Game of Death
By Dr. Dorothee Cole
Eighty volunteers were recruited for a recent game (video below) show in France that tested the power of coercion by an authority figure and a cheering audience.
Each contestant in the show was told to ask questions to another “player” and punish him with successively increasing shocks of electricity for every wrong answer, up to 420 volts. The volunteers were unaware that the screaming victim was really an actor and, although reluctant, most of them obeyed the orders of the presenter and audience who also believed the game was real. Only 16 refused to obey orders to inflict pain.
Psychologists believe that this kind of blind obedience witnessed on the show was the same that was seen among German soldiers ordered to commit atrocities in the Nazi concentration camps. The experiment was modeled after a famous study conducted at Yale University (the Milgram experiment) in the 1960s, which used similar methods to examine how regular citizens could be driven to take part in mass murder.
In particular, a major determining factor that swayed people to obey was the presence of a so-called trustworthy “figure of authority” or the pressure of pleasing the audience. One contestant said that she never understood how the Nazis could obey orders to torture her Jewish grandparents. After taking part in the game, she realized that she was now obeying such orders herself. Her major concern was that she was “afraid to spoil the program.”
One of the lessons we can learn from this shocking experiment is that our knowledge of right and wrong doesn’t always overcome our need to please authority figures. And our need to be accepted by others often outweighs our determination to advance God’s ways in this world. We may have read, discussed, and written much about “other-focused love” and “non-violence,” but remain ineffective in spreading it by the way we live. We have understood God on an intellectual level but we have not internalized His methods as part of our own. Something more must happen for God’s ways to become second nature to us. Our relationship with God must be real, of the kind that the disciples experienced. More than reading about the historical Jesus, we need time with Jesus every day, experiencing His love, forgiveness, and healing in our lives in order to be transformed on the inside. We need this daily immersion into God’s presence in order to be prepared for the emergency situations we will be faced with in this world.
Some people have stood up to figures of authority to do what is right. One such example was “Tank Man”, an anonymous man who placed himself alone in the middle of Tiananmen square directly in the path of the armored tanks during the Chinese government’s violent crackdown on the Tiananmen protestors. Tank Man was the opposite extreme to the contestants of the game show. Queen Esther risked her life by presenting herself to the king without being invited. Shadrak, Meshak, and Abednego overcame the enormous pressure to bow down to King Nebuchadnezzar’s idol. And the early Christians became martyrs who laid down their lives rather than to quietly go with the crowd.
The book of Revelation describes the dragon calling down fire from heaven in the site of everyone – an intimidating act of coercion that appears to be successful given that “the whole world worshiped the beast.” How will we act in emergency situations? Are we slaves to pleasing others, to being liked, or to avoid ruffling feathers? Are we slaves to our fears, to “safety” and “security”?
The history of planet earth is somewhat like this game show – a vicious cycle of hurting and being hurt where authority figures other than Christ take control of our needy and selfish hearts. It’s time to call it quits and to begin a new life in Jesus where we experience genuine friendship and love with our God.