Would you shock someone with potentially lethal amounts of electricity simply because you were told to do it? That's exactly what the subjects in Stanley Milgrim's experiments did in the early 1960s. His objective was to test obedience to authority, and the world was surprised to see the results. A majority of ordinary citizens in the test chose to shock an innocent person when they were ordered to by the scientist leading the experiment. The individuals on the receiving end of the powerful shocks were actually actors pretending to suffer, but the subjects believed they were causing the actors real pain throughout the study.
Now, a French documentary has put a modern twist to Milgrim's original work. The film, called "The Game of Death," features players in a fake television game shocking fellow contestants if they answer a question incorrectly. The audience cheers them on, and the actors pretending to be zapped put on a good show. The documentary explores television's impact on morality. Tonight, Randi Kaye digs deeper on the psychology behind the experiments. Tune in at 10pm ET.
Here are some interesting facts about the creator of the original experiment, Stanley Milgrim. What do you think of his work and the new television-based interpretation?
Although Milgram was to become one of the most important psychologists of the 20th century, he never took a single psychology course as an undergraduate at Queens College, where he obtained his BA in Political Science. He changed career goals in his senior year and applied to the Ph.D. program in Social Psychology at Harvard's Department of Social Relations. Rejected at first because he did not have any background in psychology, he was accepted provisionally after he took six psychology courses at three different New York-area schools in the summer of 1954.
In the fall of 1962, a year before the appearance of his first journal article on his obedience research, the American Psychological Association (APA) put Milgram's membership application "on hold" because of questions raised about the ethics of that research. After an investigation by the APA produced a favorable result, they admitted him.
The first published criticism of his obedience experiments appeared in an unusual place. In the fall of 1963, right after the first appearance of his research in a journal, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an editorial criticizing him and Yale for the highly stressful experience he created for his subjects. Milgram found out about the editorial from a St. Louis social psychologist, Robert Buckhout. As a result, Milgram was able to write a rebuttal that the newspaper subsequently published on its editorial page.
In August, 1976, CBS presented a prime-time dramatization of the obedience experiments and the events surrounding them, titled "The Tenth Level." William Shatner had the starring role as Stephen Hunter, the Milgram-like scientist. Milgram served as a consultant for the film. While it contains a lot of fictional elements, it powerfully conveyed enough of the essence of the true story for its writer, George Bellak, to receive Honorable Mention in the American Psychological Association's media awards for 1977.
Milgram's "shock machine" still exists. It can be found at the Archives of the History of American Psychology at the University of Akron. For a number of years, beginning in 1992, it was part of a traveling psychology exhibit created by the American Psychological Association.
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