Are Reality Shows the Milgram Tests of the Future?

In the famous Milgram Experiment, volunteers were ordered by a person in a lab coat to shock a person to death — and many did it, discovering only afterwards that they'd "shocked" an actor. The same test was repeated for a French documentary in 2010. It got much the same results. But how well will reality TV mimic the Milgram Experiment?

In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram asked volunteers into his lab. There they were told they would administer a series of shocks, each more powerful than the last, to another volunteer. The scientists were testing memory, and if it improved after physical punishment. People duly administered the shocks, even as the second volunteer screamed and begged them to stop. Eventually they heard silence.

The purpose of the experiment was to test obedience to authority. Would people comply with orders they knew, and could plainly see, were morally wrong. About sixty-five percent of people administered the final shocks. Fortunately for everyone involved the second volunteer was a plant and no one was being shocked at all. Over the years, plenty of people have tried to explain the results - some of them citing the unsophisticated population of 1963. Those theories took a hit in 2010, when a French documentary had people unknowingly repeat the Milgram Experiment. This time, the people were convinced they were on a reality tv show. Eighty percent of the contestants shocked the subject "to death." The audience cheered them on.

Are Reality Shows the Milgram Tests of the Future?

In many ways, reality shows have become more creative Milgram Experiments. The audience watches as a group of 20-somethings are introduced to guy and told he's a millionaire prince looking for a bride, when he's really an actor. Another group is told they have a shot at a modeling contract if they go nude in public and let spiders crawl on their faces. Contestants are told to lose 100 pounds in three months, and no matter how much the audience knows that that's not healthy, they cheer the contestants on. In the case of French tv show, entitled The Game of Death, the audience was on site, and might be swayed by obedience to authority. Other shows are, I think, even better Milgram Experiments because they remove the direct pressure of the authority and show us why we invest others with authority - we assume they know more about what's going on than we do.

That's the authority that reality shows have. We know that they're partially faked, and we know that they're partially real, and we assume that the extreme parts are fake and the merely ridiculous parts are real. Sure, a reality show would make contestants look like idiots, and hurt them a bit, but they wouldn't electrocute someone to death, would they? Go ahead and keep pressing the button. Sure, it's a little unethical, but no girl is actually going to believe that a prince in a foreign country speaks with an American accent and will choose his bride via reality show. We can keep watching. And the thing is, most of the time we're right - just like the contestants on The Game of Death were right. They put their trust in authority, and they weren't really hurting anyone.

In this way, we should see the ongoing reality tv shows, their ratings, the confessionos of reality stars about how much of a show was fake, and the occasional times when they send someone to the hospital, as an ever-evolving Milgram study. We will always know what evil humans are capable of because those humans will literally broadcast it to us. Unless that evil was faked.

[Via Fake Game Show Tortures Man, The Milgram Experiment as a French Game Show.]