Analysis: “Pushed to the Edge” -Derren Brown

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.

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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.

Ethical Implications

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.

 

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What has blogging ever done for me? : The benefits of writing for a non-academic audience

The short answer to this question is lots! As for the slightly longer answer, I have been blogging for just under 3 years and the impact has been far greater than I ever anticipated. Blogging has influenced my own research design and funding applications, helped foster new collaborations and has increased my engagement with stakeholders and policy makers. Additionally, blogging has improved my confidence in writing for non-scientific audiences, which is important for clearly communicating research with the main beneficiaries of my work (for me this means writing for a general audience of smokers and drinkers.). Below I share some of the most satisfying and beneficial experiences I have had blogging.

 
Impact on Research
I have previously blogged and written about research within my own area of interest and expertise -the cognitive and behavioural effects of alcohol use. However, one of the best experiences I have had blogging is writing about research topics that I am less familiar with. I wrote two pieces for the Guardian blog “Sifting the Evidence” on the science of hangovers and the genetic basis of hangover. I really enjoyed writing these blogs and investigating a new body of research. Writing the blogs also made me aware that alcohol hangover was an important, but poorly understood and under-investigated research area. These blogs were the starting point of a new stream of research for me, including; the development of a new collaboration and the submission of funding applications. To date I have submitted a large grant application (unfortunately unsuccessful) and a PhD studentship (Successful!). I am delighted that in September this year I will have a PhD student working on a fully funded studentship examining the cognitive effects of hangover. As a results of the hangover blogs I have also developed an international collaboration. I will be attending the annual meeting of the Alcohol Hangover Research Group in New Orleans to meet my research collaborator and other individuals working on alcohol hangover.

 
Links to Further Public Engagement Activities
Several of the blogs I have written have also led to further opportunities for public engagement and science communication. For example the blogs on hangover led to several local and national radio interviews. In general blogging has increased my profile as an academic who is engaged in science communication. I now have a good relationship with the press office at my university and I am regularly contacted to speak about alcohol-related stories in the media. For me, public engagement is one of the most rewarding and enjoyable activities I do as an academic. Blogging has improved my confidence in public speaking and increased my appetite for further public engagement. Since blogging I have become actively involved with the public engagement unit of my university; receiving funding to engage smokers and drinkers in my research, presenting to other academics on the benefit of engagement and starting my own health-related blog.

 

Engaging with Policy Makers                                                                                    A blog that I wrote on the availability of alcohol at motorway service stations led to an invite to a consultation meeting of alcohol sales at the Home Office. This was a fantastic opportunity to present research at a meeting of stakeholders and policy makers. This invite was directly related to the blog and demonstrates the potential that blogging has to reach not only the general public but policy makers too.

 
Conclusions
For academics and students I can’t think of a better recommendation for a New Year’s Resolution than to start blogging. For me blogging not only represents an opportunity to engage a wider audience with research, it is an enriching and informative activity for personal and research development. Happy New Year and Happy Blogging!