22 March 2010

How far would you go?

Almost 50 years ago at Yale University social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments. His controversial experiments, now known as the Milgram experiments, looked at the relationship between obedience and authority. He wrote The Perils of Obedience as a result of those experiments.

The experiments looked at whether people were willing to inflict pain (or even death) on another person if instructed to do so by a person in authority. Around 65% were willing to inflict 450 volts, even when they could hear the person receiving the electric shocks screaming (or see, the % went down only slightly if they could also see the victim).

I hoped we had moved past that level of blind obedience, that we were more willing to think for ourselves. Turns out I may have been overly optimistic.

[see BBC] A recent French documentary featured people (who believed they were on a game show) administering what they were told were near lethal electric shocks to rival contestants. The Game of Death has all the trappings of a traditional TV quiz show, with a roaring crowd chanting "punishment" and a glamorous hostess urging the players on.

82% of participants in the "Game of Death" agreed to pull the lever.


Christophe Nick, the maker of the documentary, said they were "amazed" that so many participants obeyed the sadistic orders of the game show presenter. Mr Nick says that his experiment shows that the TV element further increases people's willingness to obey. "With Milgram, 62% of people obeyed despicable orders. In the setting of television, it's 80%," he told Reuters.

[see Telegraph] Given that the French programme essentially replicates work done years ago, why has it created headlines around the world? Because, in many ways, this latest incarnation offers a starker view of human nature than any of its predecessors.

Milgram’s subjects were alone with a disinterested professor as they wrestled with their consciences, and believed that they were unobserved. But in Le Jeu de la Mort, the contestants were undeterred by the knowledge that millions would witness their brutality. And an enthusiastic audience, as ignorant as the contestants that it was all a spoof, roared "Punish! Punish!" as the electric shocks intensified.

If they’d been wearing togas, you could have imagined them enjoying a few Christians torn apart by lions. The French experiment suggests not only that most of us might have obeyed Nazi Gauleiters, but that 2,000 years of civilisation can fall away in an instant.

Significantly, one player, whose Jewish grandparents had been persecuted by the Nazis, went along with the torture. She said afterwards: “Since I was a little girl, I have always asked myself why [the Nazis] did it. How could they obey such orders? And there I was, obeying them myself.”

What Le Jeu de la Mort shares with Milgram is the central idea that most people are quick to shuffle off personal responsibility, casting aside the humane responses that a lifetime of living in a modern democracy has nurtured in all of us.

Were we ever to find ourselves living under a totalitarian regime, place no faith in the mercy of your fellow citizens. Indeed, by the law of averages, place little faith in yourself.

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