Clever psychological manipulation at work in “Derren Brown – The Experiments: The Guilt Trip”

Derren Brown and Simon Dinsell, “Derren Brown – The Experiments: The Guilt Trip” (2011)

In this rather creepy episode, the third in a 4-part series, Derren Brown attempts to persuade a person into believing and admitting that he has committed a murder of a person he has met, by causing the victim to distrust his memory and inducing feelings of guilt in the victim. An affable young man, Jody – geez, I was beginning to think Brown had something against guys called Chris – is invited to a conference at a country mansion hotel. Brown sets up psychological triggers to manipulate Jody into experiencing feelings of guilt: firstly through Pavlovian methods he gets Jody to feel guilt whenever someone pats him on the shoulder and a bell plays a certain tune; secondly, fellow conference attendees (actually a group of actors) set him up with conversations in which they insinuate that he’s committed a faux pas against a person he admires, Tim Minchin, who is attending the conference as well; thirdly, he’s forced into situations where he is forced to doubt what he sees, experiences and remembers; and fourthly, he’s given a motive by the man, Patrick Black, who’s to be the murder victim to get rid of him

A series of occurrences including a jewellery theft and a party in which people sing a song about killing someone and Jody gets drunk begins. In one utterly bizarre episode, Brown commands Jody to stay asleep while Jody is in bed drunk through a TV set and then the conference attendees carry him outside the hotel and lay him down on the grass; Jody wakes up, is stunned to see where he is and returns to his bedroom. Later on, during a seminar, the attendees are alerted that a body has been found and that it is one of their number, Patrick; while everyone sits around dazed, the police arrive and interview people, and Jody starts breaking out into a sweat. The police interview Jody and ask him questions about his memory, what happens to him when he is drunk: all questions designed to elicit more guilt and uncertainty. Although the police let him go, Jody later goes to the police station to confess that he has killed Black.

It’s a clever set-up and I’d say had I been in the same situation as Jody, I too would end up turning myself in to police. The process by which Jody is ground down appears to proceed very swiftly but there would have been much editing going on to make the experiment fit into a 45-minute TV format. The context into which Jody is thrust plays a role: the hotel is an isolated environment with only a post office and police station unit (actually set up by Brown’s technical crew) nearby and all the people he meets at the conference are strangers. There is no indication that Jody is allowed any contact with the outside world and his girlfriend Holly who calls him during one evening has been told what to say by Brown’s people so she helps to lay on the pressure. Jody is clearly out of his depth here. Little incidents such as the jewellery going missing and then turning up in Jody’s room, Black cheating on Jody at a game of croquet and the episode in which Jody wakes up and finds he has apparently been sleepwalking further disorient him, sap his self-confidence and cause him to question how much he really knows about himself. The fact also that everyone around him seems quite sympathetic and upset at his distress only increases his guilt.

Much of what Brown does to Jody throughout this episode might be the very things that cults as well as torturers do to break down people’s resistance, make them vulnerable to suggestion and force them to make false confessions. It is quite possible that Brown deliberately chose Jody as his victim as Jody already had the kind of personality that is amenable to manipulation: he comes across as mild-mannered, co-operative, eager to please and perhaps wants to be liked and accepted by others. He is young as well, perhaps naive about the ways of the world and Brown knows he hero-worships someone. Other things Brown could have done to Jody might include getting the actors to keep Jody awake at all hours of the night so he can’t sleep and his mind is all over the place; and to get the actor playing Black to behave outrageously towards a woman, causing her to burst into tears, right in front of Jody so he feels compelled to help her and confront Black, only for others to arrive and take Black away so that Jody is fuming inside and thinking of revenge against Black. At that point, the bell rings and someone, perhaps the crying woman, touches Jody on the shoulder.

At the end of the episode, Brown debriefs Jody and Jody is relieved to discover that the murder hadn’t happened and the murder victim is alive. Perhaps he’s also sadder and wiser to discover how easily he can be manipulated and he should now demand from Brown some tips on how not to be manipulated in future.

The episode can be upsetting for some people as Jody is close to tears and children should be watching it with responsible adults who understand psychological manipulation and can explain it. This is one of the better episodes in this short series.

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