The subjects of the recent French documentary “The Game of Death” thought they were on a TV quiz show. The camera was there and so were the bright lights and the crowd.
But in fact the show was a re-creation of the classic social psychology experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s. On the fake show, participants watched as another contestant — actually an actor — was hooked up to an electrode and locked in a booth. The participants were asked to press a lever to administer a shock each time the person in the booth answered a trivia question incorrectly. The electrode was fake, but participants did not know this and the actor responded as though he was actually being shocked. The shocks kept increasing in voltage until the person in the booth began to cry out for mercy. But the host prompted the participants to continue as the audience applauded and screamed for more.
Eighty percent of participants delivered the maximum shock of 460 volts, despite their belief that the person in the booth was in great pain. Most expressed doubts, but they allowed themselves to be persuaded. Only 16 of 80 participants walked away. In Milgram’s original experiment, which used the disguise of a psychology experiment on memory and learning rather than a game show, 62.5 percent of subjects administered a maximum shock of 450 volts when encouraged by an experimenter.
In a follow-up to the Milgram experiment, Philip Zimbardo conducted another classic study that sought to examine more closely how environment and assumed roles contribute to heinous actions. In his experiment, Zimbardo assigned volunteers at random to play the roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison set up at Stanford University. The volunteers were all psychologically healthy young men, yet the experiment had to be terminated after only six days because of the level of cruelty inflicted on the prisoners by the guards. “In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress,” Zimbardo explains on his Web site. Zimbardo has gone on to devote his life to studying how ordinary people can be led to commit atrocities, a phenomenon that he terms the “Lucifer effect.”
In a recent real-life case, nine teenagers from South Hadley High School in Massachusetts have been charged in connection with the brutal bullying, over the course of three months, that preceded the suicide of ninth-grader Phoebe Prince. The charges include statutory rape, violation of civil rights with bodily injury, harassment, stalking and disturbing a school assembly.
Officials and journalists have responded to the case by focusing on the specific issue of bullying. It strikes me that the issue is much broader: Is there something measurably wrong with the people who commit such abuse, or are “they” no different from “us?”
In March 1989, in the upper-middle-class town of Glen Ridge, N.J., four high school athletes lured an intellectually disabled classmate into a basement, promising that she was going on a date. They then proceeded to sexually assault her with a baseball bat and a broomstick. There was much talk about how the culture of athletic hero-worship, and a resulting sense of entitlement among the perpetrators, contributed to what happened in Glen Ridge. To this day, I — and I’m sure many others— cannot even hear the name of the town without remembering what happened there. But in the end, the scariest thing about Glen Ridge is not that it was so different, but that it was so ordinary. What happened there could have happened anywhere.
The larger-scale historical examples range from the Salem Witch Trials to the more recent abuses at Abu Ghraib to the atrocities committed in and by Nazi Germany, Cambodia and Rwanda, to name just a few. This dark history teaches us that it is not just something about a particular school, a particular town, or even a single country or culture that causes these events. It is something about human beings:the Lucifer effect.
Critics have expressed outrage at the “Game of Death.” An article in Time Magazine questioned whether filmmaker Christophe Nick was “striking a blow at the abusive powers of television — or simply taking reality TV to a new low of cynicism and bad taste.”
Experiments like those conducted by Milgram, Zimbardo and Nick remind us of a hidden element of our nature that we are reluctant to recognize. Before his experiment, Milgram conducted an informal poll, asking 14 of his psychology students what they thought the results of the experiment would be. Their average guess was that only 1.2 percent of subjects would administer the highest voltage shock.
Most of the participants in Milgram’s experiment reported that they were glad they had been involved. One man wrote to Milgram afterwards saying that his participation in the study had led him to apply for conscientious objector status when he was drafted during the Vietnam War. He said that, if he did not receive the status, he was prepared to go to jail. “To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to [an] authority's demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself,” he wrote.
“The Game of Death” was a mirror. If we do not like the reflection, it is not the mirror’s fault.