I did not know what to make of this show and whether I want to watch it or not when I saw it added on Netflix, but I am glad I did even though the whole thing shocked me.
Basically, Derren Brown is a British magician and a sociologist exploring social pressure and social conformism and in that he goes to the extreme. He shows us how people copy behaviour of others to fit in. However, he also shows us how slowly but steadily people can be convinced and pushed to commit unspeakable acts such as murder due to social pressure. Thus, he sets up an experiment by carefully selecting candidates who will conform to social pressure to explore how far will they go.
Before the actual participants were selected, we first saw three actors filling an application to participate in the show. They were instructed to stand up and sit down every time they hear a bell. Other candidates were brought in one by one and they slowly copied behaviour of three actors while smiling uncomfortably because they were not sure what they were doing. Those who did not conform to that behaviour were taken out and excluded from the show. Shockingly, even after three actors leave the room participants continue to act based on the bell sound and thus they sit down and get up when they hear the bell.
Based on this behaviour, four candidates were selected and we start watching a show with a man called Chris hired to work at a charity gala without knowing he is participating in the experiment. Main donor fakes a stroke and allegedly dies and Chris is being convinced by one of the organisers to commit a whole series of unspeakable acts such as not insisting on calling the emergency, taking the body to the back room and then putting it in the coffin, then pretending that he is the donor because majority of people do not know how he looks like, etc. Ultimately, he is even asked to push Bernie of the building and thus commit an even more unspeakable act of a murder just to save his own skin so that nobody finds out what he did previously. At the end we also see other three shortlisted candidates asked to do the same. Three out of four candidates commit a murder (they believe they have done it) because other person told them to do so.
The show is a very important sociological and psychological lesson packed in an entertainment package. While we could complain to the fact there was no informed consent to conduct this experiment and that people were caused distress as well as possibly PTSD since the show went live, the show gives us an important lesson. It shows us how easily people conform to fit in and what people are willing to do not to get caught or to be accepted. I am pleased that the show like this has been made because it will attract viewers who otherwise would not watch it, i.e. if it was a documentary on social conformism for example. It is really not difficult to explain why people support extreme political options and why they can stand aside and look at others suffering without doing anything when you see something like this.
This is not the first time that participants were used for an experiment like this, just that this time it was also televised to show wider society what happens when people conform to social pressure. For example, a famous case is the Milgram Experiment from the 1960s where people were tested to see how they respond to authority by receiving electric shocks when they got something wrong. There is a film vividly portraying this experiment too.
Another example is The Stanford Prison Experiment conducted in 1971 at Stanford University where a group of participants was paid to participate in a research study where some of them had to be prisoners and some of them had to be prison guards. In that experiment, participants were subjected to psychological torture and violence and some participants broke down because they were not sure whether they are in the study or the experience is real. The study was meant to last for two weeks but it was discontinued after only six days due to brutality of guards and psychological damage caused to participants playing the role of prisoners. There is also a film portraying this experience.
The question is how to address social conformism and what can be done to overcome this issue? For one, I think that we need to value research informed education more than we currently do because only research informed education creates an ability to be a critical thinker and to think and act independently. Only research informed education gives one an ability to solve complex problems too. By talking about research informed education I do not mean that this should be present only in higher education (it goes without saying that every University should inform teaching with research or there would be no difference between colleges of further education and Universities), I also mean education preceding higher education. Instead of pandering to ever lowest attention span, this should be addressed by forcing children to read and write critical essays as much as possible and discuss ideas with them. That way even people who choose not to continue their education towards a higher education degree would be critical thinkers and this would inevitably create a better society. Hopefully, it would create a society where people would not feel the need to fit in no matter what, but a society where people would be able to say ‘so what if they don’t like me, I know I have a value and I will find those who like me and spend my time with them’. Or, even better, ‘I’ll rather be disliked and unaccepted than someone I do not want to be’. Even more importantly, it would hopefully create a society where people would not feel intimidated to say ‘hey, that’s wrong. I am not taking part in that’.
Thank you for reading.