A controversial French documentary called “How far will TV go: The Game of Death” sparked worldwide scandal on March 17 by broadcasting an experiment of a fake TV game show in which contestants were led to torture other players by giving them electric shocks. Most of the 80 test subjects complied without complaint.
This scene above is taken directly from the documentary, which was broadcast on the French television network France 2.
The fake game show, “Xtreme Zone”, reproduces the situational conditions of a psychological experiment conducted by American psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. In this new television version, a “questioner” asks a series of questions to a “candidate” locked in a box. For each wrong answer, the candidate is given an electrical shock. The intensity increases for each question. Of course, the candidate is an actor and everything but the actual subject of the experiment (the questioner) is made-up.
The show ends when the questioner refuses to go further (“rebels”) or sends twice the ultimate shock of 460V (“obeys”). Then the on-site psychologists reveal the truth to the questioner and film the reaction.
A televised experiment
This is the first time the experiment was televised, but the Milgram experiment was previously reproduced in many different countries with variations – and also once in a fictional scene of a film from 1979 by Henri Verneuil, called I As In Icarius (watch in French or with English subtitles).
One of the scientists of the show, Jean-Leon Beauvois [fr], researcher and lecturer in social psychology, relates [fr] the experiment on a social science forum. He explains his reasons for collaborating:
[A reason] that pushed me to accept [participating in the show] is the integration of the proposed research project in a broader political television, giving rise to a documentary on the abuses of networks and the hazards of reality TV.
Reproducing the Milgram experiment, he has expected similar results:
For the show we expected maximum obedience because we reproduced the Milgram situation in which 62.5% had received obedience. And indeed, 81% of our questioners choose to send the 460 volts electrical jolt twice.
He concludes, cautiously, that television is an institution where people are more prone to obey:
People do not need references like knowledge, science, etc… to obey a person who gives them immoral orders in an institutional context because they came to do what they were asked to do. they owe this predisposition to obedience to their education and the practice routine in their organizations.
Unlike television viewers (the television ratings have been low so far) [fr], this transposition of the experiment on television has triggered many reactions from the blogosphere.
Many people have criticized the implementation of experience in the field of television. Andre Gunthert, historian and researcher in visual studies, refutes [fr] the previous analysis:
The Milgram experiment was about authority. However, its implementation on television does not prove the existence of an “authoritative” television, but rather a submission to the environnemental context. […] A television broadcast is a large machine in which the production process applies a certain pressure on the participant. It involves the mobilization of costly equipment, a team of several people, specially arranged premises reserved for that purpose, etc.. Struggling with the production once we have agreed to take part in it is hardly feasible, and would be like taking the controls of a Boeing after takeoff.
According to Virginia Spies [fr], semiotician and television expert, experimental conditions are distorted because it is primarily a game for the candidates, which would explain the differences in results:
Unlike the Milgram experiment, they do not recruit people by telling them it's a scientific experiment, but telling them they are candidates in a game show, which is totally different: Throughout the experiment, the candidates think that they are playing a game, which totally changes their perception of events.
“What would you do?”
However, this experiment will not remain without effect on viewers, as it makes each viewer reflect upon their own values, as Olivier Mauco on his blog Game in Society points out [fr]:
The great strength of this experience is that everyone may be one of the guinea pigs. The injunction “What would you do,” reinforced the proximity, not the empathy but the positioning. […] This is a moral debate because this debate is driven by relations between individual and a value system.
Many bloggers have wondered what would they do. But few dared to answer, like Jean-Marc Onkelix a Belgian viewer and blogger, who courageously expressed [fr] his doubts:
Would I have done any differently? Am I capable of committing, within the scope of any kind of authority, an act so irreparable, so far from my world view, so different from my morality? It's a duty for me to respect all individuals without discrimination, should I be one of the torturers? I confess I am tempted to say no, but in these cases, are all the necessary discernment, the vision of reality, still there? Are we ready to push back in spite of everyhting and risking our own interest to stay consistent with our morality?
If we take this poll as any indication [fr], it seems that a majority of Internet users think they are capable of resisting authority. It will be interesting to see whether the future will prove them right.