Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Torture: the game show

This is absolutely appalling:

PARIS — Game show contestants turn torturers in a new psychological experiment for French television, zapping a man with electricity until he cries for mercy -- then zapping him again until he seems to drop dead.

"The Game of Death" has all the trappings of a traditional television quiz show, with a roaring crowd and a glamorous and well-known hostess urging the players on under gaudy studio lights.

But the contestants did not know they were taking part in an experiment to find out whether television could push them to outrageous lengths, and which has prompted comparisons with the atrocities of Nazi Germany.

"We were amazed to find that 81 percent of the participants obeyed" the sadistic orders of the television presenter, said Christophe Nick, the maker of the documentary for the state-owned France 2 channel which airs Wednesday.

"They are not equipped to disobey," he added. "They don't want to do it, they try to convince the authority figure that they should stop, but they don't manage to," he told AFP.

Nick and a team of psychologists recruited 80 volunteers, telling them they were taking part in a pilot for a new television show.

The game: posing questions to another "player" and punishing him with up to 460 volts of electricity when he gets them wrong -- even until his cries of "Let me go!" fall silent and he appears to have died.

Not knowing that the screaming victim is really an actor, the apparently reluctant contestants yield to the orders of the presenter and chants of "Punishment!" from a studio audience who also believed the game was real.

Nick said 80 percent of the contestants went all the way, zapping the victim with the maximum 460 volts until he appeared to die. Out of 80 players, just 16 walked out.

Not only the contestants, but the studio audience, believed that the actor screaming was a real victim being tortured to death. Yet, manipulated by the lights, the cameras, the presenter of the show, and the pressure to conform to what others were doing, they overwhelmingly chose to continue the torture--the audience shouting along.

Read the whole article; especially interesting are the comments from a female contestant who went along with the "torture" despite knowing her own grandparents had been persecuted by the Nazis.

I think this experiment shows how easily people can be manipulated to approve of torture, not only by "24"-style dramas, but by urbane commentary from respected political figures laughing to scorn the idea that "a little water on the face" means that someone is suffering the pains of drowning and could even die. This experiment shows that even if the death of the victim seems immanent, enough people will rationalize that it ought to happen purely for entertainment to make our emotions dangerous guides in these murky realms.

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