Tamara McClintock Greenberg Psy.D.

21st Century Aging

In Shock

What we may still learn from the Milgram experiments (and France)

Posted Apr 01, 2010

As part of rudimentary psychological education, most of us learn of the Stanley Milgram experiments  that took place at Yale University in the 1960’s.  I remember this part of my education well: participants were asked to shock other “subjects” (who were, in fact, actors pretending to be subjects) who were to be given shocks for giving the wrong answer to questions on tasks related to word matching.  As is widely known by those of us in the field, sixty-five percent of participants believed they delivered up to 450 volts of electricity to those who got answers wrong.  Participants did not stop when the actors in the study appeared to be in great distress (due to repeated electric shocks), and this is thought to be because an authority person (who was also an actor in the study) was in the room telling them to continue shocking participants, despite the consequences. 

What most of us learn about the Milgram experiments was that they violated what we think of as today’s’ ethical standards for research.  And yet, as has been widely reported, a popular game show in France recreated the Milgram experiments, under the catchy title, The Game of Death.

In this show, 80 volunteers were told that they were taking part in a television pilot.  They were asked to shock other contestants who gave the wrong answer to questions, while the audience (who were also led to believe the show was real) chanted “punishment” in response to poor performance. You can guess the rest-- participants believed they were giving shocks up to 460 volts, and some recipients of the shocks acted as if they were dying. 

Leave it to France to make us stop and think about the underbelly of humanity…  

So here we are again trying to figure out what this all means.  Though many talk about the Milgram experiments (which took place in the shadow of World War II) and The Game of Death, as mimicking the behavior of those who killed based on the authority of the Nazi’s, I am not sure that the explanation of obedience to authority has ever been fully accepted as a sole reason for the Holocaust.  Many scholars have written about the complex reasons for the Holocaust, which took the lives of nearly six million Jews, as well as Gypsies, Russians and Socialists.  I do not pretend to try to provide any kind of cohesive explanation for these atrocities, as this form of human evil is much beyond my scope and comprehension. For that, see works by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioner’s: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust or Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt, to name two well-known publications.

However, the experiment in France does shed light on issues of social pressure, especially in the age of reality television.  People want to get famous, no matter what the cost.  In this way, deference to authority may be even more of a threat now than ever before.  People imagine they could be the "next big reality star" and they imagine the life that goes along with it: admiration, money, and ease from the burdens of normality. In famous life, people are not held accountable for their actions. Behaviors that would normally be shunned receive great attention.  In a culture of ruthless desire to be famous, I feel more scared than ever about deference to authority.  People seem to be unashamed of otherwise questionable behaviors and will do anything to get attention.  As one participant of the Game of Death put it, "I was worried about the contestant, but at the same time, I was afraid to spoil the programme."  And worries about looking bad were another part of the equation, I imagine.   

The producers of reality television constantly push the boundaries on what is acceptable. The question is, how much longer are we going to allow them to get away with it.