Dianthus Medical Blog Archive

Derren Brown's Apocalypse

As regular readers of this blog will know, I take a keen interest in ethics: matters of informed consent, autonomy, privacy, and so on. My interest in such things was greatly piqued recently by a TV programme: Derren Brown's Apocalypse, which showed in 2 parts on Channel 4. If you missed it, you can watch part one here and part 2 here.

The programme centres around Steve, who is duped into believing that a massive meteor strike has caused a zombie apocalypse. Steve is not exactly a willing volunteer in this. He responded to a call for volunteers in a Derren Brown TV programme, but was told his application was unsuccessful. He was was then led to believe, by a serious of really quite subtle and cunning measures, and with the connivance of his family, that the earth was at serious risk of a catastrophic meteor strike. A meteor strike is then staged, and Steve wakes up in a post apocalyptic world where he meets a handful of other survivors and hordes of zombies.

Is this ethical?

First of all, we need to know whether this all happened as told in the TV programme. Was Steve genuinely duped into believing all this without his knowledge that he was part of a TV programme, or was he, as has been suggested, just an actor playing the part who know exactly what was happening? Brown has denied the rumours that it was all staged, but then I suppose he would, wouldn't he?

I find myself genuinely unsure whether to believe it was real or not, and I suspect we will probably never know for sure. Brown is undoubtedly a skilled illusionist, and shows in the programme that he went to great trouble to create a plausible scenario of a zombie apocalypse. Given that Steve was carefully selected from among the many original volunteers based on various characteristics, including how suggestible he was, I do find it perfectly plausible that Steve could have been fooled into believing the meteor strike was real. To those of us looking on from the outside, the zombies that chase him look a bit too much like a caricature based on Dawn of the Dead to be convincing, but perhaps when you believe the world is really ending around you, scepticism about such things is put on hold.

However, the one part that I found hard to believe was the ease with which Brown was able to put Steve to sleep by hypnosis. This happened twice in the programme: once in person, and once by mobile phone. It seems that Brown only had to say a trigger word or phrase and Steve instantly fell into a deep sleep. If you haven't seen it yourself, the relevant moments are about 24' 25" into episode 1 and 41' 10" into episode 2, based on the online versions of the programme I linked to above. Brown explains on his blog that this does require careful preparation, which he was able to do during the initial selection process, but even so, it seems a little unlikely to me that it could be that effective. If anyone reading this blog knows more about hypnosis than I do, I would love it if you could leave your thoughts in a comment.

Anyway, if the whole thing was staged, and Steve was a willing participant, then clearly there are no ethical problems. You could argue that it is unethical to fool millions of TV viewers, but sensible viewers have no realistic expectation that what they see on the TV is true, so I'm not sure any duty has been breached by that kind of deception.

But if we assume that it did happen as described, and that Steve was genuinely unaware of what was going on, then it becomes ethically problematic.

Let's look first at the question of autonomy and consent. The programme fails spectacularly on those grounds. Yes, Steve volunteered to take part in a TV programme. But the nature of the programme was not explained to him, and he was given no chance to opt out of participating. He therefore had not given any meaningfully informed consent to participate in the programme, so his autonomy was clearly violated.

Perhaps we could take a utilitarian approach and argue, as Brown appears to do, that in this case the end justifies the means, and although Steve's autonomy was violated, the benefits of the programme outweigh that harm. I think we need to be careful about that argument. I could imagine an argument being made (although to be fair, Brown has not made this argument, at least not publicly) that the viewing pleasure of millions of Channel 4 viewers is a benefit in this case. Well, it certainly was gripping TV. However, taking this argument further quickly shows that it is not a good one. What if Steve were someone rather unpleasant and was genuinely harmed in the programme, but in an entertaining way? You could argue, from a utilitarian perspective, that the pleasure of many viewers would outweigh that harm, but that would be a deeply unconvincing argument. To me, that merely shows the limits of utilitarianism as an ethical framework.

So if we are going to justify violating Steve's autonomy on utilitarian grounds, then we have to argue that there is a real benefit for Steve. That is exactly what Brown does argue. Steve is, at the start of the programme, shown as someone who is lazy, selfish, and generally not making the most of his life. The idea is that the experience will make Steve appreciate the things he has in life far more and change him into a better person.

There is certainly reason to believe that this was successful. We are shown Steve being debriefed at the end, and he seems to take it all in very good spirits. If the whole experience has helped Steve turn his life around for the better, and crucially, if Steve himself is happy with the outcome, then surely that justifies the deception involved in getting there.

So is it all OK then?

Well, no, I don't think it's quite as simple as that. With hindsight, we see that it's all turned out well. But could Brown and the Channel 4 team have been sure from the start that it would do so? They certainly took great trouble to select their subject carefully. They also tell us that Steve was very carefully monitored by psychiatrists, to make sure nothing bad would happen. But the big problem here is that humans are unpredictable. Brown is clearly a skilful enough psychologist to understand much about the factors that maximise his chances of a good outcome, but I doubt that anyone could predict such things with absolute certainty.

What is clear is that the question of whether this was ethical is a finely balanced one. Some ethical norms have been violated, but perhaps they were violated for good reason, justified by the good outcome. But the big problem I have here is the apparent lack of independent oversight. As far as I can tell, the question of whether the programme was sufficiently ethical to go ahead was a decision made by Brown and his producers at Channel 4. I really don't think they should be the ones to make that decision: they are too close to the project and have an obvious conflict of interest.

In clinical research, we require that all research projects be reviewed by an independent ethics committee. That committee is made up of people who are not involved in the research, and are able to give a measured third-party assessment of the ethics.

Is it time to have a similar situation in television?


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