The women who defied the Milgram Experiment

by Dr Stephen Gibson & Professor Kathryn Millard

9 Mar 2018

In Milgram’s experiments, conducted at Yale University in the early 1960s, around 780 people took part in what they were told was a study about learning and memory. They were required to inflict apparently lethal electric shocks on someone who they thought was another participant, but who in reality was a confederate – a paid employee of Milgram’s. If they hesitated or tried to resist, a grey-coated experimenter instructed them to continue. In some of the best-known versions of the experiment, around 65% of people went on with the experiment despite the increasingly agonised cries from the ‘victim’.

Milgram’s studies remain hugely influential – and controversial. They are a staple of undergraduate textbooks in psychology, but their influence extends far beyond their ‘home’ discipline. Fields as diverse as business and nursing, criminology and history, law and political science have applied the lessons of the studies to their own discipline, and they are regularly cited in discussions of abuses and atrocities ranging from the Holocaust to the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses. Unusually for an academic study, their cultural impact has been significant too. As well as regular documentaries and news items over the years, the experiments have inspired dramatic projects ranging from The Tenth Level – a 1970s TV movie starting William Shatner – to Michael Almereyda’s recent Hollywood biopic of Milgram, Experimenter.

Experiment 20. Credit: Charlie Productions

Rethinking the lessons of the Milgram experiments

For a long time, we thought we knew all there was to know about Milgram’s experiments.  But recent years have seen increasing numbers of researchers drawn to Milgram’s archive at Yale, which contains (amongst other things) audio recordings of many of his experimental sessions. Researchers have conducted a range of insightful and creative work with these materials, but one thing has become clear: Milgram’s experiments do not show that people naturally follow orders. If anything, they show the opposite. The experimenter had to do much more than simply issue orders, and when he did issue orders, people found them fairly easy to defy.

The tapes of Milgram's experiments highlight the ways in which many participants argued with the experimenter, questioned and challenged him, and tried to find clever and inventive ways of getting themselves out of the experimental situation. Equally, they highlight the extent to which the experimenter, rather than sticking to a script, came up with increasingly creative ways of trying to persuade people to remain in the experiment.

Of the 780 participants in Milgram’s studies, only 40 were women, and very little is known about how these women actually behaved during the experimental sessions. Milgram's studies are typically used to highlight a tendency to obey orders, and yet in drawing attention to the many participants who defied the experimenter and resisted his attempt to persuade them to continue, we can see that many participants were not in a passive, automaton-like state in which they ‘blindly’ obeyed the experimenter. Participants could – and did – argue, resist, and fight back. This is not to deny that lots of participants did keep going with the shocks, but rather to assert that ‘obedience’ is only part of the story, and it is time we re-oriented ourselves to the way in which participants defied the experimenter as much as the extent to which they obeyed him.

Experiment 20

To explore this alternative story, we collaborated on Experiment 20, a creative documentary combining verbatim techniques with film noir to create a shadow world of darkness and ambiguity. Our actors channelled the characters, creating performances whilst listening to the actual voices of the original participants via earpieces. We wanted to tell the story in the words of the women. And to recreate every pause, hesitation, nervous laugh, every sigh.

In Experiment 20, our three women resist the Experimenter in markedly different ways – displaying everything from anger and exasperation to calm determination. The voices of the women, known only by their subject numbers, carry our story. ‘I was not stressed, I was good and mad,’ says subject 2036 as she insists on her account being heard.

There are many stories still to tell about the participants in Milgram’s experiments – the archives have myriad secrets still to give up. Despite the recent growth of interest in Milgram’s archives, the recordings that have been subjected to analytic scrutiny are outnumbered by those that remain unexamined.

In foregrounding the experiences of Milgram’s female participants, Experiment 20 aims not only to highlight defiance, but to contribute a long overdue perspective to the collective understanding of one of the world's most famous psychology experiments – the perspective of women. And, of course, we are contributing to a current conversation about how women's experiences might be placed more centrally in our culture.

Professor Kathryn Millard is a writer, award-winning filmmaker and dramaturgy with a passion for big ideas. Her film credits span feature dramas, documentaries and hybrid works. Psychology, mental health and the afterlife of images are recurring themes in Kathryn’s body of work. Shock Room, Kathryn’s most recent film, was also concerned with the obedience experiments and won ‘Best Australian Feature Documentary’ at the Antennae Documentary Festival. Kathryn is Professor of Screen and Creative Arts at Sydney’s Macquarie University.

Dr Stephen Gibson is a social psychologist with research interests in topics such as citizenship and national identity, representations of peace and conflict, and social influence. He has published several articles on his archival research on the obedience experiments and is currently completing a book based on this work. Stephen is Associate Professor of Psychology at York St John University.

The film is the result of a British Academy Small Research Grant-funded collaboration between film maker and scholar Kathryn Millard, and social psychologist Stephen Gibson.

The views expressed by our authors on the British Academy blog are not necessarily endorsed by Academy, but are commended as contributing to public debate.


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