The Story of a Shocking Experiment, on Screen

If someone told you to jump off a bridge, what would you do? Tell them where to go, most likely.

But what if someone in a position of authority told you to administer a 450-volt shock to another person? Again, you’d tell them where to go, wouldn’t you?

A series of controversial experiments on obedience conducted by Yale University social psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s would suggest that the likelihood is you wouldn’t.

On Sunday, 15 November, Experimenter, the Irish premiere of a new film exploring the life of Milgram and his controversial experiments, will be screened at the Irish Film Institute. It’s on as part of this year’s UCD Science Expression film festival.

The theme of the festival, which runs from 10 to 15 November, is “defining futures”. Films which explore how science shapes our futures in various ways will be screened in venues across the city. Each will be followed by a panel discussion with expert guest speakers.

There will be a dynamic group of speakers at the events: writers, artists, scientists, and journalists. They’ll chip in with their opinions and expertise during post-show discussions, says Alex Boyd, public engagement and outreach manager at UCD Research.

“It’s about having fun as well,” she says. “It’s about going to an event, learning something new, being entertained.”

You have probably heard of Milgram’s work, even if the mention of his name doesn’t ring a bell or buzzer.

Milgram became interested in the relationship that existed between power and obedience in the wake of the trial of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann in 1961, in which his defence for ordering the deaths of millions of Jews was that he was merely following instructions.

A year later, Milgram devised an experiment in which participants played teachers, and asked questions of people in an adjacent room playing learners. For every wrong answer, the teacher administered an electrical shock to the learner.

Unbeknownst to the “teacher,” the “learner” unseen in the next room was a confederate of the experiment and only pretending to be shocked.

Each wrong answer would mean an increase in the voltage of shocks, which ranged from 30 volts to 450 volts. The switches were labelled from “moderate shock” to “danger: severe shock” to a final, ominous level “XXX”.

As the experiment went on, the participant could hear the learner pleading for the shocks to stop. At 300 volts, the learner would bang on the wall, demanding to be released.

Beyond 300 volts, the learner became silent and refused to answer questions. The participant would be prodded to continue by an experimenter, a man in a white coat, who used four prompts:

“Please Continue.” “The experiment requires you to continue.” “It is absolutely essential that you continue.” “You have no other choice but to continue.”

With this little bit of coaxing, Milgram found that 65 percent of the subjects would administer shocks all the way up to “XXX”, 450 volts.

The screening of Experimenter, directed by Michael Almereyda and staring Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder, will be followed by a discussion and Q & A session on Milgrim and his experiments with broadcaster and science journalist Quentin Cooper and Dr Paul D’Alton, president of the Psychology Society of Ireland.

Considered one of the most famous psychological studies of the twentieth century, the obedience experiment shone a light into a dark corner of human behaviour, revealing that in the right environment, ordinary people could do terrible things when ordered to do so by a figure of authority.

“Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process,” Milgram wrote in his book, Obedience to Authority.

“Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

Dr D’Alton, who will be part of the post-screening discussion and Q & A session, says that the experiments “threw up very big questions on the nature of humanity and our capacity to do harm”.

They went to the heart of the question which asked what makes an otherwise ordinary human being into a potential killer, he says.

It was embedded in the debate of the time, he says. “Is it the trait, the person, or is it the situation that makes someone inflict harm? Milgram came down on the side of situation.”

Would people today be more or less likely to comply?

“I don’t believe that human nature has changed very radically since the time of those experiments,” Dr D’Alton says.

We’ll never know for sure, because “thankfully we’re not allowed conduct experiments like that anymore,” he says. Ethical standards governing experiments wouldn’t allow it.

The subjects of the experiments, oblivious to what was really going on, having simply answered a newspaper ad offering $4.50 to take part, were placed under significant psychological and emotional stress. This is clearly visible in the numerous, disturbing videos of the experiment available on YouTube.

The fact that the participants were never offered the option of discontinuing the experiment, only prompted to “please continue”, would be unacceptable today.

“He was a very, very controversial character, seen as that obsessive scientist who would endanger people’s lives for his career,” Dr D’Alton says. “Others would say he was dedicated to advancing behavioural sciences and the deepening understanding of human behaviour.”

There is also debate regarding the validity of the experiments and of Milgram’s conclusions.

Gina Perry, psychologist and author of the book Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments, found evidence that experimenters sometimes went off script.

When asked by a participant to check on the learner in the next room, they would sometimes do so. This went against the prescribed method of the experiment, in which the experimenter was supposed only to prod the subject with the four prompts to continue.

Perry also points out that the figure of 65 percent is taken from one experiment involving 40 men, when in fact there were 24 variations of the experiment that weren’t computed in the final statistic.

“By examining records of the experiment held at Yale, I found that in over half of the 24 variations, 60% of people disobeyed the instructions of the authority and refused to continue,” she wrote in 2013 article for Discover magazine.

That still leaves 40 percent of participants who administered shocks all the way up to “XXX”, though.

The fact that the obedience experiments and Stanley Milgram remain as ripe for discussion and debate among psychologists today as they did half a century ago shows just how significant, fascinating and divisive both the work and the man were.

Expect a fascinating and divisive film and discussion.


The UCD Science Expression film festival will run from 10 to 15 November. You can find listings and tickets hereExperimenter will be screened at the Irish Film Institute on Sunday, 15 November at 4:30pm.

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Damien Murphy: Damien Murphy is Dublin Inquirer's Northside city reporter. Want to share a comment or a tip with him? Send him an email at dmurphy@dubinq.com.

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