Milgram redux

March 18, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More

There’s a new French documentary based upon a faked French television show (“The Game of Death”).  The “show” was based on the experiments Stanley Milgram conducted at Yale in the 1960’s.

On the TV show, the game consisted of one participant asking questions to another player locked inside a booth with an electrode hooked up to his or her wrist. Any wrong answer meant the first player had to push a lever that subjected the victim in the booth to electrical charges up to 460 volts as punishment.

The audience applauded and chanted “Punishment! Punishment! Punishment!” when the contestant inside the booth answered wrong.

The results were startling, just as they were in Milgram’s study: 80% of the contestants administered what they believed to be lethal electric shocks.  BTW, it’s not clear whether the audience consisted entirely of stooges–I assume that all audience members were stooges and that they had been instructed to encourage the reckless behavior of the contestants (if not, the consistently terrible audience reaction was phenomenally more interesting to me than the behavior of the contestants).

Image by Matteo69 at (with permission)

Image by Matteo69 at (with permission)

The CNN reporter reporting on this French “show” was perplexed by the behavior of the contestants on this “show.”   She was flummoxed by the contestant’s willingness to administer (what they believed to be) painful and apparently deadly shocks to innocent people.   She quoted the show’s French producer: “People were willing to act against their own morals, their own principles when they were ordered to do something extreme by a source they they trust is legitimate.”

According to the CNN reporter, the lesson is that “even the most well-adjusted person can be swayed to act in horrendous ways if the situation leads them to it–that anyone is vulnerable to this.”  The host of the CNN news show, Campbell Brown added, “I hope that’s not the case.”

But the evidence is ubiquitous that people will happily allow entire communities of other people to needlessly suffer and die.   We tolerate mass death of millions of innocent people, including children, through starvation and malaria right here on planet Earth, even though we could substantially alleviate those disasters if we only acted.  We tolerate and even cheer on wars that have no purpose relating to “freedom,” even though we know that using our terrifying weapons often takes the lives of numerous innocent human beings.  We fail to guarantee a minimum safety net of health care for those who can’t afford it, resulting in more deaths.  We tolerate thousands of institutions that are “schools” only in name rather than insisting on paying a bit more for first rate teachers–we know that these sad public “schools” are ruining lives, but most of us couldn’t care less (if we cared, would we be doing something about the situation?   Consider too, these eight other ways to kill 3,000 people.  How is it that we tolerate any of this?  But we do tolerate needless suffering every day, most of it through our inaction.   “The Game of Death” demonstrates (just as Milgram had earlier demonstrated) that people are also willing to hurt and kill through their one actions, not merely inactions.  For the most part, however, I find this action/inaction distinction to be legalistic and distracting.  Highly moral people don’t make this distinction when lives are on the line.

How can people on the “show” be so cruel?  In my opinion, the Milgram study is a finding that relates to limited human attentional capacity. Our limited and rickety working memory can easily be filled with things (such as audience encouragement and the “authority figure” of a show host) which leaves little room for moral processing.   Simply fill up our heads with TV, “the threat of terrorism,”  or whatever, and we are willing to not attend to everything else.  We are incredibly fallible beings.   I would also suggest that Hannah Arendt’s concept of banality of evil illustrates this human vulnerability to attentional distraction.  I explain my reasoning regarding human attention capacity in the context of Arendt’s work here.

Back to the “Game of Death”. . . Some of the contestants purportedly explained that the power of television made them do those horrendous things, but this claim confuses me.  I suspect that the live audience served as a proxy for that “television audience” (there actually wasn’t any such audience, at least until the documentary came out).   But assume that the live audience boo’d and hissed when shocks were administered, thereby working at cross-purposes with the show host.  In such as case, I would assume that far fewer “lethal” shocks would have been administered.   My belief, then, is that the fact that there was a television audience (even an imagined one) didn’t cause the contestants to act in any particular way.  Rather, the effect of that audience depends on how that audience reacts.  No research needs to be cited for the fact that we are social animals and that we feel immense pressure to do the things that are approved by others around us (though I will cite this famous study by Solomon Asch).

Some might find this sort of “show” bizarre, but I find it valuable, and I hope that the documentary reaches a wide audience.   Humans cognition is a complex and conflicting bag of tricks, many of which work counter to others.   That is one reason I have repeatedly stressed at this site that we should first and foremost think of humans as human animals, not the demigods .  We desperately need the humility and the skepticism that usually comes with the acknowledgment that we are frail and fallible.  Consider that when when humans are thinking least clearly, we are nonetheless capable of feeling certain that we are correct. We are a lot less competent than we’d like to believe.  The French “show” is dramatic evidence that merely presenting an audience and an “authority figure” can severely inflict moral blindness.  These two things blinded the contestants to the most basic rule morality:  don’t needlessly hurt and kill others.

The more likely that human animals become consciously aware of their gaping cognitive and moral vulnerabilities (I consider these part and parcel), they are less likely to do great damage to other humans.  Perhaps this show will remind us that we regularly need to exercise social skepticism and put on the moral brakes, even when those around us seem certain.


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Category: Culture, Good and Evil, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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