Derren Brown’s ‘crowd experiment’: A Response from two social psychologists

Derren Brown’s ‘crowd experiment’: A Response from two social psychologists

We would like to dispute in the strongest possible terms the theoretical underpinnings and proposed implications from Derren Brown’s ‘crowd experiment’ – The Gameshow – aired on Channel 4 on 28/10/11. Brown’s second instalment in his series of ‘experiments’ was designed to show us how being anonymous in a crowd can, in his words, “turn perfectly nice people into internet bullies, or rioters, or hooligans”. To demonstrate, audience members were led to believe they were participating in a new interactive game show in which the fate of an unwitting member of the public was placed in their hands. The ‘target’ was a young man who was out for a drink with some friends.  Along with various actors, the man’s friends were in on the plan and were in contact with the studio via hidden earpieces.  Throughout the show, the audience were presented with a choice between two scenarios (one positive and one negative) for the man.    The severity of the negative outcomes increased throughout the episode, and ranged from being mistakenly charged for an extra round of drinks, to being kidnapped by a ‘gang of thugs’.  The audience chose the scenario with a negative outcome each time, and for Brown, this was evidence of the moral depravity that inevitably follows anonymity in crowds.

Whilst we welcome Brown’s efforts to popularise social psychology in innovative and engaging ways, this particular episode was premised upon outdated theory that led to misleading and dangerous conclusions.  Before exploring these topics, it is worth briefly noting several methodological problems with the study. These include the fact that it was not actually an experiment (as claimed by the title) since no independent variable was manipulated (there was not a sample making equivalent decisions alone or without masks), the ‘bad’ choice was always presented to the audience second, the audience understood that the consequences of their actions weren’t ‘real’ (akin to an interactive episode of Beadle’s About!), and Brown – who offered the audience the choices – is renowned for his skill in influencing people’s decision-making processes. Whilst we take issue with these methodological confounds, the purpose of this piece is to question the psychological theory upon which the episode was based.

Brown stated during the episode and in a subsequent interview on his website that ‘deindividuation’ within crowds causes people to lose their identities and consequently behave in inevitably anti-social ways. Over thirty years of empirical work from the social identity tradition (for a review see Reicher, Spears, & Haslam, 2010) has discredited these claims. This research has shown that rather than a loss of identity within crowds, there is a shift from personal to social levels of identification. Instead of acting in terms of the norms and behavioural limits of one’s personal identity, within a psychological crowd one therefore acts in coherence with the norms of one’s salient collective identity. These norms will differ depending upon which social identity is salient at any given time e.g. as a resident of a local community, supporter of a sports team, or as a member of an audience at a television recording. Crowd behaviour is therefore rooted in social context, such that individuals may even act more pro-socially in a crowd than they would do alone (see e.g. the non-violent resistance of Indian crowds in the face of colonial British rule, or within-crowd helping during emergencies [see Brown’s own blog on this topic - http://derrenbrown.co.uk/blog/2009/08/emergencies-inspire-crowd-cooperation-panic]).

In the case of Friday’s ‘experiment’, the audience acted in terms of their collective identity as audience members in at least two ways. First, the very object of being in a game show audience is by definition to be entertained. Each time the audience were faced with a choice, they picked what was clearly the most entertaining option, and the selection that would prolong their involvement in the event. Second, the menacing masks that audience members wore were hardly neutral cues; in fact the very same masks were later worn by the ‘group of thugs’ who attempted the kidnap in the final scene. This is reminiscent of a famous study by Johnson and Downing (1979), who noted that when people were given robes resembling those of the Ku Klux Klan they displayed more anti-social behaviour than control participants. However, when participants were given nurses’ uniforms they displayed significantly less anti-social behaviour than controls. The fact that audience members wearing the ‘thug’ masks chose anti-social options is consistent with the argument that crowd behaviour is rooted in contextual cues, and not inherently anti-social.

It is important to emphasise that we are not arguing that crowds are immune from anti-social behaviour; some of the very worst atrocities in history have been committed by crowds (e.g. religious pogroms, lynchings etc.). The point is that crowd behaviour is neither intrinsically good nor bad, but is dependent upon the norms of the shared social identity of its members.

Why is all this important? Does it really matter to anyone other than social psychologists that outdated theory is portrayed as factual on prime-time television? The point is that an understanding of crowd psychology has important consequences for society. Regarding crowds as anti-social entities acting without identity or reason can legitimate their violent repression by security forces, prevent intragroup helping in emergencies, and facilitate the dismissal of popular protest as irrational by those in positions of power. Poor theory can therefore ultimately lead to both public disorder, and an attack upon our democratic rights as individuals to express our views collectively. It is therefore in all of our interests to gain an accurate understanding of crowd behaviour, rather than rely upon outdated theory that is not only wrong, but dangerous.

Fergus Neville (fgn@st-and.ac.uk)1 and David Novelli (dln21@sussex.ac.uk)2

1University of St Andrews

2University of Sussex

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15 Responses to Derren Brown’s ‘crowd experiment’: A Response from two social psychologists

  1. Ronni says:

    Brilliant. Thank you!

  2. Mhairi Bowe says:

    Thanks for writing this succint explanation. I only hope it reaches as many people as Derren’s show did. These issues are of huge importance in the current socio-political context where justified demonstrations are frequently being undermined by news reporters as the actions of ‘unruly crowds’.

  3. Debra Lynn says:

    I have spent several conversations this week trying to explain the weaknesses and misguidedness of Derren’s dramaticised demonstration (I refuse to call the series an axperiment: both episodes so far have lacked any degree of scientific or methodological rigour). I need do so no longer: this response is a succint, informative yet sensitive response about the isues with this TV episode. I highly applaud both of you for this!

    I also found that Derren’s attempts to influence the audience weren’t even subtle. For example, at one point he asked ‘would you like +ve thing A to happen, or would you like this self-confessed adulter to be punished by -ve option B’ (not a direct quote but words very similar to this effect. The implication seemed to be that the target (wonderfully apt term – thanks for that) DESERVED to be punished by negative events, thus making that choice appear morally permissable. This negative framing of the target occured several times throughout.

  4. Excellent response,

    My first thoughts about the masks were they looked very “impish” and will have had meaning to most of the audience on arrival. Also the way he built up their behaviour from making low-harm decisions to high-harm decisions effectively really only gave them one set of behaviours to reference on the journey. A bit of a joint Deindividuation and Milgrim line length experimentation type situation. Are there any academic papers looking at this?

    Saying this, while his explanation was awful and it isn’t a real experiment, he did show how quick and easy it was for him (in a position of authority) to manipulate and create a salient collective identity which allowed and encouraged anti-social behaviour. Whether this was down to the game show aspect alone is a matter for discussion.

  5. Anne Templeton says:

    Brilliant piece!

    You make great points about crowd psychology and the fact that Derren involved lots of other phenomena in the “experiment” which influenced his audience. It’s really refreshing to read this and see an up-to-date perspective of social psychology being used, because I completely agree about the risks associated with not understanding crowd psychology properly- especially in light of recent situations in London.

    Great job, this is something everyone should read.

  6. I am a great fan of Derren’s, and this really opened my eyes. I will always watch the shows he does, but now with a slightly more sceptical point of view. I know that what Derren says can never be counted as gospel, but I now realise that I was holding it in a position similar to that. Everyone, Derren fan or Derren loather alike, should read this.

  7. Steve says:

    Think you’ve taken things far far too seriously. Of course it wasn’t a proper experiment but it did clearly demonstrate people’s willingness to have ‘fun’ by challenging an individual that they would never do on a one to one basis which resulted in a staged tragic incident that they were shocked by but was of course an entirely possible outcome of their decisions. Get a grip on the seriousness and accept it was a valid observation that people can be dicks when they can get away with it (like being in the protection of a car for example.)

  8. Sam says:

    Steve: If you look at the comments under Derren Brown’s own blog entry for the show, as well as what people said on twitter after the programme, you can see the extent to which the audience did take it seriously. If the show had really been presented as ‘just’ entertainment, then it might only have been mildly irritating. The point is that Brown packaged the whole thing as a moral message about the dangers of the ‘mob’, and that is how much of the (probably very large) audience has taken it. He also made explicit links between deindividuation and the riots in the summer. Under these circumstances, it is entirely appropriate for people who actually know something about crowd psychology to hold him to account.

    • Didnt brown study sociology at bristol? And if im not mistaken isnt group psychology introduced and explained in sociology degrees? Yes hold him to account, but dont disregard what he has shown us, its heavy stuff knowing we can ALL all be easily manipulated. As we have most of our lives. Isnt PR / marketing the result of understanding groups ? starting with Sigmund Freud and then splitting into two camps, here in the uk, his daughter Anna Freud continued his work with children, and in america most gains were made by his nephew eddy bernais who used his uncles work to give birth to a super state , Both Annas and eddies work show how groups can be manipulated to such a point it effects the individual. this is found in both adults and children. (im no expert, but it doesnt take an expert to read)

  9. neurobonkers says:

    Fantastic artice, I’ve reposted.

    I’m doing some research on Derren Brown, might eventually do a blog post on his methods myself.

    I notice that this is your first blog post, I’ll look forward to more from where this came from!

  10. Lesley Adams says:

    Great stuff, and agree about the significance of the unsound theoretical basis. The Police and Home Office are increasingly using draconian measures to control peaceful protestors – indicating their fear of the “mob”. Rather, they might realize the potential for engagement and rational argument.
    It doesn’t really matter if other TV contestants (X-factor, Big Brother etc. etc. ) are selected not because of their talent but because their unusual behaviour will lead to conflict and make what is mistaken for “great television”. But it does matter when the so-called experiment is intended to have important implications for political and social systems.
    And as entertainment I thought it was not up to Darren’s usual standard. The audience certainly had a lousy rest of the night.

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  12. pressel page says:

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  13. Paul says:

    Oh bloody hell. Get off your high horses. Derren Brown is an entertainer, not an academic. In what introspective way can you possibly mistake a television programme in the peak slot of a Friday evening with the word ‘Experiment’ in it with a true scientific experiment?
    Start to worry if Derren pops up as a government advisor, until then, just watch his programmes and chuckle.

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