A documentary show on French TV recently featured a game show segment, in which players had to administer extreme electric shocks to another person.
Actually, the shocks weren’t real, but the players each believed they were at the time. It’s similar to an experiment carried out in the 1960s, intended to address the question of how human beings could be capable of such atrocities as were committed by the Nazi regime during the Second World War. The original experiments showed that, in fact, an alarming proportion of people will be prepared to do quite horrible things – the kind of things we’d probably think we could never be capable of – if the circumstances are right.
In particular, when repeatedly instructed by an authority figure, subjects would often comply with the command to administer more and more severe electric shocks to someone they thought was another participant, whose (faked) cries of protest and screams of pain they could hear from the next room. 65% of Milgram’s subjects administered the “shocks” right up to the 450-volt maximum, at which point the stooge’s screams had been replaced by an ominous silence.
These results made people realise that, actually, even something as horrendous as the Holocaust could mostly be done by just regular folks.
And although the French TV show doesn’t appear to be making much claim to similar scientific rigour in its methodology, it doesn’t appear that much has changed. When being urged on by a charming host and a baying crowd (who apparently “also believed the game was real”), 64 out of 80 contestants carried right on submitting some unseen person to what they thought was real torture.
I have no idea what conclusions to draw from this, or what profound psychological insights should be taken from it. It’s just one of those interesting things.
One contestant said after filming that taking part had helped her to understand why her own Jewish grandparents had been tortured by the Nazis.
She said: “Since I was a little girl, I have always asked myself why the Nazis did it and how they could obey such orders? And then there I was, obeying them myself.
“I was worried about the contestant, but at the same time, I was afraid to spoil the programme.”
In less unsettling news, the American Humanist Association has been provided with funds to help host a gay-friendly school prom in Mississippi. Yay! I hope it’s way more fun than the crappy one that got cancelled. (via Skepchick)
Also, here’s an important question that I doubt you’ve given enough thought to lately: Do “polar bears” exist? Jerry Coyne is on the case, with graphs and LOLcats.