TV: Replicating Milgram

A French TV documentary features people in a spoof game show administering what they are told are near lethal electric shocks to rival contestants….

Although unaware that the contestants were actors and there was no electrical current, 82% of participants in the Game of Death agreed to pull the lever.

Programme makers say they wanted to expose the dangers of reality TV shows.

They say the documentary shows how many participants in the setting of a TV show will agree to act against their own principles or moral codes when ordered to do something extreme.

Source: BBC – French TV contestants made to inflict ‘torture’

As the article points out, this is a replication of the famous Milgram experiment from the 60s: when ordered to inflict pain on others, most people will do so even if it causes them considerable distress.

There are many ways of explaining this.

In an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense. It is functional to follow authority in many circumstances, for instance in times where a group needs to stand together. It is one of our evolved “modules” creating a menu of options for us. Of course, in other circumstances it is functional to not follow orders, so that is (most likely) another of the evolved modules. Which one is more developed and accessible for us depends on our experiences in life, and is influenced by – among other things – our culture and subculture. And which one is triggered in any one situation also depends on the characteristics of the situation.

There are relatively strong social norms to follow authority, especially when the authority seems legitimate, following orders gives us benefits, and not following orders get us something we don’t want. In some situations, these norms may override the norms of not hurting others.

And we have beliefs. I need others to accept me. I need approval. I need to avoid interpersonal conflict. I need to follow orders. I need to avoid putting myself in harm’s way.

It all depends on how it is framed and received, of course, but it seems that these types of  TV shows can be very helpful. They highlight and bring attention to a tendency in all of us, help us think through it, and may serve as a reminder for us in the future if we find ourselves in such a situation. Through watching, reading and talking about it, we give ourselves – and others – permission to not always follow orders, especially when they involve hurting others.

So in the best case, it helps us stay alert if we find ourselves in a similar situation, it reminds us that we have a choice, and it strengthens a commitment act on it when that seems most appropriate.


  • replicating milgram
    • post ww2, understand , understand one aspect of what happened in nazi germany, how people could follow/execute orders
    • best outcome: people recognize we can all do this, need to take it into account, prevent it through awareness of it
    • depends on how it is framed + how it is received (we actively engage with and digest this type of info)
    • ways of looking at
      • evolutionary perspective, makes a great deal of sense, is functional to follow authority (in many circumstances), it’s one of the evolved “modules”
      • beliefs: I need to be accepted/approved of, I need to follow orders, I need to not put myself in harm’s way
      • strategy/pre-plan: aware of the tendency to follow orders, override what feels more right, so plan to not do it (commit to it in advance, for whatever situation may come up)

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