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The Boston Globe

Ideas

Stanley Milgram and the uncertainty of evil

The psychologist’s famous findings about human nature have haunted us for 50 years. But can we trust them?

In the early 1960s, when the Yale University psychology researcher Stanley Milgram built a “shock machine” and began recruiting hundreds of ordinary Americans to a basement lab to see how far they would go in punishing their fellow citizens, he put himself on a path to becoming one of the most famous, and controversial, figures of 20th-century psychology.

His subjects, thinking they were serving as the “teacher” in a test of memory and learning, were instructed by a man in a lab coat to deliver a series of ever-stronger jolts to “learners” as they made mistakes on a quiz. The best-known variation of the study is one in which the person being shocked, actually an actor hidden from view, would shout out more and more desperately as the voltage increased, then fall ominously silent. Despite the shouts, 62 percent of the participants obediently flipped the electrical switches up to the highest level.

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