Audience Members as Second-Degree Subjects

In an experiment, you’re usually interested in the results—how does the experiment apply to the real world? In the last part of Slater’s chapter about Milgram’s experiment, Slater notes how it is difficult to come up with any conclusions from the experiment. The laboratory situation is artificial, the experience was choreographed, so “the experiment does little to predict how a man’s choices in the lab will translate into choices outside the lab” (56). Instead, the author focuses on the “pedagogical power” (57) the experiment has over its subjects. For instance, “Jacob Plumfield” was obedient in the experiment, but he became more rebellious for the rest of his life because he was so shocked by his actions in the experiment. The results of the experiment became a trigger, a wake-up moment that caused him to be more conscious of his obedience to authority figures.

While the chapter focused on the experiment’s pedagogical power over its subjects, I think that both Milgram’s experiment and The Push have a similar pedagogical power over their audiences—the people who hear and read about Milgram’s experiment, and the people who watch The Push. Even though these people did not take part in the staged murder, they are still affected by the experiments and can still experience moments of revelation, on a smaller scale, that cause them to reevaluate obedience. Milgram’s experiment and The Push both deal with murder, which makes the experiment personal to people who were not subjects. When you learn about the experiments, you can’t help but apply the results to your own life, wondering what your own behavior would be and asking yourself, “What would I do?” Like “Jacob Plumfield,” you start to become conscious of your own obedience. In fact, the experiment is made even more personal by the style of the writing in Slater’s chapter. Slater describes the experiment with vivid language, using second-person pronouns and present tense, as if the reader is the participant: “You’re starting to shake. You feel wet crescents under your armpits. You turn to the the experimenter. ‘Okay,’ you say. ‘I guess we gotta stop. He wants out.’”(31). Thus, if we consider pedagogical power to be the significant result of the experiments, then we could also view the audiences as second-degree subjects, because viewers and readers are shocked by the results and immediately relate the results to their own lives.

In fact, The Push seems to rely on the audience as second-degree subjects, since it was made for television. The Push seemed unethical to me because it manipulated people into doing horrific deeds that they will never forget. But I also thought it was unethical because the horror seemed like a ploy to get good TV ratings, and to show the audience an experiment that feels personal. I felt manipulated by Derren Brown, as if he were trying to make me uncomfortable on purpose. Indeed my discomfort prompted me to reflect on my own relationship to authority, but I felt like an experiment subject who had not agreed to be part of an experiment.

Social experiments do not necessarily need consent. During class presentations, some of our social experiments also experimented with the audience as second-degree subjects—for instance, the editing of the Terrence the Toucan video played with our expectations of genre. However, The Push relies on horror to manipulate not only its subjects but also its audience members, with a goal of good TV ratings instead of pedagogical power. Of course, there are also ethical issues for Milgram’s experiment, but The Push makes an experiment that feels even more sensationalized.

Note: Cited Slater page numbers are the numbers in the PDF, since there are no book page numbers.

One thought on “Audience Members as Second-Degree Subjects

  1. I like your idea that the viewers of The Push are second-hand experimental subjects, but I don’t think I agree that it’s unethical to use them in that way. I think the special did frame itself as pedagogical, and while I’m not sure it was successful at achieving that, I don’t think it’s unethical to create discomforting TV. From the end of the viewers, the special doesn’t seem that different to me than, say, a disturbing scripted series. I agree that it’s unethical in how it treats the participants seen on-screen, but I don’t think that can be extended to its treatment of viewers.


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