'The Push' through the eyes of a scientist

| Michaela Nesvarova

We binge-watch one Netflix show after another, we devour movies and games. Often, it is little more than mindless entertainment. Sometimes, however, it raises scientific questions. Pop culture viewed through the eyes of a scientist. In this episode, Peter de Vries, assistant professor at the department of Psychology of Conflict, Risk, & Safety, offers his view on the show ‘The Push’ (2016) by mentalist Derren Brown. If you haven’t watched this show, beware of spoilers!

The plot

Would a regular reasonable person murder another human being? Your answer might be a stern ‘no’, but in the show ‘The Push’, the English mentalist Derren Brown proves otherwise. Brown uses the power of social compliance and careful manipulation, to try and persuade (preselected) members of the public to push a person off the roof.

The film allows you to watch as the illusionist stages a highly thought-through experiment using real people who are completely unaware of what is actually going on. He invites the ‘participants’ to a big charity event supported by a rich sponsor Bernie. All that the participants see and experience is meticulously prepared – there are hundreds of actors, even famous celebrities are involved to give the charity a stamp of validity –, and all of it is meant to eventually convince them to murder Bernie.

Shockingly enough, three out of the four participants do it. They are led to believe that they’ve just pushed Bernie off a building. (Don’t worry, the actor playing Bernie is caught by the safety line he is attached to.) In this show, nothing was left to chance.

First impression

De Vries: ‘I was rather shocked. When we conduct research we require an ethical approval, we can’t ask people to do too much. In this show, Derren Brown puts people through a lot. He uses a lot of little manipulations to ensure that the participants are willing to follow orders and actually kill someone. This would never be allowed for research purposes and rightfully so. The results of the “experiment” were also shocking, but I was continually wondering about the ethical element. Imagine what it would do to you if you realized that you just pushed someone to their death. I hope they had a therapist on standby. I’m wondering how they were allowed to make the show. Because for the participants it’s not a show, it’s real.’  

Realism / feasibility

‘It’s important to remember that the participants were specifically selected because in a seemingly unrelated test taken quite some time before ‘the Push’ they’d exhibited a high level of social compliance. There is therefore the question to what degree these results hold for the general population. That three out of four participants did it doesn’t mean that 75% of population would do the same. However, the main point that Brown aims to make stands: ordinary people sometimes do horrible things.’

‘The show links nicely to some famous psychological experiments. In Milgram’s obedience studies in the 1970’s, test subjects were led to believe they had to give electroshocks to another person, a confederate, to increase the latter’s performance in a learning task. Many of them proceeded giving the shocks even to levels that could in principle be lethal. In fact, 65% of the subjects went up to the lethal voltage, but only when they were informed that doing so was essential for the experiment to succeed. Direct orders to increase voltage were not successful. This shows that people can be brought to do horrible things under certain circumstances. There has also been a recent replication of the famous Stanford prison experiment. This showed that people can be made to do horrible things, again if they believe that it is the right thing to do. They need to believe that they are doing something for the greater good. This also happens in “The Push”. The charity plays a key role in it all. If the rich guy decided to withdraw his support, the charity would be in danger and it is therefore necessary to get rid of him.’

‘Derren Brown uses a lot of persuasion tricks to make people do what he wants. One of them is so called “foot in the door”. You first ask the subject for a small favour, and because people tend to be consistent, they will be more likely to comply with your target request later on. In this case: murdering someone.’ 

‘Moreover, throughout the show the charity slogan “Whatever it takes” is constantly hammered in. In the end, the participants need to do “whatever it takes” to save the charity. Another important element Brown uses is peer pressure. Social pressure can be very influential and the participants are eventually being convinced by their peers to commit the murder. Likability played its part as well. For example, one of the actors introduces himself with the same last name as the test subject. You are more likely to listen to someone if you like them, if you feel even the slightest connection with them. However, the results were so surprising for me that it’s hard to say why exactly the people did it. It was most likely the combination of all these tricks.’