The power of the media and the ethics of communication are recurring themes for PR professionals and other communcators. Can an authoritative media voice push anyone to cross ethical lines they think are non-negociable? “Jeu de la Mort” — a documentary prepared by France Télévisions in conjunction with researchers — should make us all pause for very serious reflection.
The documentary re-ran the famous Milgram experiment in which participants were incited to administer increasingly strong electric shocks to another participant who incorrectly answered questions, but this time transposed the scene into a reality-TV game show. The experiment was prepared meticulously, and researchers assert that the only difference between the original experiment and the reproduction was the presence of a live studio audience. There was, of course, another: culture. The first experiment was run in America in the early 1960s, and this time it took place in France 50 years later. While that factor may influence the exact amplitude of the percentages, it probably does not affect the basic result.
In the original experiment 62% of the “testers”, who were told the experiment was studying memory, pushed the punishment to the highest level of electric shock, which was clearly labelled as being dangerous. In the French TV re-enactment, 80% went to “The Extreme Zone” (the name of the fictional gameshow).Incredibly, in both cases, the people administering the electric shock were often clearly deeply affected by what they were doing (some wept and begged forgiveness from the victim, even after learning that he was an actor and no damage had been done). Clearly, good people can do very bad things much more easily than we would like to believe.
This should give us all pause for thought about how authority in organizations can override our better judgment. It is particularly relevant for anyone involved in organizational communications because the weight of our voices may be one of those authorities that incite people to carry on, despite their own misgivings.
More information about the documentary and the ensuing debate can be found (in French) on the France2 website.