You sit at one end of a row of people, watching a man who is standing, drumsticks in hand, over a drum positioned before him. When everyone is quiet, he slowly and deliberately beats the drum, three times. One, two, three.
The examiner in this famous Asch Experiment, watching from the corner of the room, asks each of you how many times the man beat the drum. Three times, you think. Easy. Except now, as people give their answers along the row, they’re all saying “Four”. Did they mishear?
At first it was funny, but now you’re confused. You replay the sound of the drum in your head – bang, bang, bang. It was only three times. How could everyone else have heard four?
When it comes to your turn, what answer do you give? Three? Four?
Despite what you know you heard, you’re very likely to agree with the group and say “Four”. Unaware that everyone else has been secretly primed to give the wrong answer, you are more concerned with fitting in than you are with saying what you know to be true.
In Pushed to the Edge, my new series for Channel 4, we set up an elaborate experiment to see how far this desire to conform and comply could be extended. Chris Kingston, who has no idea he’s being filmed, finds himself at a high-stakes event, surrounded by actors.
Unaware he’s taking part in a television show, he becomes a pawn in an elaborately fabricated social experiment. The goal is to answer one question: can social compliance be used to make a person push a living, breathing human being off a roof, seemingly to his death?
Few of us would like to think we could be manipulated into committing such an act. We have a strong sense of our moral threshold and know how far we can be pressurised. We have a clear-cut sense of how we would react in situations, which sadly bears little relation to what we actually do.
That’s because we can keep hold of our moral values yet behave in ways that contradict them. We’ll do anything to justify our behaviour to ourselves. Other people push into queues because they’re rude; we do it because we’re in a terrible rush and find ourselves in exceptional and forgivable circumstances.
How do you go about testing social compliance? An ex-faith healer gave me a good metaphor for how he managed to get his flock to part with so much money. When you boil a frog, he said, you can’t put it straight into hot water, or it’ll jump straight out. Put it comfortably in cold water, however, and you can slowly bring the pan to the boil.
To create Chris’s journey, we had to begin with the psychological equivalent of tepid water: an actor asks him near the start to mislabel some meat-filled sausage rolls as vegetarian. It’s an innocuous (but clearly wrong) start. What follows is a dark, frequently hilarious journey to a place where Chris is told to push a man to his death. And in the same way that we’re hopeless at predicting our own responses, this show defies expectations, too.
We live in a world where good people are made to do evil things, which shows how compliant we can be in the face of an ideology or a charismatic figure. Even at a social level, we go against our better instincts all the time: at a party we let ourselves down, saying things we shouldn’t and not saying things we should.
And at a deeper, private level there is a kind of compliance happening in the way we let others assume control of our life-narratives. Our parents hand us the script of their own unlived lives when we’re very young and we may never gain authorship for ourselves. It’s good to learn how to, because when we shut down areas of ourselves to comply with others’ wishes, we develop anxieties and pathologies.
Sometimes we need a strong emotional experience to teach us the value of honouring our own stories: to say “three” instead of “four” when we know “three” to be true. Chris was given such an experience. Hopefully, for some, the rollercoaster journey of this show will offer the same advantage.
Sometimes we need to push back.
Derren Brown: Pushed to the Edge airs Tuesday 12th January at 9pm on Channel 4