I recently watched a special on Netflix called Derren Brown: The Push. For those who may not be familiar with Derren Brown, let me give you a brief introduction. Brown is a mentalist and illusionist from Britain. He's known for his stage and television programs in which he uses a combination of magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship to entertain his audience. One of his most controversial television moments was in 2003 when he played Russian Roulette live on television.
In The Push, Brown attempts to see how far he can push an unsuspecting member of the public to commit murder. It is an interesting premise and it was that premise that first caught my eye. Using the power of social coercion, Brown manipulates a man named Chris Kingston through a series of ever escalating events until Chris must decide whether or not he will push a man from a roof to his death. The events occur during a fundraiser for a fictional charity called "Push" to which Kingston is invited. From the moment that Kingston arrives, he is forced to choose again and again to either walk away or give into social coercion which takes him closer to the inevitable moment on the roof.
As I watched The Push, I was struck by how easy it was for Brown to manipulate his unsuspecting victim. Kingston was faced with one moral judgement after another. Although you can see him struggle with each decision, he continues to give in. When faced with the opportunity to walk away from a situation that he is clearly uncomfortable with, Kingston keeps disregarding his own reservations in order to follow the dubious lead of the actors playing their part in the scenario. I won't spoil the ending, but it is something that needs to be seen to believe.
I found the experiment to be fascinating and wondered how well I would fare in such a situation. It is easy to take the "I'm better than that" attitude, but I'm sure Chris felt the same way before he walked into the doors of the fictional fundraiser. Would my moral compass be strong enough to keep me on the straight and narrow in such a situation? I don't know. I guess it is something that no one can really know until faced with it.
The show speaks to the power of social manipulation and conformity. We all want to fit in, and all want to be a part of something greater than ourselves. At the end of the program, Brown urges viewers to push back against any group or ideology which seeks to manipulate through social conformity. It is sage advice from one who has proven that such power is real.
If you have a chance to catch Derren Brown: The Push on NetFlix, I don't think you'll regret it.