The electrifying power of game show hosts

Unwitting participants in a scientific study were egged on to inflict pain on contestants in a fake TV show

It seems there's almost nothing we won't do – up to and including torturing someone – as long as a game-show host says it is all right, according to a new scientific study. TV personalities such as Davina McCall and Ant and Dec are now such powerful influences on our lives that game-show participants are prepared to inflict cruelty and pain on each other for the cameras.

Psychologists set up a dummy TV studio, complete with a crew, cameras, lighting, warm-up comedians, makeup artists, an audience of 100, a host played by a TV weather girl, and an array of fake electrical switches labelled "dangerous".

At the start of the game show, and in front of everyone, a fake contestant was strapped to a chair inside a sealed container. A second contestant, the subject of the experiment, then went to another part of the studio with the host.

This contestant asked the fake contestant, who could be heard but not seen, a series of 27 questions. Every time they gave an incorrect answer, the questioner had to deliver what they were told would be an electric shock. In fact, all the switches were fakes. The "shocks" ranged between 20 and 460 volts, and were to be increased by 20 volts with each new mistake. The questioner had an array of switches with labels ranging from 20 volts to "danger: severe shocks". The contestant got 24 out of 27 questions wrong.

As the voltage of the "shocks" increased, the faked audible reactions of the contestant changed. Grunts were followed by loud cries of pain accompanied by refusal to continue, then screams and pleas to stop the game.

If the questioner refused to go on, the host intervened, saying: "Don't let yourself get upset," and "Go on, we are taking all responsibility for this."

Eight of 10 questioners were prepared to keep on zapping. There was no difference between men and women, or between the young and old. But obedience rates dropped dramatically if the host left the stage, with only 28 per cent continuing.

The study, reported in the Revue Européenne de Psychologie Appliquée, outlines how the questioners were willing to carry on, even after a member of the team posing as a production assistant rushed on to the stage shouting for the game to be stopped because it was too immoral.

The researchers, from the University of Paris and other centres, concluded: "It has long been known that television, and so television hosts, had influence on viewers – and we suspected they could also have prescriptive power for ordering people's behaviour, including cruel and immoral behaviours, but until now it had never been shown."