Last night, French television Channel 2 broadcast a supposed pilot for a new game show. It replicated the famous experiments on obedience that Yale psychologist, Stanley Milgram, carried out in the 1960s. In those experiments, a volunteer was invited into Milgram's lab and told that he (or she) was involved in an experiment to gauge whether punishment was effective in learning. The volunteer - or 'Teacher' - was to read word pairs to the 'Learner', who was, in reality an actor. The Learner had to indicate which word pairs went together. If the Learner made an error, the Teacher had to administer an electric shock. Each shock would be progressively stronger, starting with 15 volts and progressing to 450 volts: a lethal dose. The Learner would simulate pain so that the Teacher would believe the electric shocks to be real. What Milgram wanted to know was: how far would the volunteer Teacher comply with a series of instructions that come increasingly into conflict with their conscience?
What Milgram found was that most people went all the way. They may have had qualms but they did what they were told, regardless of the pain they were imposing, regardless of the howls of protest from the victim. Most of us think we won't obey but the reality is that most of us would.
In the French entertainment version, a little extra frisson was added by having a live audience who, thrilled by watching the electrocutions, shouted: 'Punishment! Punishment!' One participant's grandparents had died in the Holocaust; afterwards she said she regretted taking part in the electrocutions. Another, a Romanian, said that her experience under Ceaucescu was what had given her the strength to walk out. But overall, the outcomes were the same - or worse - than Milgram's: 80 percent of participants went all the way. I guess they'd call that showbiz.
The producers behind 'The Game of Death' claim this was a serious study but Milgram would be appalled by the use to which his work has been put. He was sufficiently concerned by his findings that he took ten years before publishing them in full. The idea that the experiment should constitute any form of public entertainment shouldn't persuade anyone. It's the same old bad argument: we can do hideous things and get away with it on TV by saying it's ironic. This isn't irony; it's abuse - of the volunteers, of the original work, of the viewers. No intellectual superstructure will disguise the crass nastiness of this whole enterprise.
French television has always been a byword for tackiness but even so, It's bizarre to find that the French, with their contempt for popular American culture, have come up with television that makes the worst of reality TV look inoffensive. And it's appalling to see that so-called professional psychologists associate themselves with this carnival. What next? Gladiator fights with lions overseen by professors who want to know what it really felt like to be a slave?