Fake torture TV 'game show' reveals willingness to obey

A new documentary directed by Christophe Nick broadcast on French television on Wednesday blended reality TV with a game show to give a 1960s psychological experiment an unsettling 21st-century makeover.


Just how far can TV go in the name of entertainment?

To answer this question, scientists carried out an experiment filmed and broadcast by French TV channel France 2 in a blood-chilling documentary about the seemingly limitless power of the small screen.

“Le jeu de la mort”, or “The Game of Death”, by director Christophe Nick, blends reality TV with a game show to give a psychological experiment from the past an unsettling 21st-century makeover. In the 1960s at Yale University, Stanley Milgram measured the willingness of participants to obey authority figures in an attempt to understand how accomplices in the Holocaust could have submitted so fully to Nazi orders. The new French documentary recruited volunteers who were told that they were going to shoot a pilot for a new show called “La Zone Xtrême”, or “The Xtreme Zone”. What lay in store for them, however, was a sort of pop-culture recreation of Milgram’s project.

A game becomes a torture session

With no financial incentive on the table, the point of the game was to ask one “candidate” – played by an actor – a series of questions. If he gave a wrong answer, the punishment would be an electric shock, with the voltage increasing by increments from 80 to 460 volts with each incorrect response.

The fake “candidate”, Jean-Paul, who remained out of the sight of the interrogators, communicated his pain progressively: first through whimpers, then pleas to stop the electrocutions and, finally, by total silence.

The startling outcome was that 64 of the 80 interrogators carried on with the game until it became something akin to a torture session. One might be tempted to assume that the players were crazy or sadistic. But the psychological conclusion, at once both facile and unimaginable, is that they were simply following orders: they hated making Jean-Paul suffer and expressed their desire to stop the game -- but, apart from 16 of the participants, never managed to resist orders from an authority figure to carry on.

‘The grip of TV’s power’

The main conceptual difference between the French documentary and the original experiment by Milgram is that the authority in question in the new version is not a scientist, but rather the TV setting: the host, Tania Young, and an audience watching intently.

"The interrogators are not dominated by a hierarchical stucture, but rather by the grip of TV’s power,” Jean-Léon Beauvois, a researcher in social psychology, explained.

In other words, they did’t dare contradict the demands of the TV host – an iconic figure in which they place their trust. “An individual faced with a power greater than himself becomes the most obedient being imaginable,” Beauvois observed.

But the makers of the “docu-game” could face criticism for manipulating the participants with the very methods the film aims to denounce. To minimise fallout, as soon as production ended, volunteers were notified that they had in fact participated in an experiment, and were asked for their permission to be shown on the programme. Only three refused.

Those who agreed were informed that they were normal, and that the context of the experiment was responsible for their behaviour.

“Most of them are thrilled to have participated in an experiment that could be useful for something,” director Nick noted. “And some of them are ready to do it all over again.”


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