One of the more interesting minor news items of the past few days—so interesting that I felt it necessary to ignore my own illness in order to comment—concerns a French TV documentary, Game of Death, which was aired recently on a major terrestrial channel in France. The program used eighty participants, each of whom thought they were taking part in a pilot for a new game show. It was filmed in front of an audience.
Each contestant, in turn, was led out before the audience and told that their role in what was to follow was to administer an electric shock to a man in an adjacent cubicle, whom they believed to be a fellow contestant and whom they could hear but not see, every time he gave a wrong answer to a question, the voltage being increased each time. The truly horrifying part of this story is that only 20 percent of the participants refused to continue before a potentially lethal final shock was administered.
What none of the participants knew was that there was no electric shock, and the man in the cubicle was an actor whose job it was to scream in pain as and when required. I have no wish to condemn those participants who were prepared to torture, even kill, another human being whom they did not know, especially as they were under pressure from a glamorous presenter, a man in a white coat (the universal code, even in porn movies, for a ‘scientist’), a studio audience baying for blood, and dramatic background music.
In fact, I can afford to be a little smug here. When an advance trailer for this item appeared on BBC World News, our TV had been set to ‘mute’ and all we saw were images of a slider being pushed up to maximum and a man writhing in agony. I was immediately reminded of the experiments conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale University in 1961–62, purportedly to investigate how ordinary people can become mass murderers. The trial, in Jerusalem, of Adolf Eichmann had begun three months before the first experiments and probably inspired them, but in addition the actions of Reserve Police Battalion 101 in occupied Poland during the Second World War were just beginning to be more widely known; nevertheless, only professional historians and book editors are likely to be aware of that story, and only students of psychology (and book editors) are likely to be aware of the experiments, so any smugness on my part is simply not justified.
There are several points to be made here: first, in Milgram’s experiments, only 65 percent of participants went ‘all the way’; the higher figure in the TV program is likely to have been influenced by peer pressure and the widespread infatuation among the public with so-called ‘reality’ television and celebrity.
Second, no university ethics committee would countenance this type of experiment nowadays, because there can be no guarantee that participants will not be traumatized by their experience. Milgram’s experiments were controversial at the time for precisely this reason. Unfortunately, TV companies are not constrained by such niceties; viewer figures are the only yardstick of success. And it is almost certain that some participants in the bogus game show will have continuing psychological problems as a result of their experiences.
Third, in both cases the experiments established that people can behave in appallingly inhumane ways given the right circumstances, but this was already known, and the much more important question of why people do behave in this way remains unanswered.
Finally, it should be noted that extreme public humiliation is a key ingredient in all successful reality shows, whether it be The Apprentice, Big Brother, America’s Next Top Model, Survivor or countless others. It is what the audience expects. And what participants are more than happy to endure in the pathetic belief that they will become ‘famous’. Personally, I find it all not just depressing but actually disgusting: prurient interest provided for and regarded as somehow important. Nothing could induce me to watch a single episode of any reality show, and I’ve never even heard any of the winners of The X Factor, Pop Idol or American Idol. I have much better things to do. And I certainly don’t take kindly to crude efforts to manipulate my emotions by pernicious nonsense that belongs in the garbage.