Imagine this: You’re sitting in the summer sun on Brighton beach, enjoying the sea breeze.
A woman dressed in an official-looking blazer comes up to you just as you’re about to head into the sea for a swim.
She tells you she’s a ‘beach control officer' and asks: "Can you please put these armbands on? The current is very strong today and we’re advising people of all ages to wear armbands in the sea today. I’m afraid it’s compulsory."
Do you obediently stick on the armbands? Or do you question her?
If you’re anything like the dozens of people she approached earlier this summer, you’ll be sliding the red plastic onto your arms.
“Absolutely everyone thought it was real,” laughs Eline van der Velden, the scientist and comedian who went around pretending to be 'beach control' – an invented job – for her latest episode of Putting It Out There, to prove that the British will obey anyone who looks official.
“Nobody questioned what we were doing. They all did whatever I asked,” Eline says.
And she had many asks. Grown men were told to put on their tops while sunbathing "to avoid UV rays", while passers-by were asked to put a finger on their nose and stand on one leg to prove they were sober.
Eline's experiment showed exactly what she’d always believed: that people will do whatever they’re told if it comes from a supposed authority.
"We grow up in a system where we have teachers and authority,” she explains. “We’re taught from a young age to abide by rules. It’s good, in that it means we live in a fairly law-abiding society. But it can be dangerous. Consider dictatorships, where uniforms are used to make people seem so authoritative that others blindly follow them.”
In 1963, Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, set out to explore the conflict between personal conscience and obedience to authority. Controversially, his experiment took place in the wake of the Nuremberg War Criminal trials, where a number of people who had committed atrocities said they had done so out of “obedience” to their superiors.
Milgram created an experiment where people had to inflict pain on someone every time they answered a question incorrectly. When they protested that they didn’t want to press the button that delivered a shock, they were told they “had no choice”. And so they did it.
Two-thirds of the participants reached the highest level of 450 volts, which posed the danger of 'severe shock', while all the participants continued to 300 volts.
“People like to think they’re very free, independent, and questioning – but when it comes down to it, they’re just not,” says Eline. “The British, in particular, are very polite and very rule-abiding.”
The Brighton beach set-up was Eline’s second experiment exploring obedience. Last year she wore a high-vis jacket and carried a clipboard to see if it would make people do what she said on a street.
The result? People walked in single file and turned around to follow a different route as soon as they were told.
“The high-vis jacket is even more powerful than a blazer,” concludes Eline - who admits that she too would never question someone in a high-vis jacket.
“I like to follow the rules, so I would have immediately done what I was told – anything to stay out of trouble. I do it more often than I realise. You just go along with it. You don’t want to question people’s authority – if you do, you're implying you know better than them, which feels rude and embarrassing.”
So, the next time you’re approached by someone in a high-vis jacket? Think twice before you do exactly what they ask. They might not be who you think they are.