of Nazi extermination camps and the Eichmann trial fresh in the minds of readers, this pessimistic view of the human spirit was readily accepted. The film reinforces this view. As the reviewer for the Washington Post comments, it “Contains brief strong language and troubling behavior that may make viewers lose faith in humanity”.

Furthermore, the experiments raised troubling questions about the ethics of the experiment. Could an experimenter ask a subject to commit a crime? Could he deceive them? Was he walking in the footsteps of the Nazi doctors?

The Hollywood interpretation of the Milgram experiments seems to have ignored research by Australian psychologist Gina Perry in her 2013 book  Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments. Her examination of Milgram’s notes suggests that his experimental technique was so sloppy that his conclusions could not be justified from the data. In fact, in some of the experiments more than 60% of the subjects refused to continue. She wrote in Scientific American:

“Milgram himself was privately aware of the methodological weakness of his research and struggled with many of the issues about the validity of experiments and their generalisability beyond the lab. Privately Milgram reflected that his work was more art than science, and described himself as a ‘hopeful poet.’

“Poet or scientist, his determination to make a contribution to an understanding of one of the pressing issues of his generation led him to frame, shape and edit the story of his research for maximum impact. And while Milgram may have not measured obedience to authority in his lab his findings do offer us a powerful lesson: to question the authority of science and to be more critical of the stories we’ve been told.”

Experimenter has an 86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The critics love it. But don’t lose your faith in humanity because of it.

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