Derren Brown – Fear and Faith (Part 1): health warning is needed for this manipulative series on the placebo effect

Derren Brown and Simon Dinsell, “Derren Brown – Fear and Faith (Part 1)” (2012)

In this two-part series, UK hypnotist and skeptic Derren Brown investigates the power of the placebo effect in changing human behaviour in two sets of experiments. In the first episode on fear, the experiment is very elaborate and involves the careful establishment of a fictional pharmaceutical company, complete with lavishly furnished head office and qualified staff (all played by actors) in business dress with faked medical qualifications, up-to-date medical equipment and faked corporate videos. The participants are taken through the building and subjected to medical testing. They are told they will be guinea pigs for a new drug, Rumyodin, that will eliminate their fears. The drug itself is carefully designed based on psychological studies done on people’s reactions to the appearance of drugs.

After taking the drug (in reality a saline solution), the participants are followed and their behaviour recorded. They show sometimes quite dramatic improvements in the areas of life affected by their phobias: Nick, the journalism student, finds he can overcome his social phobias and dislike of confrontation; Dan relies on his blue pills to talk himself through his fear of bridges; and Kate the actor struggles even with the placebo to sing in private and public. In the meantime, Brown also tests the placebo on others with physical problems such as skin allergies or addictions like smoking. As the experiment progresses, Nick improves in leaps and bounds to the extent that he can confront a group of rowdy pub patrons (played by actors) and rescue two friends; Katie, trying to busk in a street and later audition for a West End stage show, falters twice and needs further encouragement and some helpful hypnosis to conquer her fear of singing; and Dan discovers his fear of heights and bridges has melted away completely.

Although the episode ends on a happy note, I can’t help but notice that the creepy manipulation factor has ratcheted up even more since Brown’s last series “Apocalypse” and the entire piece seems all heroic pumped-up-fists along the way. The program dwells only on the success stories and not on those people who dropped out of the experiment or who found they needed more than placebos, hypnosis, meditation or other forms of cognitive behaviour therapy to defeat fears, addictions or obsessions. Many such problems may have deep roots in childhood and if they took years to develop, they may well need the same amount of time or even more before they can be eliminated or at least controlled. It may be that a certain amount of life experience, self-knowledge and maturity, plus psychological treatment and actual drugs (not placebos) are needed before a problem can even be confronted and dealt with. (This would be true in cases where the problem has arisen as a result of childhood sexual or physical abuse which the person has tried to forget.) The program however plays out according to a preconceived narrative that might have come straight out of Hollywood, in which a person meets obstacles head-on, and with help from a mentor and various others triumphs over everything life hurls at him or her. There may be setbacks along the way, maybe a personal crisis or temporary loss of belief in oneself, but the theme is everyone is a winner and eventually everyone does get to be a winner. (Except those who fell along the way but we’ll ignore them!)

The filming even obeys those dramatic “Atlas Shrugged” movie narrative elements so camera work is often jumpy during (faked) conflict situations and the soundtrack music is dramatic in scenes where Katie tries and tries (and she’s given three tries, just as you’d expect in a full-length film) and fails.

It’s curious that in an old episode (“Heist”), Brown expresses some disdain for self-help manuals and programs, and yet in two-part series such as “Apocalypse” and “Fear and Faith” he is using psychological techniques and cognitive behavioural therapy, many of which are also used in self-help programs, to help people. Even the over-riding theme of his experiments and TV documentaries – that all people have the power within themselves to change their lives for the better and discover freedom, and all that is needed is a little push from psychology or hypnosis to induce a positive attitude that will set them free – is one that drives pop psychology therapy and self-help books and programs. The danger of such programs and Brown’s heavily edited experiments is that if people try them and don’t succeed, or actually find their problems worsening as a result, they will feel they have failed not only themselves but the people helping them; they may not be able to see that the problems require more than just a positive attitude and determination on their part to overcome. The problems may be ones created by the environment in which they have grown up, or by the systems and institutions in that environment. Discrimination by others, and especially discrimination by governments and agencies, will require more than individual grit – it will require recognition that the problem exists, that it is caused by powerful political, social and economic forces, and that it will need sustained collective action from all individuals to overcome.

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