Sunday Times, 17 January 2016
ON A television show last week, the professional “mentalist” Derren Brown persuaded three people to commit murder — or, rather, to think they had committed murder. Channel 4’s Pushed to the Edge involved an expensively staged trick to persuade four ordinary people to push a man off a building. Three complied; one did not.
The trick was executed by actors who had been trained and directed by Brown. Gleefully, backstage, he egged them on.
What did it prove? The ostensible reason was to demonstrate “the power of social compliance”. This is odd, because if you did not know about this power, you must have been asleep for 4,000 years or, at least, locked in a room with no access to news.
The three great monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam (total adherents: 3.7bn) — all begin with a story about the power of social compliance, even in a society of just two people. A man named Adam is bullied by a woman, Eve, into eating an apple and gets kicked out of paradise.
It’s a myth, you say. No, it’s a wisdom story that imparts a great truth by which believers live — they call it “original sin” — and from which non- believers should learn.
Original sin means simply that we can all be evil (or just bad on a daily basis).
Look around. How does Isis get people to behead even their co-religionists or blow themselves up? By the power of social compliance.
In his book Ordinary Men, the historian Christopher Browning studies German policemen rounding up Jews in Poland in 1942 and concludes that they were driven not by hatred or ideology but by obedience to authority and peer pressure.
There is some science on this subject but it is sensational rather than good. In 1961 the world was enthralled by the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, one of the bureaucrats behind the Holocaust.
The horrors perpetrated by this dull man made many people ask: “What is wrong with the Germans? Were they unusual in putting obedience before conscience?”
At Yale a psychologist called Stanley Milgram did not think the Germans had any particular problem: he thought all humans had the same problem, a capacity for evil.
Milgram set up what became a famous experiment (and the model for Brown’s) to see how obedient people would be if ordered to harm others. This involved (like Brown’s) a team of actors and collaborators who manipulated volunteer members of the public on Milgram’s behalf.
Believing they were taking part in an experiment into how memory works under duress, two-thirds of the volunteers obeyed orders and gave what they understood were potentially fatal electric shocks to wired-up “learners” who had given the wrong answers.
The first thing to say about both Milgram and Brown is that it took a fantastic amount of plotting and planning to push people to the homicidal edge.
Secondly, in her book Behind the Shock Machine, the Australian psychologist Gina Perry describes what she found in the Milgram archives. Such was the zeal of the experimenters to get the right result that the figures were exaggerated and the procedures were unacceptably extreme. She also found that a lot of Milgram’s volunteers guessed they were not inflicting real electric shocks but carried on anyway.
This does not disprove the argument that everybody is capable of evil — it cannot be disproved — but it does question the applicability of these staged events to ordinary life.
There were two other famous experiments into human conformity: Asch and Stanford prison.
A psychologist called Solomon Asch, working at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, showed that people’s desire to conform could make them deny the evidence of their own eyes.
In a series of trials in the 1950s, Asch placed unwitting volunteers into groups of his collaborators. He found that when the collaborators gave an obviously wrong description of an item they were looking at, more than a third of the volunteers agreed with them.
In the gruesome Stanford prison experiment in 1971, volunteers were asked to play the roles of guards and prisoners.
Although barred from using physical punishment, the guards rapidly descended into sadism, subjecting the prisoners to strip searches, confiscating their mattresses and restricting access to toilets.
There are problems with all this evidence. There’s a theatricality — explicitly in Brown, but implicitly in the more respectable experiments — which, in itself, will tend to make people behave in a surprising manner by making them feel like actors.
In addition, Brown’s show was rendered meaningless by the care he took in choosing his subjects. He vetted 200 people to find the four he thought most compliant.
Statisticians would call this a gross sampling error. All Brown had shown was that 1.5% of people might, under extreme duress, kill somebody — a surprisingly low number.
On top of that there is the intensity of the experience. Brown’s victims were plainly suffering — and I fear that the three who did commit “murder” may suffer more in years to come as they consider the depths to which they sank.
Crucially, the show required provocateurs whose commitment to the fiction had to be absolute. Their behaviour — repeating certain phrases and words — was hypnotic. The primary subject did, at times, appear to be entranced by the repetitions.
The hypnotic effect is important in all these cases. I was once very effectively hypnotised while I was researching a book. I ended up seeing a flying saucer and was about to be abducted by aliens when the kindly psychologist, Dr David Oakley, yanked me out of my trance.
The doubleness of my state of mind — I both knew I was and knew I wasn’t seeing a saucer — was astounding and suggested our capacity for delusion is like our capacity for evil: real but subtle and hard to define and manage.
I have no doubt that I would have ended up going quite a long way down the road, if not with Brown, at least with Milgram and the rest.
So we should be sceptical of all these attempts to scientise or turn into entertainment what is not just obvious — Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Isis — but also embodied in ancient wisdom: original sin. Evil exists. But this raises the further question: where is it?
Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who conducted the Stanford prison experiment, concluded that everybody could “turn evil” but that it was not an inherent disposition.
In other words, evil resides in situations, not in people. This echoes the romantic view that we are born innocent but society corrupts us.
Milgram tended to locate the problems in authority and institutions: “When he merges his person into an organisational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of humane inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority.” This would fit neatly with the idea that evil was drawn out of the Germans by bad institutions.
I don’t buy any of this. Situations, society and institutions are created by humans, therefore it seems meaningless to me to say that evil is not in people. It must be, or every human society would be perfect.
So it’s in us and we can all fall into the pit of the evil we contain. This is not a reason to get depressed; it’s a reason to celebrate.
For most of us in Britain life is, in historical terms, quite astonishingly comfortable. This cannot be because we have less evil in us than, say, the people of Germany did when the Nazis were in control. It must be, therefore, that the evil is contained, as indeed it is in many countries.
What contains it is the gentle pressure and freedom of social relations and the general benignity of our institutions. This can all be lost in an instant but, for the moment, it is where we, happily, are.
As long as we know that it can all go horribly wrong because of the human capacity for evil, then we have at least one line of defence.
Finally, on reflection, I realise I have been too hard on Derren Brown. His show worked because the four participants weren’t his real subjects; the actors and crew were.
When one actor playing a policeman who had talked a man into snatching a baby was suddenly conscience-stricken — “That’s horrible, that’s horrible,” he moaned — Brown consoled him: “OK, well done for pushing him into it.”
He got them to do something obviously wicked — causing people to suffer for entertainment — and thereby proved that when a TV show is involved, people will do absolutely anything, however vile.