Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.

With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.

French TV Reproduces Milgram’s Shocking Authority Experiment

Over-influence from ‘authority’ is such a powerful force…

…The documentary — due to be broadcast in France on Wednesday — used the ruse of a TV show to explore how even a game show host had the authority to persuade participants to inflict horrendous pain on other people.

“It’s more about the notion of power than about the individual,” the show’s producer, Christophe Nick told Reuters Television. “When a person is alone, face to face with someone abusing their power, then he or she becomes completely malleable and obedient.”

The fake TV contest was called “Zone Xtreme” (Extreme Zone) and the documentary says that 81 percent of those who took part were persuaded by the show’s host to deliver intensifying electric shocks to victims, despite increasing howls of pain.

Some 69 candidates agreed to take part in the project, believing it was a pilot game show.

Once on set, the participants were told to put questions to a “victim,” played by an actor, and to punish any wrong answers by delivering increasingly violent electric shocks.

Urged on by the game show host, around 70 percent of contestants laughed at least once during the ordeal, the program producers said, and only 19 percent put a stop to the game before reaching the maximum charge of 420 volts.

“There’s the fact that in a game, the boundaries between reality and fiction are blurred, so that even if your partner screams and begs you to stop, you still think you’re in a game,” Nick said.

Milgram’s study began a few months after the start of the Israeli trial against Nazi Adolph Eichmann for his role in organizing the transport and murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust and was meant to measure the willingness to obey an authority figure who instructed participants to perform acts that conflicted with their personal consciences.

By adapting the experiment to the television, Nick said serious issues were raised about the pervasive role TV has taken on in modern society, and the powerful influence it can have on human behavior when abused.

“In Milgram’s case 62 percent of participants obeyed abject orders; with television it’s 81 percent,” he said.

“Therefore you have to ask yourself a question which is more than about submission to an authority, but about the power of a system, a global system, which is television.”