In 1961, Stanley Milgram began his famous shock experiments. Milgram designed an elaborate learner-teacher scenario, where an experimenter pressured a “teacher” to shock a learner; this experiment and its results seemed to explain some aspect of human nature, but its design brought on strong ethical controversy. Nevertheless, Milgram’s experiment and the conclusions about human nature Milgram drew from it have retained a major role in the history of psychology and culture as a whole. Milgram and his results are frequently used to explain the horrors–the common one being the Nazis in the Holocaust–humans inflict upon one another. However, In Behind the Shock Machine, Gina Perry creates a different story by pulling back the metaphorical curtain to study the participants–subjects, staff, and Milgram himself–and to examine the data more closely.
Perry provides a great narrative of the experiments themselves; she expands upon the popular version–which only focuses on one experimental condition–by using the archives and interviewing some of the participants. Perry’s version is intricate and intense and both questions the results and humanizes the participants in ways Milgram’s narrative did not, and the contrast and the resulting questions made for intriguing reading. Despite my limited psychology experience (i.e. took a few classes), I found the book accessible and easy to read. However, I also liked the book for the new story of the Milgram experiments and the fact it made me think about things. For me, it was definitely worth picking up.