Pushed too far?

Derren Brown

Let me start with a warning: this post contains spoilers!

Yesterday, I watched Derren Brown’s latest show called ‘The Push’ on Netflix. It is another social experiment, just like most of Brown’s other shows. Remember the one where he played Russian Roulette? He got someone to put a bullet in one of the six chambers of a gun. He would try and deduce which chamber it was in, and point the gun at his head (and pull the trigger) if he thought that chamber did not contain the bullet. In that show, Brown was the one holding the gun and pulling the trigger.

‘The Push’ takes it one step further. In it, Brown asks whether it possible to manipulate a person into what can only be described as murder. Spoiler: it turns out you can, although not everyone is equally susceptible. And that’s important to understand. The show starts off by looking for people who are socially compliant: they will easily change their behaviour to ‘fit in’. The drive to fit in is a human drive, so it won’t come as a surprise that most people will have a certain level of social compliance. It’s just that some people have more of it, and Brown takes great care in finding exactly those people.

The selected candidates are then put in a situation where everything is set up for them to go down a slippery slope. It starts with presenting normal sausages as vegetarian sausages. It’s only a tiny thing if you’re not a vegetarian, I think, but I’m sure the producers of the show knew the candidates were not vegetarian.

But it gets worse, and it gets worse very fast. The events supposedly take place in the time frame of just over an hour. By the minute, the subject (which is probably a better term than ‘participant’) finds himself sinking away in a web of lies, even making himself complicit along the way. At one point, the subject is actually pressured to pass himself off as the deceased (who apparently was a bit of a recluse, so hardly anyone would know what he looks like).

It all leads up to the inevitable apotheosis. All the players find themselves on the rooftop of the building where everything takes place, when the subject is pressured to push (this is where the name comes from) a person off the roof. Everything that had happened thus far was carefully engineered to increase the chances of the subject doing what would be utterly unthinkable only hours earlier.

Like I said earlier, some people can be pushed to commit murder, but not everyone. Three out of four subjects push the victim and basically find themselves committing murder. Or so they think. All four of them are regular people, like you and me. During their “journey”, you can see them struggling with their inner moral compass. And yet, three of them succumb to the pressure.

Now, I have some trouble figuring out what to make of this. First of all, it’s TV. Anything you see on TV could have been manipulated. Especially reality TV shows are notorious for manipulating how events are presented. Important details could have been left out, and the order of events altered.

For all I know, in case of ‘The Push’, the subjects could have been actors, and I really, really hope they were. Because the alternative is abhorrent.

If these people were genuinely unaware they were being set up, then for a brief moment in their lives, they thought they had just murdered a man by pushing him off a building. For what may have been only 30 seconds or a minute, they believed they had committed an act that most would consider the worst anyone can do. Of course, they immediately knew what had happened when Brown himself walked on the roof, and informed them they’d only been a part of an experiment.

Watching the final bits of the show, I felt incredibly bad for the subjects. Here they were, pressured into committing a heinous act and thinking they had just killed someone. It made me feel sick. I was genuinely upset.

I understand the point Brown is trying to make. Social compliance is a part of being human. We all want to fit in and to be liked. Most of us, at least. And he wants to show what mindless compliance can lead to. It can lead to people killing in the name of a country, or a god, or some nutter like Charles Manson.

But did he really have to take it this far? I mean, in the case of his Russian Roulette game I referred to earlier, at least he was the one holding the gun and pulling the trigger. In ‘The Push’, he manipulated someone else to commit murder (or so they thought).

It turns out his Russian Roulette game was a hoax. He used blank ammunition, so he’d only be mildly injured if he’d accidentally “shot himself”. It would also be less traumatising for his helper. See this article: Police expose Derren Brown hoax.

So, chances are ‘The Push’ is also just a hoax. Or as we call it nowadays: a TV show. For the sake of the participants, I really hope they were actors who were in on the experiment. For it would be a nasty act indeed if he had put these people through a period in their lives, however brief it may have been, thinking they were murderers. That’s cruel and unnecessary and I don’t like it one bit.