The Dark Side of Reality TV

Who are the real subjects of these twisted psych experiments?

By Douglas Rushkoff|Wednesday, May 23, 2007

We thought they had ended over 40 years ago, but Stanley Milgram’s infamous psychology experiments are back—in a crueler and more public form than he ever devised.

The original experiments were inspired by the Nuremberg trial of Adolf Eichmann, who engineered the transport of Jews to Nazi concentration camps. Milgram wanted to know if German war criminals could have simply been “following orders,” as they claimed, and not truly complicit in the death camp atrocities. To find out, he set up an experiment in which subjects were instructed by men in white lab coats to deliver increasingly intense electric shocks to victims who screamed in pain, complained of a heart condition, and begged for the experiment to be halted. More than half of the subjects carried out the orders despite their own mounting anxiety, slowly increasing the electric shocks to seemingly lethal levels. Although they were later informed that their victims were just actors, the subjects suffered lasting psychological trauma after discovering just what they themselves were capable of. (Such experiments were declared unethical by the American Psychological Association in 1973.)

Now researchers at University College London are delicately re-creating Milgram’s work using computer-generated characters instead of actors. The subjects still “shock” their victims, who still scream in pain, but this time everyone knows it’s only as real as a video game. Yet while the victims are obviously fake, the subjects exhibit the same anxiety about inflicting pain, as measured by self-reports, requests to stop the experiment, and increased heart rate and sweating. The study’s authors proudly conclude that “this result reopens the door to direct empirical studies of obedience and related extreme social situations, an area of research that is otherwise not open to experimental study.”

I find it odd, though, that scientists should go to such lengths to create virtual characters for human subjects to torture. Really, there’s no need, when every night on prime-time television we can find experiments involving similarly “extreme social situations” being carried out on real human beings—subjects willing to submit to the most debasing forms of public humiliation Hollywood executives can dream up.

Yes, I’m talking about reality TV, an ongoing experiment in interpersonal torture that, even more than the University College London study, picks up where Milgram left off. This time around, the location (be it French château or South Sea island) is the laboratory, the contestants are the subjects, and the producers are the lab-coated scientists—using the authority of their cameras to push participants to ever more exhibitionist, vile, or self-destructive lengths. Although essentially unscripted, reality shows are nonetheless constructed; they are setups with clear hypotheses, designed to maximize the probability of conflict and embarrassment.

America’s Next Top Model is not really about who wins a modeling contract but rather about observing what young anorexics are willing to do to one another under the sanctioning authority of supermodel Tyra Banks. Will they steal food, sabotage another contestant’s makeup, or play particularly vicious mind games? Survivor has never been about human ingenuity in the face of nature but about human ­scheming, betrayal, and selfishness in the course of ­competition. And The Surreal World, which throws a bunch of has-beens and recovering alcoholic former child stars into a halfway house, has nothing to do with our desire to emulate celebrities. It’s about watching sad people sacrifice any remaining vestige of self-respect to garner an extra few minutes of life on the tube.

The disturbing part is that we call this entertainment. Milgram was hoping to learn something basically uplifting: History’s worst sadists were in fact decent human beings, just highly susceptible to the corrupting influence of authorities. What reality TV proves about us is far worse. Apparently, we’re just waiting for an excuse to be true to our darkest natures.

Sooner or later those of us feasting on this orgy of tele-sadism will have to accept our complicity in the process. After all, in Milgram’s experiments the real subjects were not the recipients of the electric shocks but those administering them. As the virtual reality versions have proved, it doesn’t matter whether what’s happening is real or staged: We react as if the pain inflicted were real. By sitting still for the elaborately staged social experiments of reality TV, we supply further evidence for Milgram’s main conclusion: “Ordinary people . . .without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.”

Yet with no white-coated experimenter sitting in our living rooms, who is the ultimate authority figure granting us permission to delight in the pain of others? Who absolves us of our guilt? Why the sponsor, of course, whose ad for a wholesome national brand interrupts at just the right moment, stamping events with its seal of approval. Sponsors of reality programs gain leverage over their viewers by warding off our sense of shame. Note that viewers are not willing to pay directly for these shows on HBO. They’re available only on free TV, where advertisers assume ­culpability on our behalf.

Just like subjects in the Milgram experiments, we may soon come to realize, with painful and soul-shaking clarity, what it is that we have done. The self-loathing of the principal subjects awaits us.

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