When humanity came second to research


Behind the Shock Machine, by Gina PerryHas the tradition of the crude and often cruel laboratory experiments, conducted in the name of psychology explained the human psyche to us? Has it brought us the understanding of how low humanity might sink, or of the importance of love? Or can we learn more from the laboratory of real life?

These are the ethical questions presented by the revelations of psychological research conducted in Melbourne almost four decades ago. Behind the Shock Machine, by Melbourne author and psychologist Gina Perry (launched last week), documents and analyses the so called 'willingness to torture' experiments, conducted by the psychology department of Latrobe University in the 1970s.

The experimenters' intent was to observe the capacity of first year students to inflict pain by electrically shocking others, and to extrapolate the findings to humanity as a whole. Ironically the academics who designed and implemented the research may themselves be seen as subjects to be analysed.

The studies were a replica of the Yale Professor Stanley Milgram experiments of 1963 where subjects were asked (and verbally coerced) to inflict painful electric shocks on others despite hearing the screams of pain. Controversially these studies were performed at the time of the trial in Israel of Nazi Adolf Eichmann whose defence had been that he was 'just following orders'.

The experiments may have come out of a desire to test an ethnocentric conceit that Nazism was somehow a Germanic cultural flaw. However Milgram concluded that 65 per cent of Americans may have by implication been as capable as the Nazis of following such orders.

The double irony of the Milgram and Latrobe experiments is the apparent insensitivity of the academic staff and researchers to the evidence of the emotional pain they were inflicting on the subjects of their experiments. When the Latrobe staff disclosed, sometimes laughingly, that the shocks and screams had been faked, it left many subjects with an awareness of their own dark side.

There seems to to have been no debrief and many were hurt and traumatised as though they had in fact committed acts of torture. The subjects' accounts of the impact revealed a lasting legacy, some having thought about the implications of the experiments for years. One suggested in an interview that he thought Milgram himself was enjoying inflicting emotional pain.

This raises an important question. Do we hold up the controlled variable experiment as more scientific and a greater way to further knowledge than observing the actual real human experience?

The famous Harlow experiments exposed sensitive Rhesus monkeys to cruel emotional deprivation to conclude that beyond feeding, these poor, maternally deprived creatures would cling to a soft 'cloth mother' substitute over a harsh wire mother.

In the same period John Bowlby, regarded as the father of attachment theory, observed the decline of infants in institutions where their physical needs were met but where they received little or no loving contact. They did not thrive and many died.

It seems that the suffering of the Rhesus monkeys was unnecessary for human advancement or to advance an understanding of the effects of emotional neglect.

Thankfully the electric shock experiments would not be allowed under current ethical guidelines for psychological studies, and animal rights movements have achieved some protection for animals; but this remains equivocal. The guidelines in place for animals bypass the question of wether non human animals should be used at all in experimentation and in particular by psychology.

The legacy bestowed on those who were traumatised in the Melbourne studies may not be 'undone' by the counselling now being offered by Latrobe. The subjects were subjected to an ordeal that remains permanently locked in the fight and flight responsiveness and may be reactivated under stress or by triggering events.

These people have been made to symbolically carry the can for all humanity's potential failings and, in particular, for the insensitivity of the researchers. Paradoxically the latest revelations may mean that the researchers themselves may need counselling and debriefing, as the realisation of the unconsciously inflicted damaging consequences of the Latrobe study continue to emerge.

But even more significantly these cases reveal the disturbing paradox of the culture on which psychology in universities has evolved: narrowly research oriented, experimentally depersonalised, and modelling an unconscious lack of awareness of human sensibilities.

For many psychologists the learning of how to be with the person in need, and development of the crucial compassion and capacity to maintain a therapeutic relationship, must come from outside traditional university courses, that confer the legal right to practice but neglect essential humanism. 

Lyn BenderLyn Bender is a Melbourne based psychologist. 


Topic tags: Lyn Bender, Behind the Shock Machine, Gina Perry, Milgram



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this must be one of similar experiments: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/more-news/university-of-melbournes-live-sex-act-furore/story-fn7x8me2-1226347682735
AZURE | 08 May 2012

The horrendous Milgram experiment in testing the limits of obedience to an authority figure has relevance for all those, priests and religious, who vow obedience to higher authorities in the Church and for all who act or fail to act as conscience dictates. Numerous anecdotes exist to show that religious superiors are capable of inflicting much psychic pain on inferiors, even Bishops, vowed to obey them if they themselves through their own Vows are subjected to coercion from above to act against them. Stanley Milgram, without pretending to act in the name of God, had something to teach all those who choose to take a Vow of Obedience and those who in obedience must enforce that Vow. For those who do not choose to vow obedience to a religious superior ,primacy of conscience over authoritarian orders is the other lesson taught. And all humanity gained a little more understanding of its dark side from Milgram’s chilling results in 1963.
Brian | 08 May 2012

Lyn Bender, I could not agree more with your final paragraph. One reason why I abandoned the field. Unfortunately, the "rigours" of "science" and the demands of capitalism are capturing many of the so-called helping professions, to the great detriment of us all, practitioners and practised-upon alike.
Janet | 08 May 2012

You mean, when understanding research ( 'The Time Machine' by H.G Wells ) is preferred to the understanding of humanity ( 'In the Beginning ..: A Catholic Understanding of The Story of Creation and The Fall- Ressourcement:Retrieval & Renewal in Catholic Thought' by Pope Benedict XVI ) one realises , there is nothing on earth divine except for humanity.
Myra | 08 May 2012

It is a mute point whether these experiments have contributed, but it is certainly true that we as humans have gained a vaste amount of knowledge of and insight into the dynamics of power and control over the past 4 decades, both personal and institutional. These insights apply to the actions of and effects on both those exercising the power and those who are on the receiving end. We know how important it is to have transparency and rigorous rules around "power", and to be constantly vigilent and to have active neutral oversight with public reporting and scrutiny. As a Christian, I see these developments as actions of the Holy Spirit in the world rather than a very subtle and counter-intuitive Darwinianism at play. What is important is that we constantly ask ourselves how these issues are playing out in the institutions that matter to us...including for those that care , the Catholic Church. It now seems inconceivable that nuns, brothers and/or priests could run amok abusing children in large numbers, whether physically or psychologically or both, and that this could be tolerated by even more people in the power structures. But what other forms of abuse and bullying still exist that future generations will look at aghast?
Eugene | 08 May 2012

Reading this reminds me of why in later life I decided go to Notre Dame University and study counselling in a course that was designed to expand my capacity for empathy and compassion. My first instinct was psychology and then reading the course outlines I chose not to go through what seemed so much a research "rats and stats" based model. What i have learnt along the way is that there is more healing in that simple power of being truly present to another than any fancy technique. and i have found many amazing healers in the church. they are all the ones who do just that. they are truly present.
john | 08 May 2012

to BRIAN, Yes I believe there are numerous examples of humanity coming second to religion, but to cite religious vows as an example is a cop-out and insult to the majority of the faithful who also have to exercise their conscience when making right/decisions in everyday life. If the vow of obedience means doing something against someone's conscience then surely the person under vow would reject it. But your example might equally be applied to politicians sworn at tow the party line on conscience issues. (ie Liberal Party members denied conscience vote on same-sex marriage) Surely that's a better example of humanity coming second to politics.
AURELIUS | 08 May 2012

I suppose those awful psychological experiments happened because they could. Are some academics in the field "psychologist Dr Strangeloves"? I would say yes, without doubt. Sometimes academic researchers in this field do appear to have taken the Faustian solution to gain knowledge. Perhaps medical research ethics could do with an input from the ordinary citizen, who may not see the gaining of knowledge at any cost should be the ultimate goal? Thank you, Lyn Bender, for the questions you have raised.
Edward F | 09 May 2012

I was told that "Obedience" was the certitude of doing the will of God. I may be off track but the content of Brian's comment draws mine. As far as Religious Superiors are concerned, one friar was deprived of his natural rights as a father, believing he was doing "God's will", through his superior of the day, only to realise it was expediency, to preserve the image of the order and inheritance rights. Thanks to a provincial years later and to Angela Ryan csb the clock was able to turned back and he was able to openly claim what was rightfully his before dying.
L. Newington | 14 May 2012


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