Recent years have seen reality television push the envelope further and further to keep the genre fresh, exciting, and appealing to its audience. Consequently, being a contestant on a reality television show nowadays is an altogether more demanding – and precarious – position than it was in the early years.
French television programme The Game of Death has taken an interesting step in this regard, essentially recreating a famous psychology experiment that took place during an era when television programmes of this kind would have been unthinkable.
The early 1960s were a watershed period in the history of psychology. During this period, the findings of several notable studies quite suddenly raised the otherwise somewhat neglected issue of ethics. After all – one might wonder – what is and isn’t a reasonable thing to do to a participant in a psychology experiment?
With the events of the Second World War and the rise to power of the Nazi Party still very much in mind, American psychologist Stanley Milgram designed a famous experiment at Yale University in order to test participants’ propensity to exhibit obedience in the face of authority.
Milgram advertised for volunteers. On their arrival the volunteers were assigned a role: learner or teacher, and each was placed in a separate room. Via an intercom, teachers were required to test learners on a series of memory tasks. If the learner gave a wrong answer, the teacher was instructed to use the computer system placed in front of them to administer the learner with an electric shock.
Milgram’s experiment revealed that participants were willing to administer potentially lethal electric shocks to each other, with some carrying on despite hearing loud screams from the other room. When the teacher expressed concern, the experimenter gave only simple instructions to carry on with the experiment. Some teachers even continued after there ceased to be a response from the learner. The experimenter instructed the teacher that silence was to be interpreted as a wrong answer.
After the experiment, the experimenter revealed that the learner had been a professional actor and the screams had been a recording. Nevertheless, many participants were very shaken by their actions, thus raising many ethical questions for psychology. Consequently, submitting to an ethics board in advance of such experiments became the standard.
It’s interesting, although perhaps not surprising, that reality television has given us a reason to revisit the debate about the Milgram experiment. It has been reported that The Game of Death producers wanted to see how far people would be willing to go when they are on television – as if to show what the pressures of television can do to a person.
However, clearly Milgram’s experiment shows that there is nothing unique about this experimental finding being captured on television; people will exhibit submissive behaviour in the face of authority just as well off screen. Perhaps the crucial difference in this new version of the Milgram experiment is that here it was presented not as a scientific finding, something that furthered our understanding of human psychology.
After all, Milgram’s experiment gave us that without the cameras. Rather, here the unique feature was its production as a form of popular television entertainment. Perhaps this says more about the production companies than the participants? Or perhaps it says more about the audience? Regardless, one would imagine that distress for the participants would be inevitable, but one also has to think of the effects on audience, however much they demanded entertainment of this kind. One might wonder: should reality television now have to face stricter ethical guidelines, or is it too late for that now?