Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Can we be manipulated into committing murder?

Apologies for the sinister title, but I guess it did grab your attention! 

So, if I were to ask you “can we be manipulated into committing murder?” I’d expect pretty much all of you to say no. And you’d be right to, come on, this question seems ludicrous - as if you could persuade someone to do this, right? I mean, sure, some people can be persuaded to do some trivial things, but surely everyone must draw the line at murder? 

Well, you’ll be shocked to hear you’re wrong! Well, at least according to the results of the latest stunt by Derren Brown! For those of you who don’t know who Brown is, he is quite a well-known illusionist in the UK, and this stunt, or experiment, (‘The Push’) is currently on Netflix. (Check out the trailer below, it’s easy to see why I ended up watching it!)

In this stunt, he is literally able to demonstrate how a perfectly ordinary person can be persuaded to commit murder! So, how did he do it?

Brown used a variety of social manipulation techniques to put pressure on the subject. Brown aimed to increase this pressure to the point where the subject would eventually cave and obey orders to push someone off a roof (to their death!). One of the ways he did this was to create an environment that encouraged social compliance from his subject. The subject was invited to attend a fundraising event for the launch of the new (and fake) charity ‘Project for Urban Social Happiness’ (PUSH). They were invited to attend by the Director of the charity, in order to network with the top benefactors. This environment was designed to encourage compliance by using the High-Status-Admirer Altercast and the Authority-Agent Altercast persuasion techniques. The ‘High-Status-Admirer Altercast’ technique supposes that individuals are more willing to exert specific behaviours, and be compliant, in order to win the approval of high status individuals (Pratkanis, 2007). In this case, the subject was made to believe a number of high profile celebrities were backing the charity, as well as a great deal of wealthy individuals at the event itself. Consequently, the subject behaved in a more compliant way to ensure that the high status individuals were happy, which would in turn benefit the charity.

The ‘Authority-Agent Altercast’ is a technique where someone is perceived to be in charge and individuals comply with instructions given to them because of this (Pratkanis, 2007). Milgram (1963) used this manipulation technique in his classic study, and found that 65% of his participants administered ‘deadly’ electric shocks - simply because they were persuaded to do so by a seemingly authoritative figure in a lab coat. Brown’s experiment is similar to Milgram’s, as they both aimed to encourage extreme behaviour through manipulation techniques. In Brown’s experiment, the Director of the charity is painted as an ‘authority figure’, thus he would have more of an influence over the subject and increase their compliance.

Brown also used the “Foot-in the door” technique (FITD) in his experiment. The FITD technique is where a persuader asks a subject to complete a small request (getting their foot in the door) and then, once they’ve complied with this, they ask them to complete an even bigger request (Pratkanis, 2007). Research has shown this technique to be successful, for instance, Sherman (1980) found that asking individuals if they would be interested in volunteering for a charity, significantly increased the likelihood of them actually volunteering (31% versus 4% in the non-FITD group). Similar findings were also found by Freedman and Fraser (1966). The technique is based on the notion of consistency, people have a need to be, or at least appear to be, consistent. So, if an individual has agreed to a request from you before, they feel compelled to agree to subsequent requests (DeMers, 2016). Research has also suggested the FITD technique to work because the first request builds rapport between the persuader and subject, thus, the subject feels guilty and this then makes them more obliged to complete a second request (Explanation of Foot-in-the-door, 2018).

In Brown’s experiment, he used the FITD technique by asking the subject to place vegetarian stickers on non-vegetarian food. While that seems like a silly request, it is was important in building rapport between the subject and the persuader (as they were now sharing this ‘secret’), as well as making the subject much more likely to be compliant when asked to carry out a bigger request later.  

Following on from this, the subject then was introduced to one of the benefactors. The subject was asked to fetch his bags and take his coat (demonstrating further compliance). However, the benefactor then appeared to have a heart attack (this of course was staged). Here’s where we see the bigger request from the FITD technique. At this point the subject was asked to help conceal the body by putting it into a crate, as the Director of the charity claimed that announcing his death would prevent the charity raising significant amounts of money at this event. Surprisingly, the subject agreed to this, demonstrating the effectiveness of the aforementioned techniques!

The subject was then asked to move the body further, from putting it in a wheelchair, to placing it strategically at the bottom of the stairs.  This is another example of the FITD technique, as this was a small request in comparison to what would be asked later! The compliant behaviour demonstrated by the subject is also likely to be the result of the ‘The Commitment Trap’. This is a persuasion technique, where individuals behave in a certain way as a result of their past behaviour (Pratkanis, 2007). An example of the ‘Commitment Trap’ is the Vietnam War. For instance, in this situation the American presidents continued with escalation (even if they didn’t want to) because previous presidents had set the “wheels in motion”, and they felt committed or obliged to continue with it (Sagan, 2000). In Brown’s experiment, it is likely that the subject felt ‘trapped’ and forced to follow the directors orders, as he had been so compliant previously. And, by agreeing to move the body the first time, one could argue the subject felt “committed” to continue doing this type of behaviour. 

After moving the body, the subject and director discovered the benefactor was not actually dead! Upon realising this, the subject was persuaded to confide in some other committee members (who were of course actors). At this point, the benefactor began threatening to sue the subject and director of the charity for what they’d done to him! This is where the persuasion techniques were amplified.

The subject, along with everyone else, headed to the roof, where they found the benefactor sitting on a railing with his back to everyone, smoking a cigarette. The next persuasion technique used by Brown was the “Social Consensus” or “Bandwagon Effect” (Pratkanis, 2007). This technique focuses on an individuals innate desire to conform within a group – as we like to be a part of the crowd (Nail, MacDonald & Levy, 2000). The classic Asch (1956) study demonstrates this well, as his participants conformed to all choose the same answer (even though it was clearly wrong) so they could ‘fit in’ with everyone else. In Brown’s experiment, he used this technique to put pressure on the subject, as everyone “conformed” and agreed that the only solution to stop the subject being arrested and the charity losing money, was for the benefactor to have an “accident” e.g somehow falling off the roof. And, of course, it was ‘suggested' that the subject should be the one to commit the act. 

Brown also used another technique to increase the social pressure on the subject called the “Repetition of a message”. The group members began to repeat certain phrases, such as “just push him”, or “we’ve got to do whatever it takes”. In addition, in the background of this conversation there was a video campaign for PUSH being played. This consisted of several celebrities saying “PUSH, do whatever it takes” - which cleverly repeats this message! The ‘repetition of a message’ technique, is suggested to increase acceptance and belief in the message (Pratkanis, 2007). Thus, after hearing this message multiple times, the subject eventually accepts this solution and pushes the benefactor off the roof…essentially committing murder!!

This experiment conducted by Brown was ran four times on four different subjects. He found 3 out of 4 times the participants actually pushed the benefactor off the roof! That’s right, a whopping 75% were actually persuaded to commit murder! So why is this experiment important? 
  1. It is really interesting, I strongly recommend those of you to have Netflix to give it a watch!
  2. This experiment highlights just how seemingly easy it is for ordinary, law-abiding citizens to be persuaded into committing serious crimes! It is important we are aware of this, and whilst compliance can be good (for instance, following rules like speed limits) it is also important that we should perhaps not be so trusting and to try and stand up for our own morals and beliefs. 


Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological monographs: General and applied, 70, 1.

DeMers, J. (2016). Why The 'Foot In The Door' Method Works, According To Science. Retrieved from on 21/03/18.

Explanation of Foot-in-the-door. (2018). Retrieved by on 21/03/18. 

Freedman, J. L., & Fraser, S. C. (1966). Compliance without pressure: the foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of personality and social psychology, 4, 195.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378. 

Nail, P. R., MacDonald, G., & Levy, D. A. (2000). Proposal of a four-dimensional model of social response. Psychological   Bulletin, 126, 454-470.

Pratkanis, A. R. (2007). Social influence analysis: An index of tactics. The science of social influence: Advances and future progress, 17-82.

Sherman, S. J. (1980). On the self-erasing nature of errors of prediction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 211-221.

Sagan, S. D. (2000). The commitment trap: why the United States should not use nuclear threats to deter biological and chemical weapons attacks. International Security, 24, 85-115.

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