A French TV show has raised anew questions about when it's acceptable to subject people to emotional harm as part of a psychological experiment.
The show depicted contestants in a TV quiz show. They were instructed to pull a lever that delivered increasingly powerful electric shocks to a man strapped into a chair whenever he got a quiz question wrong. A studio audience lustily cheered as the contestants administered the shocks.
In reality, there were no shocks. The man in the chair was acting. The quiz show was part of an elaborate deception designed to show how far people would go in following the rules of a TV game show, and many went all the way.
Jerry Burger is a social psychologist at the University of Santa Clara. He says yes, it's a striking demonstration of people's obedience to authority. But clearly, the people administering the faux shocks were upset by the experience, if not at the time, then afterward.
Burger says his concern doesn't end with the contestants. "I worry about the audience," he says. They also didn't realize the show was a fake.
Highly Controversial Experiments
"They were chanting and cheering and yelling 'punish,' or whatever they were told to yell," says Burger. "That would be very disturbing, to find you had participated in something like that, I think."
And that's why experiments like this are highly controversial. Even if they tell you something about human behavior, is it ethical to conduct them?
"When I heard about the results I was not surprised at all," says Dominique Muller, a social psychologist at the University of Grenoble in France. "So, my first reaction would be, if we don't really learn something, I think I wouldn't have done this kind of thing."
The reason Muller wasn't surprised by the results is that an American psychologist did a similar series of experiment in the 1960s and early 1970s.
In those studies, there was no studio audience. Instead, psychologist Stanley Milgram invited his subjects into the lab, and told them they were part of an experiment to see whether painful punishment could help people learn. Here again, the pain was in the form of electric shocks. Although many subjects were uncomfortable, when Milgram's assistants encouraged them to deliver increasingly powerful shocks, most did, even though they could hear the "victim" screaming in pain.
Weighing Harm Vs. Science
The Milgram experiments provoked a wide range of reactions. Some found people's willingness to follow authority alarming. Others felt subjects were manipulated into behaving badly, and were traumatized as a result.
"What I don't think it is is a cut-and-dried case of someone behaving horribly unethically," says Kevin Masters, a psychologist at Syracuse University. He says in any experiment, researchers are supposed to weigh what can be learned against whether a subject may be harmed.
"This basic idea that we would do things that we would not expect to do, simply when put into the right situation or the right authority figure, I think is a pretty darn important thing for us to know about," he says.
Masters says committees designed to protect human subjects, called institutional review boards, or IRBs, have become very conservative in the years since the Milgram experiment. He says IRBs rarely approve experiments where people are put in upsetting situations even if doing so will be important information
"Researchers have in many cases frankly, just given up," says Masters.
A Powerful Tool For Affecting Behavior
But there's one researcher who didn't give up: social psychologist Burger.
"No one's really used those procedures since the early '70s because of the ethical concerns," he says.
But Burger decided it might be possible if he stopped the experiment before people actually delivered a really strong shock. His university IRB acquiesced. Once again, most subjects continued to administer faux shocks when urged on by experimenters.
Ironically, the impetus for replicating Milgram came from television. The ABC show Primetime asked Burger to conduct the experiment and then filmed it as it was being conducted. Burger says nearly all subjects agreed to appear on the show.
"It doesn't matter what they just did, or what you filmed, yeah, they love being on television," says Burger.
More proof, as if it were needed, that television is a powerful tool for affecting behavior.