Last week saw new Derren Brown Project “Pushed to the Edge” aired on Channel 4. I am asked by the Sunday Times to offer my thoughts on the show. In particular the ethical implications and the contribution of the show to our understanding of social compliance. Below is a summary of my take on the show as an experimental psychologist.
Psychologists study compliance as a form of social influence, to understand why we conform or “comply” with requests, when asked. Derren Brown’s “Pushed to the Edge” is based on classic experiments in social psychology where aspects of an individual’s environment are manipulated and compliance is measured, albeit an extreme form of this. As a psychologist I was very interested in the techniques of social influence used such as “foot in the door technique” to manipulate compliance. I was equally shocked at the extremity of the requests made to participants, especially the overarching demand to push a man to his death.
Psychologists have been studying compliance for over 50 years. The experiment carried out is very similar to previous studies of social compliance, showing that individuals can be manipulated to comply with very extreme requests. The ecological validity or real-life value of this experiment is limited as the programme manipulated many aspects of the situation. For example participants were chosen for their ability to readily conform and every aspect of the experiment was highly controlled.
For me the experiment was reminiscent of the infamous Milgram (1963) experiment, where participants were asked to administer electric shocks to another person, believing they were causing pain, distress or even death. Participants were instructed “the experiment requires you to continue” as a method of inducing compliance. This experiment is historically regarded as a classic example of compliance. However, the experiment is more readily thought of as a cautionary tale of deception and unethical treatment of participants.
In the “Pushed to the Edge” experiment deception played a huge role in getting participants to believe that they were dragging and hiding a dead body and in the case of three participants kicking an unconscious man and pushing him to his death. Whilst deception is used in psychological experiments to get at “hidden truths”, levels of deception are evaluated, usually by an ethics committee to ensure that participants are not exposed to distress or harm. It is likely participants in “Pushed to the Edge” were debriefed about the true nature of the study, however it is not clear if consent was given by participants to be exposed to such a potentially distressing scenario that could cause psychological harm. If “Pushed to the Edge” had been proposed to an ethics committee, it is highly unlikely it would have been approved due to the level of deception and potential for harm to participants.
Contribution of the Experiment
The show used many known psychological techniques for inducing compliance, as I mentioned before the “foot in the door” technique, where by agreeing to a small request increases the chance of later agreeing to a larger demand. This technique works by establishing consistency in agreeing to the multiple requests. Derren also used celebrities and the lead actor as authority figures to endorse compliance, particularly in the video with the repetition of the phrase “whatever it takes…push”. This is line with research showing that compliance is more likely, when requested by an authority figure.
The results were perhaps not surprising to me as a psychologist. Out of the four participants, 3 out of 4 complied with the final overarching request “to push”. This is consistent with laboratory experiments of compliance, especially the Milgram study where around two thirds of participants provided electric shocks to another person to a threshold at which they believed caused extreme pain or death.