Crowd behaviour stereotypes confirmed in disappointing if fun “Derren Brown – The Experiments: Gameshow”

Derren Brown and Simon Dinsell, “Derren Brown – The Experiments: Gameshow” (2011)

In Episode 2 of a 4-part psychology series, sceptic and mesmerist Derren Brown is in charge of a faked gameshow in which a masked audience is given control of a man’s life to do with as they please. The objective is to see the extent to which people conform to social pressure, especially if they are anonymous individuals in a crowd and the chances are more than good that they will escape the consequences of the decision they make. In social psychology, the phenomenon is known as deindividuation and has been studied in several experiments of which some of the most famous include Stanley Milgram’s Yale University experiments in 1963 in which participants had to give electric shocks to a man that escalated in voltage the more the man failed to do what he was supposed to do, and Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment.

In Brown’s version of the experiment, the punishments dealt to a man called Chris are more ordinary and common-place but just as unsettling and traumatic. Brown sets up a fake TV gameshow called “Remote Control” in which audience members wear masks and are called upon to choose and vote for one of two scenarios (one that will confer good luck on Chris, the other bad luck) to happen to the victim: the majority choice wins. When we first meet Chris, he’s in a bar with friends: the first set of scenarios the audience must vote on includes one where a girl flirts with him or accuses him of sexual harassment and sets her boyfriend on him. Later scenarios include one in which Chris can either win a prize at a shop or be accused of shop-lifting; one in which the police declare Chris innocent or arrest him; one in which Chris is advised a work colleague is giving him a present or has been sacked by his boss; and one in which he goes to his apartment and discovers he has won money or gets kidnapped by hoodlums.

Invariably the masked audience chooses the worst-case scenario every time and so poor Chris is subjected to ever more distressing if hilarious events that escalate in severity until the climax where he breaks away from the thugs and runs into the path of an oncoming car. The behaviour of various people in the audience becomes more crass: in scenes where a man is rummaging around Chris’s apartment and examines his DVD collection and his underwear, audience members egg him on to sniff the bed-sheets or smash up the TV set.

It’s amusing to watch but on a certain level the episode fails because Brown doesn’t ask individual audience members why they felt they had to behave as they did and vote for the “bad luck” scenario. The answers would have been interesting: some people, no matter what Brown had told them earlier about the authenticity of the events, would still have thought they were watching a melodrama in the making. Brown’s description of Chris earlier in the show also would have been a significant influence on the audience’s choices: Chris is presented as a pleasant and affable fellow, extrovert and happy-go-lucky, full of himself, convinced that he is a Casanova and perhaps needing to be taken down a notch or two. There is nothing in the description of Chris that suggests he ever had an unhappy childhood, was a bully or a bully’s victim. Brown suggests that he has two-timed his girlfriend and this may have been enough for female members of the audience to vote for the “bad luck” scenario to get even with him on the girlfriend’s behalf. Had Brown instead suggested that Chris’s girlfriend had been unfaithful to him and that previous girlfriends had also used him in spite of or because of his good nature, might the choices the audience made have been different ? Would the women in the audience have chosen differently from the men?

It might also have been interesting to know exactly what proportion of the audience voted for the “bad luck” scenario each and every time as opposed to that proportion who voted for the “good luck” scenario. Early on, Brown suggests that the decisions made are by clear majorities (about 80%) but as the program continues and the scenarios become more harrowing, traumatic and unrealistic, the majority vote drops to about 67% or 60%. It might have been interesting to find out why some people were still plumping for a “bad luck” scenario as the choices became more outlandish: perhaps they enjoyed the opportunity to play God and to see how an ordinary guy like themselves reacted to ongoing stress and a run of unusual bad luck after a relatively uneventful life. Perhaps in a way we should not be too hard on people in this particular crowd situation: many in the audience might have identified closely with Chris and were experiencing his hardship vicariously.

One also notes that the “good luck” choices usually involved material rewards and in themselves were not interesting and the “bad luck” choices posed tests of character in a way that didn’t endanger Chris’s life, apart from the last set of choices. The audience may have been looking for Chris’s reactions to each and every disaster and his stoic nature at the bad news – he does not react much to news of being fired from his job – may have influenced people to continually vote for the “bad luck” options just to see if and when he would crack up.

As it is, the episode merely confirms popular stereotypes about people in crowds and mob behaviour: that people will be brutal and uncaring if given the chance and if they know they can get away with being nasty and sadistic with impunity. Brown and the producers leave the episode as is without questioning whether some aspects of the gameshow they created  influenced the audience’s decisions and whether the audience had very different and conflicting motivations for choosing the way they did.

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