Milgram’s obedience experiment shocked the world with its revelations that people can be basically blindly manipulated when faced with a perceived authority figure. But how does the media make sense of this?
Yesterday, I watched an episode of CSI: Miami, specifically Season 8 Episode 24, “All Fall Down.” I was surprised to hear the name Milgram within the first ten minutes of the episode. The beginning of the episode focuses on a psychologist working on a study very similar to Milgram’s obedience experiment involving fake electric shocks. However, this psychologist’s hypothesis is not that people submit to obedience, but that “the brain just wants to be evil.”
Strangely enough, the procedure for this experiment was almost entirely the same as Milgram’s. For example, when the participant did not want to continue with the experiment, the researcher repeated the same phrase Milgram did: “The experiment requires you to continue.”
The procedure that this fictional experiment follows gives it a “scientific air” or “plausibility” for those who watch the show and have not taken any social psychology or even general psychology courses.
With the perceived rational reasoning of the “evil brain” hypothesis, the viewer may begin to question Milgram’s experiment on obedience. The episode specifically references Nazi Germany and tries to disprove the idea that it was blind obedience to authority that caused the atrocities of World War II to take place, an idea that social psychologists have almost universally agreed upon.
Now why would a crime TV show want people to think that humans are innately evil?
CSI: Miami, being a crime/drama TV show, ultimately wants to boost interest in its show. By making people think that some people are just dispositionally more evil, crime shows are able to “sell” the idea that we are all evil and are all prone to performing evil tasks. This can widen the net of possible suspects that a viewer is paying attention to, leading to more interaction with the show and more money for the show overall. This also gives us the idea that the participants in the experiment were more aggressive, which has been proven to not be a contributing factor to a participant’s willingness to continue with the experiment.
We learn later, though, that the researcher was fired for manipulating the results of her study, so we can be relieved that Milgram’s original conclusions on obedience still remain true today.
Interestingly, CSI is not the only crime TV franchise to portray Milgram’s experiment. Crime TV series Bones also dabbles in the notions and consequences of Milgram’s conclusions in the Season 10 Episode 9 episode titled “The Mutilation of the Master Manipulator.” In this episode, a psychologist repeating Milgram’s experiment is found dead and chopped up into pieces (a horribly gruesome murder that had to be premeditated), and the very first list of suspects comprises the experiment’s participants.
Again, this gives the idea that people are naturally evil and that study participants who administered “fatal” doses of electric shock were also capable of murder: one of the ultimate evils.
For those who have taken psychology courses (such as the one taken right now!), we come to realize that these “experiments” really detract from an immersive experience. Personally, when re-watching the CSI: Miami episode, I remembered from the textbook the information about how the experiment would not pass the ethical guidelines created in the US, such as the creation of psychological distress and the inability to willingly quit the study.
Ultimately, what we are watching is fictional TV and should be taken with a grain of salt. When too much of reality mixes with the fictional world we watch on a screen, then the immersive aspect of watching TV is suddenly inhibited.