Behind the Shock Machine

The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments

The true story—and revealing legacy—of the controversial experiments on obedience to authority figures, based on previously unpublished material

“There may be no studies of the twentieth century more haunting—or more revealing of human beings at their best and worst—than Stanley Milgram’s work. And here, finally, is a book that illuminates Milgram and his research subjects in riveting, compassionate detail.” —Deborah Blum, author of Love at Goon Park

When social psychologist Stanley Milgram invited volunteers to take part in an experiment at Yale in the summer of 1961, none of the participants could have foreseen the worldwide sensation the results would cause. Milgram reported that fully 65 percent of the volunteers had repeatedly administered electric shocks of increasing strength to a man they believed to be in severe pain, even suffering from a life-threatening heart condition, simply because an authority figure had told them to do so. Such behavior was linked to atrocities committed by ordinary people under the Nazi regime and immediately gripped the public imagination. The experiments remain a source of controversy and fascination more than fifty years later.

In Behind the Shock Machine, author and psychologist Gina Perry unearths for the first time the full story of these flawed experiments and their startling, long-lasting repercussions. Interviewing the original participants—many of whom remain haunted to this day about what they did—and delving deep into Milgram’s personal archive, she pieces together a more complex and much more troubling picture of these experiments than was originally presented by Milgram. Uncovering the details of the experiments leads her to question the validity of that 65 percent statistic and the claims that it revealed something essential about human nature. Fleshed out with dramatic transcripts of the tests, the book puts a human face on the unwitting people who confronted the moral test of the shock machine and offers a gripping, unforgettable tale of one man’s ambition and an experiment that defined a generation.

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Praise

“An intriguing tale about science, ethics and storytelling.”
The Age
“Remarkable. . . . Reading Behind the Shock Machine becomes an act of creative disobedience.”
The Australian
“With metaphorical flair, Perry creatively weaves clever insights and observations that gradually both unravel and expand upon the obedience research story. Without doubt, her reflective and probing writing style makes for an excitingly good read. . . . We are convinced this book is a wealth of primary (archival and interview) material that creatively sheds a great deal of insightful light on a chapter in the history of social psychology whose conclusion we suspect is still a very long way off indeed.”
Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences
“Perry looks unflinchingly into this dark episode of psychology to find hope for human nature.”
The Village Voice
“It’s rare that an original event as compelling as the Milgram experiments can be eclipsed by later commentary, but that’s exactly what Perry manages in her painstaking and engrossing exploration of what really went on.”
Maclean’s
“Riveting. . . . [Perry’s] chilling investigation of the experiments and their aftereffects suggests that Milgram manipulated results, misled the public, and flat out lied in order to deflect criticism and further the thesis for which he would become famous: that the Holocaust could have happened in New Haven. . . . Perry’s research should change the way we view Milgram’s work.”
Los Angeles Review of Books
“An absorbing account of Stanley Milgram, his subjects, and the continuing quest to understand what it means to be human.”
—David Baker, director, Archives of the History of American Psychology
“A passionate text that humanizes the subjects and provides nuanced, provocative context to the experiments. The author asks profound questions about what truths, if any, can be elicited from analysis of human nature in a constructed environment. It’s about time someone wrote this book.”
Kirkus Reviews
“Today the Milgram experiments are as famous as ever. According to studies by historians of psychology, social psychology textbooks are still giving significant space to Milgram’s conclusions, but fewer pages than ever to serious criticism of his work. We have heard Milgram’s version enough. What we need now is what Perry has to offer: a proper dehoaxing.”
Pacific Standard
“Thanks to Perry’s book, we gain more insight than ever before into Milgram’s questionable practices and the scientific culture that allowed his experiment to take place.”
Scientific American
“[Perry’s] elegant and well-written account teaches us that scientists are both investigators and storytellers—and that in both capacities, they should be critically assessed.”
Science
“[A] provocative magnum opus . . . full of new info and insights, written with a literary flair so engaging and absorbing that I found it hard to put down.”
—Thomas Blass, author of The Man Who Shocked the World

News and Reviews

Scientific American

Scientific American reviews Behind the Shock Machine

All Things Considered

Gina Perry is interviewed about Behind the Shock Machine on All Things Considered

The Boston Globe

Behind the Shock Machine is featured in an article on the Milgram experiments in The Boston Globe

Los Angeles Review of Books

Los Angeles Review of Books reviews Behind the Shock Machine