Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Famewhore Experiment

You are probably familiar with the Milgram experiment, named for its creator, Stanley Milgram. In fact, it's probably the most famous psychology experiment of all time. In order to test human obedience to authority figures, and more specifically, to see whether Adolf Eichmann's accomplices in the Holocaust really were in mental league with Eichmann or whether they might have been just average Joes afraid to stand up to authority- essentially, whether a similar situation could happen outside of Nazi Germany- subjects were given a scenario. They, after being given $4 for showing up, were paired with a plant who would answer- and eventually, deliberately answer incorrectly- a series of word-association questions. Every time the plant got an answer wrong, the subject was to administer electric shocks of increasingly dangerous voltage, topping out at a fatal 450 volts. (The shocks were fake, but they didn't know that.) The plant made sure to mention in front of the subject that he had a heart condition, and would, at predetermined voltages, start yelling and screaming from the pain. Or, at least, a tape recorder would do so; the plant was not in direct view of the subject, and once out of the subject's sight, played no further part in the proceedings.

If a subject expressed concern at any point about administering the shock, the experimenter would give the following succession of verbal prods, in order:

"Please continue."
"The experiment requires that you continue."
"It is absolutely essential that you continue."
"You have no other choice, you must go on."

If the fourth prod did not cause the subject to continue, or if the subject gave the 450-volt shock three times in a row, the experiment ended. It didn't really matter how much prodding it took to get the subject to press the button. All that mattered was did they press the button. As it happened, 65% of the subjects went all the way to 450 volts. And while the subjects that stopped, stopped, nobody demanded that the study itself be stopped, and nobody went to check on the plant. Various objections were raised from multiple corners, especially since those in the know predicted that only 1-3% would go all the way, and the experiment has been redone many times over the years with many different tweaks and twists, but no matter what the circumstances, no matter what kind of psychological pressure has been placed on subjects to stop, people keep pressing the button, normally with percentages in the high 60's or low 70's.

Which brings us to an experiment conducted in France last year. The premise of this particular revisit centered around the effect of television on someone's decision-making process; how much more likely someone is to do something just because they're on TV. A fake game show was created for a documentary called Le Jeu de la Mort- The Game of Death.

After being given 40 euros, and being told they wouldn't win any money because it was just a trial run for a pilot, subjects were given essentially the exact same experiment as Milgram, only replacing the experimenter with a game show host, a studio audience chanting "punishment", and all the bells and whistles and flashing lights and dramatic music a prime-time game show deserves. The 450 volts became 460, the word-association questions were replaced with trivia, but otherwise, it was the same thing.

65% of subjects followed the original Milgram experiment to the end- 26 out of 40.

The Game of Death saw 80% of its subjects do likewise- 64 out of 80. (Time here claims 81%; their math is wrong.) That's about as high a percentage as any replication has shown.

And when you think about it a bit, 80% actually seems low.

In more recent iterations of the Milgram experiment, subjects have had to be screened beforehand to ensure they weren't already familiar with it. If this isn't done, the results would skew low; subjects would try to present themselves as the kind soul who would never hurt a fly. They wouldn't press the button, but it wouldn't mean anything, because they'd just be giving the answer they know the experimenters want. (There might also be some smartasses that just start jamming on the buttons all at once, like they were playing a piano or something.)

In The Game of Death, however, the results might be skewed low already. The setup, while replicating a TV game show, went without two critical factors. First, there was no actual money at stake. The subjects were given 40 euros at the start and then told no more money was on the line. That money is a crucial factor in getting game show contestants, and reality show contestants, to do things they normally would not do. You might not shock this guy for free... but would you do it for a million dollars? Or to place even more pressure on the contestant, would you do it if you had $500,000 in hand, and you would win $1 million by shocking him, but if you don't shock him, we'll drop you down to $25,000, or even nothing? Do those 16 that didn't press the button still not press the button with life-changing amounts of money on the line?

Second, it wasn't actually going to be broadcast, and the subjects knew that going in. It was presented as a test run for a pilot. There are a lot of pilots that never see air. What happens if the show is already on the air, and the contestant knows that they will, guaranteed, be on national television, in prime time? And to take it even further, what happens after the show has been on long enough that they have to put out casting calls? Everybody that sees that casting call knows exactly what would be expected of them if they made it on the show. Does anyone that would refrain from pressing the button even apply for the show? After all, they might get on TV, but they would lose. Wouldn't the contestant pool just wind up being a bunch of people ready and willing to knowingly apply fatal shocks to another human being for the sake of money and 15 minutes of fame?

Even if you were to invoke some kind of twist, like strapping in a loved one to take the shocks when you press the button, even then, anyone that couldn't bear to make the shock would never in a million years apply for the show. The most you'd get out of the 'loved one strapped in' stipulation would be family members predetermining prior to applying how far they're willing to go and how much money that would earn them, and then abruptly stopping the second they hit that point.

But they'd still be pressing the button.

Which leads to another set of questions: if such a show ever made air, how many people would watch?

And how many would watch more than once?

1 comment:

Paul Bryan said...

My mind hurts a little thinking about the end questions here.