Psychological Perspectives of Social Compliance

For my blog post I wanted to focus on the psychological underpinnings brought forth in Derren Brown’s Netflix Special, The Push and to highlight psychological studies that could offer a supplementary understanding of the social phenomena of social compliance. Derren Brown’s The Push was a social experiment in social compliance aiming to manipulate four unsuspecting people to succumb to social pressure with the ultimate goal of leading them to commit murder. While this notion of making someone push an innocent stranger off a building ledge seemed quite farfetched, the show explains the several small acts of obedience that made such behavior possible. The most vital element to social compliance is the feeling of subordination to the authority figure. Once an establishment of lower authority is made among the person and the person with higher authority, they are increasingly more likely to comply.

An understanding of hierarchy is social hierarchy is understood across species, and has been heavily analyzed in animal behavioral research. One such species are Rhesus monkeys. An example of how embedded social hierarchy is within this species comes from lineage. In a community of monkeys, an infant born into an alpha matriline has a higher rank than a third-generation lower ranking elder monkey. As such, throughout the community, it is internalized by the lower ranking monkey and communicated across the entire colony. Hierarchy also plays a key role in Derren Brown’s The Push. The subject being observed was not told that the event is a black-tie dress code and showed up in business casual attire. Such a minor detail was the first building block to establish his sense of lower authority. With lower authority comes higher compliance. Just as a lower ranking older monkey will displace themselves, the act of moving from their location to allow an alpha line newborn to take its place, the subjects in The Push began to follow orders without questioning the acts of the experimenter who had established higher authority over them.

While watching this Netflix Special, I recalled the well-known social psychology study conducted by Stanley Milgram which involved obedience to authority figures. In this study, participants were asked to send an electrical shock to a stranger in another room with only the knowledge that this was the scientist’s instructions. Entering the scientist’s environment, the subjects already established lower authority to them. The takeaway from this study was that participants found themselves complicit in sending an electrical signal which they were fully aware would be lethal, ultimately bringing further evidence to the reality of social compliance.

An interesting statement that Derren Brown said in the closing of the Netflix Special was that, “It’s like we’re handed someone else’s script of how to live, but to carry out their beliefs and achieve their ambitions.” I felt that this statement, resonated well with our Alternate Reality Games class. In reference to performativity and improvisation. The utilization of hierarchy can be highly influential in an ARG and players can feel various levels of performativity that can be quite different from their own beliefs. In the reading, ‘This Is Not a Game’: Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play, Jane McGonigal delves into the lingering effects of immersion which, “leads players to neglect important aspects of their normal lives” (McGonigal, 5). This analogous reference to the term we previously learned, bleed, could be interpreted in the understanding of social compliance. The experience of bleed and social compliance both are associated with not being able to separate one’s own beliefs and rather remain in a different state of performance character. In the bleed sense, they have not let their character go, and in social compliance, they are performing a more compliant version of who they usually are.

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