Thursday, 14 January 2016

Derren Brown – Good or Evil?

Much controversy has surrounded Derren Brown’s latest TV show: ‘Pushed to the Edge’. Here a member of the public is seemingly coerced to committing murder. Many took to Twitter to complain (as they always do!) that the show was cruel. Whilst it’s true such a psychology ‘experiment’ would not get ethical approval now, there is a great deal of research behind it looking at obedience to authority and social compliance.
The most famous example is a series of studies by Stanley Milgram at Yale University in 1960’s. These looked at whether a participant would deliver a life-threating electrical shock to a stranger under the guise of an experiment. As in Derren Brown’s show, stooges and a character in authority were used to lead the person through a series of small dishonest tasks until they were asked to take the ultimate step. In Milgram’s early studies the majority of people (average of 60%) pressed the button to administer a fatal electric shock.

Unsurprisingly, these results have been brought into question. The research can be seen as a response to the horrors of the world wars and a desire to ask why people may follow a cruel regime and commit atrocities. We like to think the past is a different world. Surely people are not that gullible now? Aren’t we more likely to question authority? The rise of extremism in certain areas of the world proves otherwise. It is chilling to note in ‘Pushed to the Edge’ the participant pushed a real life person off a rooftop. In the Milgram experiment the participant did not see the person they were ‘killing’.

It is heartening that not all the participants took this ultimate step. But don’t we all submit to authority without question in our lives? When we visit the doctor, follow orders from the police etc. Social conformity is a trait we all have to some degree. Studies by Solomon Asch in USA showed that people were more likely to give a wrong answer when this was proposed by others in the group (stooges). Whilst these human traits are characterised as ‘bad’, what is defined ‘good’ or ‘evil’ depends on the situation we find ourselves in. Something deemed bad may be adaptive in a different scenarios, e.g. zombie apocalypse (my favourite example!).

It is certainly true we should promote critical thinking to avoid the consequences of following evil people and ideologies but without the ability to conform humans would not have survived in social groups. We need to bear in mind our psychology has evolved for a reason – it served us well in the past!

Derren Brown’s replication of the Milgram experiment

British Psychological Society special issue on Milgram

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