Why Big Brother is a sin

I freely confess I am a Big Brother addict. This addiction is relatively new (Celebrity Big Brother 2006, no less) but it is a firm one, and certainly here to stay, even if BB isn’t.

Yet, I was horrified to view an episode aired on the 12th January which had the housemates participating in a task which was clearly inspired by Milgram’s study of obedience.

To put this into context, a few years after World War Two and the atrocities of the Holocaust, people began asking why it was that the Nazis so readily obeyed orders and committed such atrocities in the concentration camps. They only conclusion that appeared to answer this uncomfortable question was to believe that ‘the Germans are different?. It simply wouldn’t happen anywhere else. Milgram, a psychologist from Yale University did not agree. He wanted to prove that this ?conclusion? was wrong, and that actually, obedience to authority is a depressingly human trait.

This notorious study (of which many variations followed) began in 1961. It entailed tricking participants into believing they were taking part in research which looked at the effect of learning in response to punishment.

Participants believed they were randomly selected to play the role of the “teacher” and the remaining participants to play the “learner” role. In actual fact, the learners were actors in the study. The “learner” (actor) was strapped into a chair, and connected to electrodes which would send increasing levels of electric currents through their body at the flick of a switch. The participant was given a “test” electric shock (of a very low voltage) to demonstrate that what they were administering was real. The teacher, viewing the learner through a window in another room, was instructed to ask a series of questions to the learner, and if a wrong answer was given, to activate the voltage. With every wrong answer the learner gave, the teacher was instructed by the “experimenter” to increase the voltage.

In reality, no shocks were administered. The actors were instructed to cry out in increasing amounts of pain, after certain levels of voltage, banging on the wall in desperation, begging for the experiment to stop and in some cases, crying that they had a heart condition. After a certain voltage, actors were instructed to stop responding all together.

Prior to the study, the experimenters themselves hypothesised that the majority of the participants would refuse to administer the shocks.

The results of this study were terrifying. Over 65 per cent of participants continued to administer the shocks, despite believing the learner was in great physical pain and fatally ill. Many of them tried to question the morality of the experiment and showed clear signs of stress. The experimenter gave standard responses: “the experiment requires you continue” or “you must continue” etc.  If a participant requested to stop the experiment four consecutive times, or administered the maximum voltage (450 volts)  repeatedly, the experiment was concluded and the participant was debriefed. Yet, only one participant actively refused to administer the shocks well before the 300 volt level.

Variations of the study has since been carried out, altering factors such as proximity (the experiment gives orders to the “teacher” over the phone),  surroundings (the surroundings the orders were given were less formal etc to see if this had any affect on the disobedience of the participants) etc. In all cases, the majority of participants continued to administer the shocks despite believing they were inflicting great pain which could be fatal.

Apart from the ethics of this experiment (although all participants were debriefed afterwards, many of them received counselling afterwards and were clearly traumatised), this study highlighted the weakness of the human condition.

And this study was partly replicated on big brother, only this time, housemates were really administered shocks. I am sure they were low-grade shocks and in no way dangerous, but as a viewer, witnessing the howls of pain from the housemates, it made uncomfortable viewing. Nevertheless, I continued to watch. (well, wouldn’t you?)

I wrote the following complaint to Big Brother on the same evening:

“I have just watched the 9pm show aired tonight, 12th January 2009. I was horrified to see that one of the tasks that Big Brother set up was clearly based on Milgram’s Study of obedience which looked into obedience to authority. In case, you are unfamiliar with this, let me enlighten you: participants were led to believe they were taking part in a study about punishment on learning, but actually, the ‘learners’ were actors. The ‘teachers’ (participants) were meant to administer increasing volumes of electric voltage each time the ‘learner’ got a answer wrong. Even though no electric shocks were administered, the findings were depressing, as the ‘teachers’ were under the impression that the ‘learners’ were in a lot of pain, but continued, on instruction, to administer the voltage. BB has clearly taken this as an inspiration and actually gone one step further and really administered electric shocks. While I am sure they were low-grade, it made my blood run cold, and I am disgusted that this was allowed on TV.

I enjoy watching BB (for my sins) but this has really horrified me.”

I received the following reply:

Dear Annie,

Thank you for contacting Channel 4 Viewer Enquiries regarding CELEBRITY BIG BROTHER.

The housemates’ wellbeing is always of paramount importance to the
production team, and at any point any housemate can come to the diary room, off camera, and talk to any member of the production team, psychologist, psychotherapist or doctor. BIG BROTHER’S number one priority is the celebrity’s health and safety and no one was put at risk.

Nevertheless, your comments were logged and passed on for the attention of
the producers of CELEBRITY BIG BROTHER.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact us.


Cody Adamson
Channel 4 Viewer Enquiries?

To which I have just replied:

“So you think this was perfectly acceptable to inflict physical pain on housemates, purely because they had the opportunity to ‘talk to any member of the production team’ about it?  I think that is a poor excuse, if an excuse at all.”

I doubt I will get a response to this. I sincerely hope they will receive a great many replies regarding this episode. Who knows.


Human rights, Reality TV