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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

France is reeling from a recent documentary about a psychological experiment disguised as a game show. Researchers staged a fictitious reality show to see how far people would go in obeying authority, especially if that authority is backed up by television.

Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.

(Soundbite of music and applause)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: The fictitious game show had all the trappings of a real TV quiz show: a beautiful and well-known hostess, a raucous audience. The game centered around a group of contestants who asked questions to a man sitting inside a box in front of them in an electric chair.

(Soundbite of chanting)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: The players had levers in front of them and were urged by the hostess and a chanting audience to send jolts of electricity into the man in the box when he got a question wrong.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: But even when the players screamed out in pain for them to stop, 80 percent of the contestants kept zapping him. The man in the electric chair was, of course, only an actor who wasn't really being shocked, but the players and the audience did not know that.

Christophe Nick produced the documentary called "The Game of Death" with a group of scientists and researchers.

Mr. CHRISTOPHE NICK (Producer, "The Game of Death"): Most of us, we have free thinking and so we are responsible of our art. This experiment show that in certain circumstance, a power - the TV in this case - is able to make you do something you don't want to do.

BEARDSLEY: The idea that there is something deeply rooted in the human psyche that makes most of us unable to resist authority is not new. The French documentary was based on an American experiment carried out in the 1960s by psychologist Stanley Milgram.

Unidentified Man #2: Stan, I'm not going to kill that man there.

BEARDSLEY: The French documentary included footage of the Milgram experiment. It showed participants delivering what they believed were electric shocks to a man every time he answered a question incorrectly. Sixty percent of them obeyed the sadistic orders to the letter.

(Soundbite of screaming)

Unidentified Man #3: Incorrect. Continue, please.

BEARDSLEY: Sociologist Jean Claude Kaufmann says the higher French percentage of 80 percent shows that the manipulative power of television further increases people's willingness to obey.

Dr. JEAN CLAUDE KAUFMANN (Sociologist): (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: This experiment combines Milgram's use of authority with the power of live television and it becomes too powerful to resist, says Kaufmann.

Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: Television talk shows have been ruminating over the documentary all day. Comparisons are being drawn to the manipulation of the masses in Nazi Germany. One of the game show participants, Jerome Pasanau, said he was still haunted by the experience.

Mr. JEROME PASANAU (Game Show Participant): (Through translator) I wanted to stop the whole time, but I just couldn't. I didn't have the will to do it. And that goes against my nature. I really haven't figured out why I did it.

BEARDSLEY: Pasanau said he felt intimidated and isolated on the TV set and that the crowd was overbearing. Let's just look at your performance, says the talk show host as he pulls up the footage of Pasanau pumping 460 volts of electricity into the contestant until he seems to keel over dead.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Game of Death")

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: And you won, yells the game show hostess.

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.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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