How much electricity would you send through an innocent person’s body?
In 2010, eighty volunteers in France signed up for a reality show called Zone Xtreme. Each volunteer was put on live TV, watched by a cheering audience and an attractive host, and told to play a game. Their role in the game was to administer electric shocks to another player, named Jean-Paul, whenever he got a question wrong.
The shocks started at 20 volts, and moved gradually up to 460 volts, which the players were told might be lethal. Jean-Paul reacted only a little to the smaller shocks, but gradually his screams became worse, until he was shouting he didn’t want to play anymore, begging to be set free from the booth in which he was trapped. Finally, at the highest voltage, he didn’t react at all. He just sat, slumped over, silent.
It was all a setup. Jean-Paul was an actor; the shocks were nonexistent. But the players didn’t know that. They believed it was very real.
Now ask yourself: of the eighty players, how many do you think were willing to ignore his screams and deliver every single shock, all the way up to the possibly-lethal 460 volts?
Take a moment to think about your answer. Remember, these are ordinary, randomly-selected people.
Got your guess?
The answer is 64 out of 80 people, or 80% of the contestants.
To be clear: 80% of these ordinary human beings were willing to deliver agonizing, potentially lethal shocks to another human being, in spite of his obvious pain and direct pleas not to.
They weren’t even playing for money. There was no reward. They were just on TV. Full details about the show are here.
Lest you think there’s something wrong with French people, this show merely recreates a much older and more famous American study called the Milgram Experiment. Essentially the same thing, with the same result, except it wasn’t televised.
And now, the big question. Would you deliver the full voltage?
Perhaps you say “No! Of course not!” But if you jump to that answer without some serious soul-searching, then you’re missing the point. Because nearly all of those 80 people would have said the same thing.
It’s not about whether you’re a good person or a bad person. You see, these contestants didn’t want to give the shocks. They felt bad about it. They objected to it. They wished they didn’t have to do it.
But they felt a tremendous social pressure. And in the end, in spite of all the complaints of their conscience, they pressed the button.
Think it over. Someday it might not be an experiment.