Posted on Thursday, March 18th, 2010 by David Chen
It’s been almost 40 years since psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted his infamous Yale experiments, in which he showed that people are willing to electrocute a random stranger to the point of death in the context of a science experiment. Milgram was trying to show something about the human condition, and gleaned insights that were particularly useful in light of the Holocaust: normal, everyday people can easily be swayed by structures of authority. And theoretically, the more conscious we are of this, the more likely we are to be able to resist it.
So it’s now forty years later and it’s clear that humanity has learned nothing. At least, that’s what a documentary The Game of Death (Le Jeu Du Mort), which aired last night on French television, would have you believe.
The documentary led 80 participants into thinking they were shooting a French pilot for a new reality TV series called Zone Xtreme (not a real show). In the fake show, fake “contestants” played by actors were forced to answer questions. If they answered incorrectly, one of the participants would be asked to give the contestant an electric shock. No shocks were actually administered; the actor contestants pretended to get electrocuted. Egged on by the beautiful TV hostess and an apparently bloodthirsty studio audience shouting “Punishment!,” only 16 of the 80 participants stopped before reaching the final, lethal 460 volt shock. People apparently kept up the shocks even when the contestant appeared to be dead or unresponsive.
The documentary wanted to re-iterate Milgram’s point about obeying authority figures, but also make a searing commentary on the humiliation inflicted on people in modern day reality TV shows. According to one psychiatrist who was not involved in the documentary, “This programme denounces manipulation by authority but at the same time it manipulates people…I wouldn’t have accepted this show because I think it inflicts unnecessary trauma on people, but on the other hand, to get this message across, you probably need to be sensationalist.”
When Milgram completed his experiments, he came under fire for putting his subjects through unethical amounts of distress. Perhaps Game of Death is less an indictment of authority or reality TV, and more an indictment of how easy it is to psychologically mess with people for the purposes of a nationally broadcast documentary and still get to keep your job afterwards.
You can see some footage of the documentary in the below news report. Feel free to weep for the fate of humanity.