Netflix’s new show is traumatic, not entertainment

Netflix’s new show The Push centres on our capacity to commit murder. The streaming platform is at this point no stranger to psychologically-oriented shows that like to ask the big questions, think Making of a Murderer. But The Push, aside from its dreadfully unmarketable name, is different from any other show Netflix has to offer, if only because it’s pitched not as entertainment but as an experiment.

Show host Derren Brown, using around 70 actors, sets up extremely elaborate and choreographed scenarios, all of which are designed to push certain buttons on Chris, the subject of the ‘experiment’ who thinks everything he sees is real. Chris doesn’t know he’s being filmed, and throughout the special he stumbles like clockwork from one scenario to the next, all of which build in psychologically tormenting ways. By the end, all of the social pressures culminate, and Chris goes from being unable to save a man to being told he is justified in killing someone by pushing them off a building (which is where the name comes from).

While The Push may make for interesting television, it is by no means ethical. Chris is put in an extremely stressful situation for our entertainment. We as the audience are in on the secret; Chris, meanwhile, thinks someone actually just died in front of him and that he had something to do with it. Such a thought process is pretty traumatic. While the program ends for us after an hour and we can get on with our lives, it’s not so easy for Chris.

The show is only popular because it does indeed ask interesting questions. How susceptible are we to complex social pressures? Moreover, given the right circumstances, are we willing to do something in the heat of the moment that we would normally consider wrong?

Unfortunately for this ‘experiment,’ to a large extent, we already know the answers to both of these questions. The field of psychology has made great progress, and recent theories from the likes of John Haidt suggest that we are far less rational and have far less agency than we like to believe. If you were to point out that humans are suggestible in extreme social situations, you would get a decent mark on a psychology exam.

But there’s a larger problem. Even if The Push was a perfect sociological experiment, which it’s not, it actually doesn’t offer anything of value to the psychological community. Have you ever heard of a scientific experiment with a single subject? Chris’ own peculiarities and personality is the only thing under examination. The show doesn’t offer a conclusion that can at all be safely generalized to all of humanity. If the show actually wanted to contribute to the discussion, it would have to be run hundreds, thousands of times with a wide array of people reacting to the same scenario again and again. That’s a lot of people put under a lot of stress.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t watch The Push. It is, if nothing else, interesting. But don’t hope to learn anything from it. And, more importantly, don’t get used to inflicting life-altering trauma on people for your own entertainment.