Saturday, 29 October 2011

What can Derren Brown and The Gameshow tell us about attitudes to welfare?

In a brilliant but disturbing show, Derren Brown's 'The Gameshow' explored how people, when part of an anonymised crowd, can be manipulated to treat others in abominable ways. In the show, the crowd (all wearing masks) were given a series of choices (a good one and a bad one concerning the evening of a completely unaware subject. Consistently, the crowd chose the bad choice; by the end of the show they had opted to tell the subject that he had lost his job, had gleefully encouraged a cameraman to smash his TV and had chosen to have him kidnapped by an armed mob.

The theory which Brown wanted to explore in the show is called 'deinviduation'; a concept drawn from both psychology and sociology. Roughly, the theory states that when people become part of a group (often anonymised), they are more likely to withdraw from conventional norms of behaviour and act in surprising ways. It has been used to explain seemingly inexplicable behaviour, such as lynch mobs, hooliganism and even genocide.

When I watched the show, I started to think about whether these ideas can tell us anything about people's behaviour towards benefit claimants. Over the past fifteen years, people's attitudes to those on benefits has changed fundamentally. Data on attitudes show that people are more likely to say benefits are too high and that government should spend less, that people dependent on benefits 'have enough' to live on, that most people could find a job if they wanted one and that poverty is due to laziness and lack of willpower.

Many people have found this turn to be quite alarming. It seems that a solid majority of the public would now choose to inflict economic hardships and psychosocial shame on those who require benefits to survive. It is often justified through reference to the moral fibre of those on benefits; i.e., that they don't deserve the support of others, that they are feckless and need to be taught a lesson.

This led me to consider whether deinviduation - the process whereby we become part of group mentality, discarding our capacity to reason fairly and humanely - can go some way to explaining the nasty and discomfiting attitudes many hold to often very vulnerable people. It would be wonderful to read any research which looks into this or, perhaps, even do some myself.

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