Ethics of Public Disruption

While it is clear at this point that there is no requirement for a review board if an experiment is made to entertain, I believe that doesn’t mean experiments should be free of ethics.  While it is impossible to understand the exact impact of an experiment there is always a way to ensure that the intent of the experiment is not malicious. While watching the Push documentary I feel as if the show failed to create an effective experiment and skirted the boundaries of what is ethical.

The worst offense of the documentary for me was the intent and the methodology they used while setting up the experiment. From the get-go, they focused on individuals who already displayed a willingness to follow orders simply because they are told to. In fact, they specifically decline one applicant because she is not as compliant as they hoped for their contestant. This undermines the final point of the show, that most people would be complicit in following orders because they had already chosen people who would demonstrate their outcome. Which could be excused by the fact that it’s a show made to entertain, their premise may be to show that it’s possible to convince at least one person not the majority of the population. What invalidates this is the final scene of the documentary with Derren Brown attempting to make some moral point about how we all have to stay vigilant about ourselves or else we could be convinced to act against our personality as well.

This leaves me with the impression that this was Brown’s attempt at making some grand flashy artistic statement and not to raise some point about human nature. In my opinion, this wasn’t so much of an experiment and more of some form of performance art. Instead of trying to prove that most people are susceptible to social pressure, they succeeded at demonstrating that a few people from a cooperate focused world are susceptible to social pressure.

5 thoughts on “Ethics of Public Disruption

  1. Darren Brown’s show is definitely yet another example of the toxicity of “Reality” TV and the manipulations that goes on behind the scenes. In a way, it’s interesting that they talk about the girl who was declined for being too willful, as that itself seems to obviously disqualify the whole thing as an experiment, thus taking away what I view as the possible reasoning for this whole scheme. Without the reasoning that it is an objective experiment (where the word “experiment” entails that the project follows certain standards for experiments such as having enough/a variety of test subjects so as to represent the population at large), this project seems to me like torture. Or bullying. Pick your word for the sadistic, trauma-inducing act.

    This brings up questions not only of what it means that this is “entertainment,” but also what it means that, were this given an experiment reason, we would have been okay with it. “Oh, it’s for science” and all that.

    It really makes me realize that when conducting social experiments on real people, we have to think about what we can learn from it, what the subject can learn from it, and if either of those are really worth it enough for the amount of danger that the experiment has as a result of its inherent power structure.

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  2. Thank you for noting the fact that potential experiment subjects who may act contrary to the expected results are excluded from the experiment. It indicates to me that Brown’s experiment is far from a scientific one–that rather than demonstrating something widely applicable, the Push seems to aim at bringing people’s attention to the extent to which an individual can be pushed. I wonder if one of the differences between scientific and artistic experiments can be articulated as such: that while scientific experiments ascertain boundaries, artistic experiments may challenge such boundaries and blur the border between “normal” and “extreme”. Yet the knowledge of where boundaries lie often involves carrying subjects to extremes–does this indicate that scientific and artistic experiments can be interchangeable?

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  3. I agree with a lot of this. I think that, whatever you may say about the social experiment itself, the methodology certainly does not leave the experiment with any sort of external validity. That is to say, it is completely not generalizable. The participants were specifically sorted based on likelihood of compliance, so the 3/4 rate would only be applicable to those who are on the high end of the submission scale out of hundreds of potential participants. This is a failure to account of preceding variables, and the conclusion also assumes that there are no external variables which confound social compliance. The show is clearly made for the purposes of entertainment, but it does not carry with it any sort of scientific heft that the Milgram experiment did in the 60s (which also had its own issues). It is tricky when you are trying to engage with legitimate scientific concepts and designs for the purposes of entertainment, but this Darren Brown piece seemed to do so without adequately noting the restrictions and caveats.

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  4. I think you bring up great points in that it was pretty catered and they got a very specific group to participate in this experiment. I also agree that it was a very unethical undertaking. At the same time, though, I think the point that Brown makes is very important. Whether or not he had the perfect execution to demonstrate this shouldn’t invalidate the sentient behind the experiment. Murder is probably in the furthest extremes that demonstrate societal pressure and it is very easy to critically view any experiment that goes to that end. However, there are other dangerous instances of societal pressure that are not as extreme that many are susceptible to. People say things they don’t believe, vote in favor of things they disagree with, even listen to music they don’t like. I suppose the point I want to hammer down on is that even if Brown’s experiment is a problematic one, it shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that we are not susceptible to social pressure (not that I think that’s what you were saying, just something I fear can happen to people that view this).

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  5. I couldn’t agree more. The thing about Darren Brown is that his shows are presented as grand “experiments,” but the fact of the matter is what he’s doing is mostly for entertainment. If we are to accept Brown’s shows as legitimate depictions of him seemingly traumatizing folks, then perhaps there needs to be an increased awareness of the fact that he’s an illusionist, a showman first and foremost. And that completely undermines the point he claims he is trying to make in these experiments.

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