The Bejeezus Out of Me

Startling behavioral science.

The Show Must Go On

And the experiment must continue.

In the 1960s Yale social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment in which test subjects were told that corrective shocks could help people memorize word pairs. They were instructed to adminster increasingly strong shocks to a "learner" who sat in an adjacent room. Of course, the learners in the study were confederates of the experimenter, and the shocks were fake. But the test subjects didn't know that. The awful, reactive screams and cries for mercy they heard clearly evoked distress in many of them.

the scream
"I've changed my mind!" a test subject might hear from the other side of a wall. "I forgot to tell you that I have a heart condition! I might die!" At this point almost every test subject sweated, trembled, laughed nervously, paused, or even asked if the experiment might indeed cause the learner permanent damage. But when the experimenter told them to continue, 26 out of 40 of them willingly cowboyed past their own moral qualms, going so far as to willingly administer the highest dose shock even though it was clearly marked as dangerous. 

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This was shortly after the trial began in Jerusalem of Nazi Adolf Eichmann. Milgram was interested in learning whether it was possible that the millions of guards, police, and informers complicit in the Holocaust had merely been following orders, as many had claimed. He concluded from the success of his experiment that it was, indeed, possible. "Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process."

Milgram's experiment has been replicated by him and by many others around the world. It has also prompted heated discussions about whether the experiment itself is abusive, considering the gruesome psychological quandry in which it places test subjects. And to this day, some people wonder whether the impressive amount of compliance it elicits from test subjects has anything to do with their assumption that the experimenter is some sort of scientific authority whose judgment about many matters including safety is inherently better than theirs. 

Well, television hosts as a rule have little scientific authority. And so researchers at Aix-Marseille University and Paris West University (Nanterre) recreated Milgram's experiment as a reality TV show shot in front of a live studio audience. The experimenter in this case was a female game show host.

And, yes, test subjects still overcame their moral qualms and inflicted what they thought were dangerous levels of pain, and they did so at about the rate that Milgram's subjects had. 

To Milgram's initial experimental setup, the French team added a few variants. In some cases, the TV host left the studio once the shock experiment was well underway. As expected, this reduced compliance with immoral orders. Another variant gave a clear opportunity for test subjects to rally their wits and disobey. An "assistant" walked on stage and announced to the experimenter and everyone that the show had to stop because things were getting dangerous. To the French team's surprise, few test subjects took the opportunity to bow out of the remainder of the experiment. Even when science was not the source of the experimenter's legitimacy, and even when a third party thought things were going too far, most test subjects who were told by the game show host that the show must go on made sure the show went on. 

As far as the French team knew, this was the first time Milgram's famous experiment had been transposed to a setting in which the experimenter's authority did not eminate from his or her scientific stature. It was also the first time an "assistant" had given test subjects a strong opportunity to opt out. The fact that the French team's results were consistant with Milgram's led the researchers to wonder about the undue deference given television hosts today. 

"It has long been known that television, and so television hosts, had influence on viewers," the researchers wrote. "We suspected they could also have prescriptive power for ordering people’s behavior on a television stage.... But it had never been shown. The present research demonstrates this aspect. This sheer fact should put TV show producers and channels face to face with their potential responsibility for possible deleterious effects of reality TV games and shows."

In other words, with the moral code of reality shows inching increasingly toward barbarity, everyone should proceed with caution.

Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist and broadcast commentator with Vermont Public Radio. 

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