Derren Brown: Social Compliance and Free Will | Liam O’Dell

Sometimes, it’s easier to just say yes.

This week, illusionist and mentalist Derren Brown explored the psychological phenomena of social compliance. Whilst saying yes in certain scenarios can provide us with new opportunities, in some scenarios saying yes can lead to us making immoral or dangerous decisions. In the case of Pushed to the Edge, three individuals pushed another human being off the roof of a building – all because of suggestion and social compliance.

So why do we say yes in these scenarios? In the episode itself, Derren’s compliance tests suggested that it may be down to being part of a group or crowd, rather than being an individual. Despite this, Brown didn’t give us a clear and distinct reason behind the phenomena, but that isn’t to say that I have a few thoughts of my own.

In particular, it was when I watched the show on Tuesday that I came up with my opinions on social compliance. Usually, it is in an awkward, stressful or pressing scenario that social compliance and suggestion manifest themselves. Why? It’s more than likely because we – rather naturally, of course – want to escape from the scenario, or reduce the pressure as much as possible.

To apply this to a modern day scenario, it’s either that the authority figure also wants to escape this scenario and so naturally takes the lead, or they use the power for malicious purposes. Either way, we feel like we don’t have a choice but to say yes, because society tells us to seek approval from others (particularly those in ‘power’). Also, our in-built need to protect our wellbeing leads to us avoid adding possible pressure, awkwardness, stress or danger. In fact, if we say no or explain wrongdoing (like in the show, when Chris explains to others what happened that evening) that only makes us panic more because we would be shunned or ostracised by others in society. Aside from the concept of social compliance, we as the masses know that belonging to the majority – not the minority or the ‘others’ – is a good thing.

It was after discussing the programme with a friend that I realised the links between sociology and psychology. The key psychological aspects of Pushed to the Edge is not just social compliance, but the underlying idea that we say yes because we do not want to be ostracised by those in power.

For example, the hypodermic needle theory explores the idea that the media ‘injects’ elitist views into the masses. These views are often labelling and removes individuality in society. For those at the top – keen to hold on to their power – a society which is grouped together can be easily influenced. If we’re not influenced by the media, then those with authority use social compliance as a form of influence. Then, should someone disagree with the views of the elite, then they are ostracised from the majority. For example, the poor, the disabled and women (due to a patriarchal society) are all minorities in society because they go against the elite.

So perhaps social compliance is another technique which those in power use to gain the obedience of the masses? Regardless of how we try to explain the phenomena, we would be right to be concerned. As with any form of influence, we feel violated and want our individuality back.

Towards the end of the show, Derren Brown tells us that we can ‘fight back’ and ‘stop following other people’s scripts’, but I would disagree. Even when we think it’s our decision and ours alone, there are external influences which we are unaware of. A key theory which explores this and denies the existence of free will is ‘false-consciousness’. I suppose an example to demonstrate this would be beauty. If a women was to use beauty to achieve success in her life, she would consider this decision an independent one. However, is she doing this for her own gain, or to please the views of the patriarchy? It is perhaps a controversial example, but the idea is that even when we think we are making a decision in our best interests, it may in fact be made in the interests of those in authority.

Essentially, whilst Pushed to the Edge highlights the extremes of social compliance, it is pointless for Derren to encourage us to fight against this influence. Even when we think we’re making a conscious decision, there are external influences – there is no such thing as free will in a manipulative society.

What do you think about social compliance? Did you watched Pushed to the Edge? Comment below!




  1. I have some issues with this show. Taking it from the point of entertainment I really enjoyed it. Despite enjoying Derren Brown’s shows since the beginning I think there is something to the criticisms of having his cake and eating it on the debunker/science shtick.

    In this case whilst social proof, reciprocity, and group/authority/peer compliance effects have been observed there are all sorts of limitations to that. Even in experimental conditions effect sizes are small / small number of participants are effected, replication exercises suggest these effects don’t happen consistently, participants are playing along and controlling other human beings is really rather hard. The media regularly overplay the strength of evidence. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asch_conformity_experiments

    On the other hand environmental factors impact decision making every day but in complicated ways.

    So back to the show and what might be happening. Well at several points an actor and Derren Brown mentioned ‘playing along’ and thay may well be at the heart of this. Some hypnosis (or whatever you believe ‘hypnosis’ to be) at the initial recruitment event and then applying the same verbal and sensory ques whether by Derren Brown and others. Well thay might well produce the same results.

    Is that a basis for the sermon at the end? Mmmm. Even allowing some latitude that this is fundementally entertainment (so false prsentation of methods is fine) it makes me rather nervous not least because it completely meshes a rather dubious presentation of the science with something else.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very interesting ideas – thank you!

      I think there’s definitely a combination of ‘science with something else’ as you say. Perhaps it is a psychological theory combined with a sociological concept?

      Whilst I believe there is such a thing as social compliance, I do think there’s more under that umbrella term. Of course, with social compliance, there is the suggestion of the idea and the agreement.

      I think what Derren has ‘added’ to the social compliance concept is his skills of suggestion – making the ideas given to the ‘subject’ even more appealing. After all, in the past, Derren has described his skills as being a combination of magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship – so perhaps one of these was a hidden factor?

      Thank you so much for commenting!


  2. One of the things I loved about the way the show was put together is how they almost tricked us in to thinking that no one would go so far as to actually push the man off the building but then 3/4 of the participants did which in the end didn’t actually surprise me. I definitely think what Derren Brown said at the end of the show about fighting back was a little optimistic, as just like you say that doesn’t really happen in an ideal world as it is so difficult to fight against how society manipulates us. But I did like the parallel he made with extremism, as I think it’s so important to understand how people are driven to that point.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh absolutely. I think it was very much similar to the final show in his ‘Events’ series – where the desired result didn’t actually happen. So, from an editorial perspective it was good to do that. But, as you said, it was interesting to see that twist to explore how far some people go and that social compliance varies from person to person. Of course, I think it’s a very topical discussion to be had. Whilst I stand by the idea that it’s hard to avoid the influence of the elite, there are certain things we can do to stop it from going to extreme levels.

      Thanks for commenting!


  3. Who are we to question authority?

    Have not seen the show but have seen articles in the press. It is a feature of the unconscious mind to be accepting and open to suggestions whether explicit or implicit. If the woman in the programme actually pushed and caused the death of the guy, the defence in court would claim that she was only obeying what was suggested to her by a person in authority, that is Derren Brown so in the woman’s mind, she is not responsible for her actions.

    That is why a free press is of importance, as they can continually question those in authority for their actions. If the free press were to be muzzled, it is a very slippery slope to events as demonstrated by the show.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, absolutely. I should probably have mentioned that it was an experiment and the actor didn’t really die! Nevertheless, I would be curious to hear what a court would say. As the one to push someone off the edge – even if they were to argue that somebody made them do it – they would be punished in a court of law. I think the programme secretly nodded to certain ideologies which use social compliance. Regardless of who was the ‘victim’, both are at fault, even if there is no conscious intent, perhaps.

      Absolutely. Aside from the occasional scrutiny of politicians, the media does nothing to criticise the marginalisation of certain groups or subcultures in society. If anything, they often encourage it. Sadly, today’s news values mean that we want bad news, marginalisation and ostracism. It’s a vicious circle between the elite, the media and the masses.


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