In 1961, psychologist Stanley Milgram devised a now-infamous series of experiments. The goal was to understand why seemingly ordinary men carried out the demonic orders of the Third Reich.
In Milgram’s experiments, a volunteer was told to administer electric shocks to another “volunteer” when he answered a question incorrectly. The victim was an actor—there was no electricity. But with each failure, a more powerful the shock was ordered.
When volunteers hesitated, an authority figure prodded them, starting with “please continue” and escalating to “you have no other choice, you must go on.”
These words were enough for two-thirds of the volunteers to administer what they believed was a fatal shock.
When Milgram published the results, the response was outrage, both over the implications of the experiment and Milgram’s methods.
Given the notoriety of the Milgram experiments, you’d expect that, if they were repeated today, the results would be different.
Well, you would be wrong. French documentary film makers recreated the Milgram experiment with some exceptions—the subjects thought they were taking part in a reality-television show called The Game of Death; they had an audience; and unlike Milgram’s subjects, they could actually see their victim.
The subjects were told to shock a man in an electric chair if he made a mistake. And now, as then, they complied! Eighty percent of the subjects administered the shocks, being egged on by the audience, who also thought it was for real. The screaming and begging for mercy didn’t stop them. When the man in the electric chair keeled over seemingly dead, the hostess yelled, “You’ve won!”
When the documentary recently aired on French television, the nation was aghast. Sociologist Jean Claude Kaufman noted that whereas Milgram only had “authority,” the French experiment had both an authority figure and television’s “manipulative power.”
While there’s no doubt that television, especially reality television, can make you stupid, there’s more at work here than psychology. What Milgram uncovered was something about what C.S. Lewis nicely called the “bentness” of human nature.
When a subject in the French documentary says that he “wanted to stop the whole time, but [he] just couldn’t,” he’s echoing what St. Paul wrote in Romans 7: “For what I do is not the good I want to do,” but “the evil I do not want to do.”
British documentarians also recreated the Milgram experiment on television in England.
What’s at work here is our fallen nature. Circumstances can push it in one direction or another. In this case, the willingness to inflict pain or suffering on others comes from inside us.
The answer to this bentness isn’t education or “awareness.” If it were, the French and British wouldn’t have been able to reproduce Milgram’s results.
The answer lies in what God, in the person of His Son, did on Good Friday and Easter, which we observe next week. He put the old nature to death on the cross and a new man, the first fruits of a new creation, rose to life.
While avoiding reality TV is a good start, it’s that new life in Christ that keeps the worst bits of our history from repeating themselves.