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Bioethics: Le Reality Show

Stanley Milgram’s 1960s experiments, which aimed to show just how far people would go to inflict what they believed were real electric shocks to people, are a sentinel episode in early bioethics history. The experiments were widely criticized as unethical because the researchers lied to the participants, telling them that they were “assistants” rather than subjects in a study on obedience to authority.

Milgram reported a “success rate” of 65 percent; that is, two-thirds of the subjects proceeded to the most severe level of shock. The experiments were also widely seen as a validation that ordinary people everywhere, not just Nazis, submitted to authority figures.

Now Milgramesque experiments have resurfaced, with a twenty-first century twist, and in French. Christophe Nick, a French television producer, filmed “contestants” to a “pilot” of a game show inflicting electric shocks to other contestants, who were actually actors. According to an account in the U.K. newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, the supposed game show, called “Le jeu de la mort” (The Game of Death), was filmed before a live audience, which chanted “punishment” when a player failed to answer a trivia question correctly. Nick’s success rate was higher than Milgram’s; only 16 of 80 people refused to push levers that administered “a dangerous shock” of 450 volts.

Robert Mackey’s New York Times blog on the documentary contains a clip from the show, which aired on French TV March 17. Mackey cites Robert Shiller’s counter to the anti-Milgram sentiment in his book, Irrational Exuberance.Shiller claims that the experiments (and presumably the French spinoff) show that people actually understand that they are not really administering these shocks because they trust that the person directing them (the researcher, the game show host) would not really ask them to do such terrible things.

One reader commented that this conclusion may actually be worse because people who are trusting and obedient are more likely to be persuaded to do inhumane things than people who are just obedient.

One other conclusion may be that there is no limit to what people will do to get on TV shows, and no limit to what producers will do to come up with a concept for an unreality show.

Published on: March 19, 2010
Published in: Bioethics, Clinical Trials and Human Subjects Research, Science and Society

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