Monday, March 22, 2010

The Biggest Losers

Paging Stanley Milgram: Please Report to French TV.

Is a crusading French documentary maker striking a blow at the abusive powers of television — or simply taking reality TV to a new low of cynicism and bad taste? That's the question viewers across France are asking in light of Christophe Nick's new film, The Game of Death, which airs on French television on Wednesday night. The documentary has generated a massive amount of attention — and naturally, courted controversy — because of the dilemma that the film's contestants face on a fake game show: Will they allow themselves to be cajoled into delivering near lethal electrical charges to fellow players, or follow their better instincts and refuse?

The Game of Death is an adaptation of an infamous experiment conducted by a team led by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. In order to test people's obedience to authority figures, the scientists demanded that subjects administer increasingly strong electric shocks to other participants if they answered questions incorrectly. The people delivering the shocks, however, didn't know that the charges were fake — the volunteers on the other end of the room were actors pretending to suffer agonizing pain. The point was to see how many people would continue following orders to mete out torture.

Milgram found that 62.5% of his subjects could be encouraged, browbeaten or intimidated into seeing the test through to its conclusion by delivering scores of shocks of increasing intensity to the maximum of 450 volts. In The Game of Death, 81% of contestants go all the way by administering more than 20 shocks of up to a maximum of 460 volts. Only 16 of the 80 subjects recruited for the fake game show refuse the verbal prodding from the host — and pressure from the audience to keep dishing out the torture like a good sport — though most express misgivings or try to pull out before being persuaded otherwise.
I first read about his over at Global Sociology and my first reaction was, of course, to laugh at the idiots who fell for it. Could you get 80% of the contestants to go all the way on the electric shocks just for the chance to be on television? Would they suspend their better judgment in the experiment/documentary for the reward of a reality t.v. appearance? Is Milgram dead?

Predictably, critics of the documentary claim Nick's methods are suspicious, over-dramatized and not representative of "real reality t.v. contestants" (whatever that means). Also, unlike Milgram's subjects, who sat alone in a room with the experimenter and weren't aware they were being observed, these contestants knew they were being filmed and, worse, were being egged on by a live audience who didn't know anything about the experiment either.
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.
In that sense, Nick's findings are even more ominous than Milgram's: people will publicly and openly torture, harm or mutilate another person for the chance of being on television; and a live audience of dopes will get off on the spectacle.
Television brings with it two dangerous hazards: the worship of celebrity, and the blurring of reality and fantasy. As director Christophe Nick commented: “On a game-show set, you can get people to do absolutely anything. The boundary between reality and fiction disappears.”
I suppose this is nothing new to those of us who have criticized the fantasy of "reality t.v." for a decade now, but something about this is still unsettling, because the logical conclusion is: could this be done for real? And will we do it eventually?

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