Science Book a Day Interviews Gina Perry


Special thanks to Gina Perry for answering 5 questions about her recently featured book – Behind the Shock Machine: the untold story of the notorious Milgram psychology experiments

Gina Perry is an Australian psychologist and writer. Her feature articles, columns, and essays have been published in The Age and The Australian, and her short fiction has been published in a number of literary magazines, including MeanjinWesterly, and Island. Her co-production of the ABC Radio National documentary about the obedience experiments, ‘Beyond the Shock Machine’, won the Silver World Medal for a history documentary in the 2009 New York Festivals radio awards. – Adapted from Gina’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for Behind the Shock Machine?

I have always been fascinated by the Milgram obedience experiments. I first heard about them during my undergraduate studies in psychology and years later, I made a list of topics that had always fascinated me and that I’d love to write about. Milgram’s experiments were top of the list. I did some research, discovered a biography was about to be published and got in touch with author Dr Thomas Blass. When he told me about the audio recordings of the experiments in the archives at Yale I thought it would make a great story for radio. Once I began my research and in particular, once I began interviewing former subjects in the experiments, I was confronted with some troubling mismatches between the published accounts of the research and the unpublished recordings, data and papers at Yale.

#2 – How did you go about doing your research for this book? How long did it take to do this research?

My research included finding and interviewing some of the people who originally volunteered, tracking down any surviving staff or their families, as well as spending hundreds of hours listening to audio recordings of the experiments and working in the archives at Yale studying Milgram’s unpublished papers as well as reading all Milgram’s published writings about the research. It was a long and often slow process that took me around 4 years.

#3 – This was originally a series for radio. Was it difficult going from one medium to another?

The radio documentary was my first experience of writing for radio so that was a steep learning curve. Luckily for me I had a fantastic producer and sound engineer who worked with me on the story – Sharon Davis and Russell Stapleton. It was difficult for me because I was so used to writing to be read and with radio it’s all about what people hear and what sounds you select to tell a story and suggest emotion or mood.

#4 – The Milgram experiments were very well known. How do most people remember them? And how have they responded to what was in your book?

Most people remember them the way they are most commonly presented in textbooks – as a demonstration of the perils of blind obedience to an authority. Milgram’s work is also often presented alongside images of the Nazi death camps, so people often associate his research with providing insights into the Holocaust. Most people who’ve read my book are persuaded that the experiments were fundamentally flawed – something Milgram himself acknowledged – and that we should not make generalisations about human nature from such methodologically problematic experiments. One of the reasons readers have been persuaded is because of the amount of research I’ve done and the fact that I have been able to provide concrete evidence to support my conclusions.

The only negative reactions to my book have been entirely predictable. If you have invested a significant amount of time and energy in your professional career to arguing for the importance of the obedience studies as a researcher or a textbook writer or both – you are likely to have a
big investment in the standard story of Milgram’s obedience experiments. Some people who’ve invested in Milgram’s research this way have been critical of my book but on the other hand, many people have also been very open to revising their long held views in light of the evidence I’ve presented.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?

I’m currently researching the work of Muzafer Sherif, whose most well known experiment was the Robbers Cave study.

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