Aeon Magazine has a brilliant piece arguing that the the Milgram obedience experiments are better viewed as performance art than as science:
To view the Milgram experiments as a work of art is to include the haunted young doctor as a character, and to question his reliability as a narrator. As an artwork, the experiments can tell us about much more than obedience to authority; they speak to memory, trauma, repetition, the foundations of post-war social thought, and the role of science in modernity. There is no experiment that can prove who we are but, in its particulars, art can speak in universals. Long after his tests are considered invalid, Milgram’s story will live on.
According to author Malcolm Harris, a recent book has cast critical light on Milgram’s science:
In Behind the Shock Machine (2012), the Australian journalist and psychologist Gina Perry assailed the very validity of the Milgram experiments. Although she initially came to the study of Milgram with sympathy for the haunted doctor, Perry quickly found a more worthy object for her feelings: Milgram’s subjects. Reviewing transcripts from the experiments in the Yale archive, she found a lot of disobedience hidden in the obedience numbers, and a number of confounding variables. For example, Milgram made sure subjects knew the payment for participation was theirs even if they walked away, but in the transcripts this seems to have triggered reciprocity with the experimenters. One subject continues only after the experimenter tells him he can’t return the money. Another obedient subject remonstrates after she’s finished obeying, because she quickly understands what the experiment was really about and is disgusted. In the drive for quantitative results, the procedure ignored valuable qualitative information. ‘I would never be able to read Obedience to Authority again without a sense of all the material that Milgram had left out,’ Perry writes, ‘the stories he had edited, and the people he had depicted unfairly.’
Read the whole piece, it’s fascinating. Ever since I became aware of science theater as a thing–about nine years ago or so, when I joined the Underground Railway Theater board–I’ve been surprised that so few plays focus on the social sciences, particularly psychology. It’s all wonderfully wifty mathematical metaphors or inspiring laboratory breakthroughs or medical ethics–never Pavlov or Milgram or Zimbardo. There have been a few plays about H.M., whose surgery-induced amnesia provided psychologists a chance to discover much about the workings of memory, and Freud and C.S. Lewis debate philosophy, more than science, in a popular one-set two-hander. But that’s about it.
Psychology experiments are wonderfully theatrical. Even the most boring thing you can do–give undergraduate psych students a bunch of surveys and flog the results for correlations*–requires a set, a script, and carefully arranged props. As the experimenter, you are playing a role and must stay in character. And that’s just surveys. When you get into social psychology and experiments with deception and confederates, it’s explicitly dramaturgical.
Which makes me wonder, then, if that isn’t part of the reason psychology doesn’t find itself onstage much? When the experiment itself is a little playlet, maybe that’s hard to dramatize. Except backstage dramas, comedies, and musicals are terribly popular, and twice-baked potatoes are a delicious food, so why should thematic doubling be so problematic?
Maybe the problem is that the results of psychology experiments, certainly the most famous ones, aren’t inspiring. Science plays tend to have the human being as the subject of the science, an inherently agentic and frankly inspiring stance. We are the species who figured out our origin! We can reach the stars and cure disease! Occasionally, a play will focus on people as the objects of science or technology–patients struggling with the complexities of medical science and politics, workers displaced by machines. This, too, is agentic, and if not inspiring, it can at least be ennobling. We are complex and worthy! We will fight for our rights!
Psychological science, and any stories you can think of to tell about it, has humans as both its subject and its object. It’s all us. And when it’s all about us, there’s no privileged place to put the human perspective. We are the dark continent being explored, and we are the explorers. And the bottom line is that what we’ve found in many of those explorations is extremely complicated, qualified, but undeniable evidence that under many circumstances, humans suck. We conform needlessly yet ignore important information. We literally do not see what is in front of our eyes. We are suggestible, vain, overly influenced by inappropriate cues, and wildly mistaken about our own nature. We are tribal, mistrustful yet gullible.
Discovering this does not make us feel inspired, or ennobled. The Milgram experiments can be viewed as art, and might indeed have been better art than science, but psychological science in general doesn’t tell the kind of stories that audiences want to hear. Science is about increasing our knowledge and control of the world around us. Psychological science shows us over and over how little knowledge and control we have, even of our very selves.
Do I sound like a Victorian, saying that audiences want to be “inspired” or “ennobled” by tales of scientific derring-do? Perhaps. But they do, dammit. The only possible response to learning about the Milgram experiment for the first time is “Aw, fuck. Really?”
You just can’t leave an audience in that state of mind and expect word-of-mouth to sell out your show. You just can’t.
*Needless to say, this is that thing I swore I would never, ever do for my dissertation, and then wound up doing.