Social experiments in the name of entertainment

Man standing on roof

Last night I collapsed in front of the TV and found myself watching Derren Brown front his latest social experiment in the name of entertainment on Channel 4.   Could he persuade somebody to push another human being off a roof.   The premise being you can manipulate, or coerce somebody into doing pretty much anything.   Known as social compliance the theory is that given the right set of circumstances we will pretty much do anything we are told to, eventually.

In last night’s programme is started with asking somebody to label sausage rolls as vegetarian despite knowing they were not.   Now this is where it all started to go wrong for me.  And from there it just got more and more uncomfortable.    Everybody in this scenario was in on the experiment except (we are led to believe) the sap with the veggie flags in his hand.

From there the manipulation of him just got worse, to the point where a supposed millionaire benefactor has a heart attack in front of him and dies, apparently.    Our puppet is then coerced into bundling him into a wooden trunk to hide the fact he has died before pretending to be him at a charity auction.


This is the bit that makes me shake my head.   For entertainment.   For our viewing “pleasure”.  For Channel 4 to sell ads to the highest bidder.    Meanwhile we have a puppet looking like he is about to pass out because of what he has done, a bloke in a crate and woman sitting on top for comedy effect when she says her shoes are killing her.

We know that social compliance exists.   There have been experiments done on it for decades.   Milgram was doing it in the 60s.   Asking 40 volunteers to administer an electric shock whenever a person they could not see being questioned got the question wrong.   No such shock was delivered but the volunteers didn’t know that.   They also didn’t know that the screams were not real but pre-recorded.

Listening back to the experiment now is horrific.   The volunteers talked for years after that day about how it had scarred them mentally forever.   How they had not realised that they could be manipulated in that way.  In a way that would allow them to be so brutal.   The questioned themselves relentlessly for years.

Last night’s experiment ended with somebody being pushed off a roof seemingly to his death, his safety harness out of shot of the women who pushed him.   (as an aside what would have happened if that harness had snapped and the bloke HAD fallen to his death.   That would be an interesting court case).    How do those women feel now?  Presumably they must have agreed to the show being aired after they were advised what was going on.  But deep down how do they feel about their actions that night?

How will they feel about Derren Brown in forty years when they look back on it?  As we do now on what Milgram did?   Yes I am sure Derren Brown’s team have done their homework into the mental stability of these volunteers but how can you really tell if somebody is strong enough to acknowledge they were capable of pushing a man to his death?   That could destroy a person.  Maybe not now but maybe at 3am in 20 years, how do we know?

We didn’t learn anything last night.   The theory is a well known one so nothing new came to light in the programme. This programme wasn’t at all scientific.    Derren Brown has just proved what we have known all along.   That TV channels will do just about anything for the sake of entertainment.

And that makes me very uncomfortable indeed

photo of man standing on roof courtesy of shutterstock

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