Lack of Alternatives in Experiments

While I watched Push, I tried to envision myself in the position of the experiment subject (Chris) and asked myself what actions I may perform if I were pushed like he was. I found myself incapable of not agreeing to do the menial social tasks (like picking up a bag or transferring a coat to somewhere else)—as the alternative, not agreeing to do them, would be “rude” and “disruptive”. I also found it hard to not comply to some of the tasks that directly challenged moral standards—as what may happen if I do not comply is not known as clearly, while what may happen if I agree seemed planned out by Tom already. Even at the end, where Chris disagrees to push, it is after an alternative is mentioned by Eugene (you may push or leave). I suspect that knowledge of an alternative solidified Chris’s active choice to preserve the man’s life. Darren Brown narrates that the experiment subjects must feel as if “they have no alternative but to push”—and I think the lack of knowledge of what will happen if one chooses to perform what was alternative to the action suggested did contribute to the subjects being pushed to perform certain actions.

On reflection, I noted that such apparent “lack of alternative” is constructed—there is no real reason why one needs be polite to and trust someone with greater financial power, or why there needs to be greater and lesser financial powers at all. There is always more than one alternative, while the ones suggested by social norms are by no means more guaranteed for success than those suggested by our own instincts. Social compliance happens when only some possibilities are voiced and noted—leading to one’s temporary forgetting of there being more possibilities, or temporary belief that such alternates suggest bleaker futures. That the noting of other possibilities outside what is suggested may contribute to an active breaking away from social compliance may be cited to support the positive social impact of ARGs, while the Cloudmakers’ actions after 9/11 proves the fact that alternate reality games provide different outlooks on reality, and hence inform players of possible ways to treat social issues other than those usually taken up by society.

Yet from the experiment our group constructed I noted that a limitation of possibilities is required if one wishes to experiment. If one does not limit the variables a participant can be influenced by and hence the range of possible actions they may choose from, one will not be able to determine the particular variables that had influenced the subject’s actions, or whether the subject’s actions are informed by variables the hypothesis described. Hence, like situations in which subjects are pushed to conform to social expectations, experiments construct a similar “reality” in which only certain possibilities are pronounced, where it is hard to the subject to imagine the outcome from other possibilities and hence be pushed to choose from the possibilities given. This, to me, adds to the reason for a debriefing after experiments—subjects, noting the possibilities the experiment deliberately gives them, also learns how the experiment covers other possibilities and hence re-orient themselves outside the rules of the experiment.  

One thought on “Lack of Alternatives in Experiments

  1. As you mention, Derren Brown could only create the illusion of “no alternative.” This failed in Chris’s case, because Chris did seem to have a choice at the end between pushing and leaving (and supposedly going to prison). I think his earlier decision to not kick Bernie made him feel like he had more of a choice than the other subjects. Since the other subjects kicked Bernie, they were threatened with assault by the other actors, so leaving would allow Bernie to press charges. If you really care about your criminal record, the threat of jail helps take away the option of leaving. On the other hand, Chris’s crime was less clear. The other actors seemed to scramble to come up with a legal threat, talking about fraud because Chris had read Bernie’s speech—this does not seem as criminal as kicking someone in the stomach. Brown did not want Chris to feel like he had a choice, but previous decisions allowed Chris more freedom for his final decision.


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