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!

Liam