Behind the Shock Machine by Gina Perry – Book Review


I first heard of this book on the Radio National show All in the Mind when it replayed a panel session from a festival with the author, Gina Perry. She talked about the Milgram experiments that most of us have heard of. Milgram recruited people to take part in an experiment at Yale University in 1961 whereby they were put into the role of ‘teacher’ with an ‘experimenter’ in the room and a ‘learner’ in a separate room. The learner was attached to a machine that gave electric shocks – or so the teacher thought. The learner and the experimenter were both actors. As the learner got answers wrong, the teacher had to shock them. What I had never realised was, if the teacher went all the way, they thought they had possibly killed the learner. Milgram’s intention was to show the power of obedience, and made the connection that anyone could have ended up working in a Nazi death camp as people are made to obey orders.

What I found fascinating, and I’d highly recommend this book to anyone else who finds this as interesting, is that there were many flaws to the experiment. What’s more, most people I know quote that majority of the teachers went the whole way, which is not the result in all of the testing. What Perry has done in this book is to follow up with some of the scientists and some of the test subjects to see what kind of lasting impressions were made. It seems that the debriefing most of the time was extremely inadequate, leaving the test subjects wondering what evil lurked inside them.

Read it. It’s amazing.