I just read an interesting article on the BBC news.  There has been a controversial TV show in France.  It was  based on the famous experiment at Yale where students had to give an actor (who they thought was another student) electric shocks.  Many kept going until they thought the other ‘student’ was unconscious or dead – 65% in fact.

The Yale experiment followed the second world war.  One of the questions the scientists wanted to answer was if ordinary Americans would have done the same as ordinary Germans were known to have done.  The answer, it seems, was yes.

In France, to the surprise of the people doing the programme, the percentage was higher.  80% of people (who thought they were gameshow contestants) continued to shock the other ‘contestant’ way beyond the point of humane behaviour – to the point that the victim stopped screaming and fell silent.

It’s a fascinating and terrifying subject: the idea that 80% of us would blindly follow authority to the extent of hurting or even killing another human being.  I know of another experiment that followed the Yale one.  It was done with Chimpanzees.  One was starved if he did not shock the other.  The chimpanzee preferred to starve himself rather than injure a fellow.  Are chimpanzees really more empathetic than people?

The conclusion to the French show was threefold.  One: that people will do anything on TV, two: that a gameshow blurs the lines between fantasy and reality and three: that those who said ‘no’ to the shocks had a history of disobeying authority.  The BBC article suggests that children should be brought up to disobey as well as to obey.  As a mum, I’m not so sure about that one, I’d like to teach my daughter to think for herself, but on the other hand I don’t want her arguing with me when I suggest that she doesn’t lie down in the middle of the road.

It’s a subject I cover in my book.  In one scene the heroine is coerced into a very similar experiment.  There are differences.  The other subject really is being shocked and it’s a boy she knows and dislikes.  However, I have my heroine reject the experiment half way through.  She hurts the other subject, but not as much as the contestants in the game show thought they did.  She is one of the 20%.  It highlights the difference between her life and her past life, where she was definitely one of the 80%.

Doesn’t it make you think?  Make you wonder what you’d do?  I’d like to think I’d be one of the 20%.  My parents brought me up with a healthy respect for authority and disobeying was certainly discouraged, but on the other hand I literally cannot hurt a fly (I catch them and evict them from my kitchen).

But I guess we’d all like to believe we’re one of the 20% … 80% of us would be wrong.

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