The Milgram Experiment Is Destined to Repeat Itself Forever

Milgram's assistants circa 1962 strap fake electrodes onto a hired actor while the real subject prepares to participate in what they were told was "a study in learning."

Milgram’s assistants circa 1962 strap fake electrodes onto a hired actor while the real subject prepares to participate in what they were told was “a study in learning.”

New research on the effects of violent video games, reports the New York Times, has shown that playing Mortal Kombat for fifteen minutes made subjects more “aggressive.”

But how did they record that?

Recall that in the early 1960s Stanley Milgram’s notorious experiment tested the human willingness to torture people with electric shock when under instructions from an authority figure. The subjects were told that they were participating in a study in learning, and the shock that subjects administered to “punish” another subject for answering questions incorrectly (actually a trained actor giving rigged answers) was phoney. With blasts of 400 volts–enough to kill the guy in the real world–and in a Yale basement echoing with dramatic screams–the only real pain involved was the trauma of the subjects who watched themselves turn into Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele’s lackeys.

It’s not hard to see why this caused a controversy. Writes Alan C. Elms, “The Milgram studies have themselves been more extensively attacked on ethical grounds than any other recent psychological research.” (Elms takes Milgram’s side and argues that the real ethical dilemma is why people would torture other humans in the first place. Read an excerpt from his book here.)

But what right did Dr. Milgram have to insert subjects blindly into a moral dilemma so intense that many broke down into hysterical laughter, cold sweat? Traumatic is the perfect word–some subjects even reported partial suppression of the memory.

American laboratories have largely abandoned Milgram’s controversial method on these grounds, but there is a new way for scientists to get people to torture each other for the benefit of science.

And this time there’s real pain involved.

It’s called the “Hot Sauce Paradigm,” and, though it’s not exactly the newest research ethics bottle in the fridge (it was first published in 1999), some have called it the successor to the Milgram method. According to the article “Can hot sauce be used as a substitute for electrical shocks?,” from Improbable Research, the Hot Sauce Paradigm “has been extensively employed to induce pain in psychological research experimentees across the globe” without stirring up much of an ethics debate.

Strangely, the Hot Sauce Paradigm is considered benign compared to Milgram’s, despite that there is real physical pain involved. The new paradigm for measuring immorality involves having the subject feed chili sauce to another who they are told does not like spicy food. The one who dishes out the sauce is given an aggression index based on how much burn they put in the little cup and slide over to their fellow guinea pig.

One of the latest uses of the Hot Sauce Paradigm was to measure aggression in post-combat youths. Or, rather, post-Kombat:

Sure enough, compared with a group who had played a nonviolent video game, those who had been engaged in ‘Mortal Kombat’ were more aggressive across the board. They gave their fellow students significantly bigger portions of the hot sauce.

Experiments in humanity’s dark side have a funny way of sticking in the cultural imagination. “The Milgram Experiment” has shown up over the decades in song lyrics, song titles, album titles, and there’s even The Milgram Experiment, the band.

Predictably, now there’s a new band called “The Hot Sauce Paradigm.” If naming a band after the Milgram Experiment was a pop-cultural joke, the Hot Sauce Paradigm is a joke on a joke, trailing off toward the humor of banality.

The new paradigm itself is humorously banal. Take a look at the official recipe of torture: “5 parts Heinz chili sauce and 3 parts Tapatio salsa picante hot sauce.”

(Photo courtesy of CityMama.)

(Photo courtesy of CityMama.)

Heinz chili sauce? I didn’t even know Heinz made hot sauce. And Tapatio? That’s like the preschool of the heat scale. What about Cajohn’s Lethal Ingestion? Or at least Sriracha?
What a disappointment. In its defense, if the Hot Sauce Paradigm effectively gauges aggression, it could be a useful tool in dissecting the mystery of mass shootings. Research shows that there is some causal relationship between violent video games and real life behavior, and the more we know on this subject, the better.

As Michael Atkinson argues, however, obsessing over the violence in media has the absurdity of a fetish. “We’re a culture in which, for many, a well-placed head shot is the ultimate solution to almost every Earthly dilemma,” he writes. Why would we think that censoring films and games that deal with this violent narrative could allay our culture of aggression. Nationally the real video game proliferates–drone warfare, literally, but metaphorically the whole culture of war–that essentially involves a guy with a controller in front of a screen racking up “kills.”

The Milgram experiment is enduring precisely because it gave us insight into the structure of our dark side. The conclusion was that morality is not a little shining light that can be safe-guarded in the body of an individual. Violent people are more likely to play violent video games, but there is a sense in Milgram’s results that it is written into the general social code to override our own judgement at the behest of authority, whether that be (in ascending order) a parent, a scientist, the President, or the Coca-Cola Company.

And for those who believe that the code has changed since WWII and that the subsequent Cold War mentality of obedience fell away with the Berlin Wall, French filmmaker Christophe Nick reproduced the Milgram experiment for his 2010 documentary Game of Death, albeit with a 21st-century twist.

Turns out, Big Brother defected from the State Department to the entertainment industry. For his film, Nick worked with a team of researchers to stage a fake reality TV show (why is it that “fake reality” sounds redundant and paradoxical at the same time?). It was a phony game show that was staged just like the Milgram experiment, only the authority figure wasn’t a scientist but a host, and it was conducted not in a solitary basement but in front of a “live” audience that urged the subject on with cheers. Reports NPR:

The documentary makers say reality television relies increasingly on violent, humiliating and cruel acts to boost ratings. They say they simply wanted to see if we would go so far as to kill someone for entertainment.

The answer is yes. Eighty percent of contestants went all the way to the “lethal” shock, at which point the host calls out, with a shade of dystopian humor, “And you’ve won!” This percentage is a higher than Milgram’s results. We haven’t changed, evidently, and there’s little evidence that we want to.

In comparison, the Hot Sauce Paradigm is incredibly boring. Its one-dimensional pain and one-dimensional outcomes don’t interest us. And now, the Game of Death makes the original Milgram experiment seem flat, like just another reality show. We’re not so much gawking at the results of the experiment as at the experiment itself. We want to watch human subjects devolve into amoral organisms and then try to imagine why this wouldn’t happen to us. It makes for good ratings and good documentaries.

That’s part of what being cruel is all about.


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