Laughing in the face of death

Last night Olivier and I watched a television documentary which described a recent French research project which reconstructed the Milgram experiment. I was so thrilled to watch this documentary, I don’t get much sociological titillation here, and it was fun to revisit an experiment that American sociologists talk about so often.

The research, which was re-framed as a television game show, with the same number of participants as Milgram, chosen in the same manner, and told that they would be participating on a game show pilot test. In each “show” there was a “questioner” and a “subject” that would receive shocks. Of course, the “subject” was an actor, who pretended to be shocked out of his consciousness by the “questioner”. The “subject” was placed in a small chamber, away from the view of the “questioner,” and strapped into an electrical chair. The “subject” was then given a list of words – two words on each line, each set of words associated with one another – which the “subject” had to memorize in a span of 30 seconds (impossible), asked 30 questions to tell the “questioner” the correct pair of words, and, therefore, the “subject” obviously got each question wrong and received a shock – increasing in value with each question.

You can watch a clip of the show here (don’t worry if you don’t speak French, it’s pretty clear).

One result that was very interesting to find is that as the shock intensity increased, the “questioner” would laugh, in an attempt to externalize their nervousness and to reach the “subject” to let him know that the situation was supposed to be all “fun and games.” The laugh most commonly occurred around the “middle” shock amount and subsequently decreased as the shock (and the cries of the actor) became stronger.

This nervous laugh is extremely fascinating. Normally, the laugh is reserved to demonstrate joy, pleasure, amusement, but it has been reappropriated to express nervousness as well. The first logical explanation for this nervous laugh is that expressed in the experiment – an attempt to bring a light-heartedness to the situation. But it is still a quite disturbing image to watch someone laughing (sometimes hysterically, to the point of tears) while they believe they are shocking someone to unconsciousness, even death. Of course this brings a lot of questions to the surface, such as sadism, an innate aggressive nature of human beings, etc…I’m not sure how much I agree with either of those principles (thought I do think that humans are by nature relatively aggressive beings due to the need for survival), but I don’t think that anyone on this show consciously took pleasure in knowing that they were causing potential pain to the “subject.”

I’d love to hear your opinions about this! I’m eager to read what you have to say.

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