March 16, 2010 / 9:25 PM / 9 years ago

French TV reproduces shocking authority experiment

PARIS (Reuters) - A French documentary film will attempt to show the power television holds over people when it presents the results of a fake television game show in which participants inflict pain on other people.

“How Far Will Televison Go?” reproduces its own version of an experiment conducted by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s, in which volunteers were ordered to inflict electric shocks on a student in order to improve memory.

The documentary — due to be broadcast in France on Wednesday — used the ruse of a TV show to explore how even a game show host had the authority to persuade participants to inflict horrendous pain on other people.

“It’s more about the notion of power than about the individual,” the show’s producer, Christophe Nick told Reuters Television. “When a person is alone, face to face with someone abusing their power, then he or she becomes completely malleable and obedient.”

The fake TV contest was called “Zone Xtreme” (Extreme Zone) and the documentary says that 81 percent of those who took part were persuaded by the show’s host to deliver intensifying electric shocks to victims, despite increasing howls of pain.

Some 69 candidates agreed to take part in the project, believing it was a pilot game show.

Once on set, the participants were told to put questions to a “victim,” played by an actor, and to punish any wrong answers by delivering increasingly violent electric shocks.

Urged on by the game show host, around 70 percent of contestants laughed at least once during the ordeal, the program producers said, and only 19 percent put a stop to the game before reaching the maximum charge of 420 volts.

“There’s the fact that in a game, the boundaries between reality and fiction are blurred, so that even if your partner screams and begs you to stop, you still think you’re in a game,” Nick said.

Milgram’s study began a few months after the start of the Israeli trial against Nazi Adolph Eichmann for his role in organizing the transport and murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust and was meant to measure the willingness to obey an authority figure who instructed participants to perform acts that conflicted with their personal consciences.

By adapting the experiment to the television, Nick said serious issues were raised about the pervasive role TV has taken on in modern society, and the powerful influence it can have on human behaviour when abused.

“In Milgram’s case 62 percent of participants obeyed abject orders; with television it’s 81 percent,” he said.

“Therefore you have to ask yourself a question which is more than about submission to an authority, but about the power of a system, a global system, which is television.”

Reporting by Thierry Chiarello; Writing by Vicky Buffery; Editing by Paul Casciato

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