What would it take for you to push someone off a building to their death? Can small, seemingly insignificant compromises lead to horrible actions which you would have considered unthinkable a few choices before? Are there social pressures and psychological techniques that can lead you to abandon your most sacred moral values? These are some of the questions raised in Derren Brown’s Netflix special, The Push.
What Are We Capable Of?
While caution and parental guidance is strongly encouraged due to the use of inappropriate language and disturbing content, The Push poses important social and personal considerations. It is a demonstrative indicator of the power of societal pressures and the price of free-floating morals. It serves as a catalyst for a worthwhile conversation on what humans, left to our own personal moral flexibility, are capable of.
Lessons from History
A few years ago, Andy Andrews asked similar questions in his book, “How Do You Kill 11 Million People?” His approach was to consider the atrocities of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong and others. It is far too simple to write-off the atrocities of the Holocaust and Hitler’s Blitzkriegs or the mass murder of innocent people by communist regimes to individual leaders. The truth is, Hitler didn’t personally kill 11 million people – not even close. Stalin wasn’t alone when ten to twenty million died from execution or starvation under Soviet communism. Mao needed a lot of help when he oversaw the death of up to 45 million of his own people under Chinese communism.
Going with the Flow
Sadly, somehow, someway, average ordinary people were convinced they were doing the right thing by carrying out the commands and actions of these evil people. It is easy to blow it off and think that we would never make such horrible and devastating choices, but Derren Brown has done an admirable job of shattering this illusion and forcing us to question the accuracy of our self-assuredness.
The premise and procedure of The Push is simultaneously intriguing and disturbing: Is it possible – using a series of seemingly harmless tasks and social pressure – to get a peace-loving ordinary, generally-nice person to the point where they are willing to push someone off a roof over the course of 90 minutes? Without spoiling the ending, the research subjects certainly go further than they would have ever imagined. The setting is a faux fundraiser for a very important cause. Everyone except for the subjects are in on the ruse.
Here are some of interesting elements of the journey:
Pre-Disposition to Conformity
The process to select the subjects was very intentional. Candidates who chose not to follow the crowd were immediately eliminated. The candidates had to not only show a willingness to follow societal expectations, but also had to be willing to compromise and be generally agreeable even if it required a small lie.
By the Inch it’s a Cinch
Brown doesn’t simply walk up to the contestants and ask them to throw someone off a building. Instead, he starts with very simple tasks that are slightly deceptive yet can easily be justified through the idea of yielding to a higher authority or a higher purpose.
One of the psychological elements Brown uses places each subject in a position of social disadvantage. There are videos of well-known celebrities talking about their admiration of the cause and explaining how important it is. Brown also does not tell the subject that the event is black-tie. As a result, subjects are dressed casually leading them to feel less important than the other attendees and more disposed to to follow the crowd. It’s like an adult version of follow the leader.
By incorporating celebrities – as mentioned above – and a steady refrain of “it’s for the children,” Brown’s colleagues inject the subjects with the conviction that the ends justify the means. If the subject needs to tell a little lie, or do something a little unethical, it is okay because it is for a higher, much more important purpose. The air of excitement and obvious commitment of the other attendees to the cause only add to that conviction.
The name of the faux organization, the brochures, the posters on the wall, and celebrity endorsements all deliver a persistent chorus of “Push – Whatever it takes”. By the time the subject make the decision about whether or not to push the innocent person off the building, they have heard this phrase over and over again. It was even repeated by others as the subject was making their final choice.
One area that was completely ignored by Brown and the show producers was that of the subject’s moral compass. Viewers are given little indication of the subject’s upbringing, religious beliefs or philosophical stands. It would be interesting to know how these fundamental values impacted the outcome. Is it possible that those with the firmest moral codes were excluded on the front-end and therefore never made it to the actual test?
We can learn a lot about evaluating the process and techniques used in The Push.
1. People with strong convictions to follow God rather than the crowd never get to the first stages of some testing.
2. People who refuse to compromise their values on the little things will never compromise their values on the big things.
3. When our highest authority is God, it won’t matter what others try to convince us to do. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego we will say to the King, “no matter what, we will not bow.”
4. For the person of real faith, there is no higher purpose than the Kingdom of God. Everything else is secondary and filtered through the question. “What does God want me to do?”
5. Mature people of faith are alert to the messages they allow to enter their eyes, ears and thoughts. They know that the Bible says, “…whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” (Philippians 4:8) Everything else is a distraction and leads to non-Kingdom choices and actions.
6. Kingdom people do not participate in situation ethics. They do not wait until they are in morally ambiguous circumstances before deciding how they will respond. Daniel didn’t wait until he was told not to pray before he knew the right thing to do. That decision was made years earlier when he decided to follow God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength. He had studied to be approved before God (2 Timothy 2:15) and he had hidden God’s Word in his heart so that he would not sin. (Psalm 119:11)
So there you go. Our knowledge and application of Jesus and His teachings not only allow us to participate in His nature, and escape the corruption of the world, it may just keep you from being a killer.