Clever social psychology experiment in “Derren Brown – The Experiments: The Secret of Luck”

Derren Brown and Simon Dinsell, “Derren Brown – The Experiments: The Secret of Luck” (2011)

Now for his next trick … in this final episode of a 4-part series of sociological experiments investigating aspects of human social psychology, Brown sets his sights on a small town and finds out what happens when you manipulate the entire population with a rumour about a lucky-dog statue. The rationale behind this experiment which took place in a West Yorkshire town (Todmorden) over three months is to discover why some individuals attract good luck in several doses and others seem to be dogged by ill luck all the time. Is it a matter of attitude on the individual’s part? Brown enlists the help of local journalist Dawn Porter to spread rumours about the dog statue. Seven individuals in the town are followed as well to see if the lucky-dog statue has any effect on their lives.

Over several weeks through hidden cameras and the help of Dawn and others, Brown tracks the townspeople and finds that their belief in the lucky-dog statue’s ability to confer good luck really has strong positive psychological effects on them. They are willing to take more risks, they stick to doing something longer than they normally do and concentrate better, and they are more responsive to cues in their environment that lead them to something lucky.

An example is made of two publicans, Sue who considers herself lucky and Damon who believes himself unlucky, who are taken to the lucky-dog statue by Dawn, asked about their chances of good luck coming their way, and then subjected to an experiment in which two people ask for help with a flat tyre. Sure enough, Damon offers very little assistance while Sue quickly enlists local help to get the flat tyre pumped up and one of the car owners offers to do a free stand-up comedy gig at her pub. The free show is advertised on Facebook and hundreds of people turn up to Sue’s pub to see the performance; later, Sue has to ask her customers to help serve the beer!

The story about the lucky-dog statue takes on a life of its own with radio shows and local newspapers trumpeting the news about the statue conferring good luck on people to the extent that people from other towns start visiting Todmorden and bring their custom to local shopkeepers. Brown realises the story is starting to get out of his control once people start rubbing the dog’s head and wishing that a loved one in hospital will recover from a serious disease.

At the end, Brown risks his neck at a community meeting telling everyone that the statue has no powers and that he was the one who started the rumour originally. He explains how belief in the rumour has changed people’s individual psychology and outlook on life. After his brief speech he gets Wayne who has bet his life’s savings on the Lucky Dog Shoot to choose a number and send a dice rolling down the tube; if the chosen number wins, he wins 5,000 pounds, if the number doesn’t, he loses all his money. Will Wayne win the money or will he lose everything?

It doesn’t really matter if Wayne does win or lose, or whether the dice was loaded: what matters is that a few weeks earlier, Wayne wouldn’t have even bothered to enter the Lucky Dog Shoot competition. But when Brown points out the various opportunities put out for Wayne that he missed, the butcher’s attitude changes. Of course in some respects his attitude hasn’t changed that much: the fact that he gambled his life’s savings instead of an amount he could afford to lose is an indication of a gambler who’s either inexperienced or believing in pot luck and so betraying some desperation about his luck. The danger is that if he does win and gets all the money, he may push his luck too much the next time an opportunity to gamble presents itself and get badly burnt, at which point his attitude may change back to what it was before.

Although the program is light-hearted, there is a danger in it in that some viewers may take its message about people making their own luck too literally and believe that positive self-belief or a lucky charm is all you really need to succeed in life. Unfortunately life is rather more complicated than that and on a certain level, people need more than a run of good luck to succeed: they will need persistence and resilience to push through early setbacks, they may need back-up plans and alternative ideas, they may need assistance from others and they may need to know when perhaps it would be in their long-term interest to pull out of something that’s not working for them or is a dead end, burn their bridges and continue being open-minded, aware and alert to future opportunities.

Brown could have said something about how the townspeople’s attitude towards and treatment of the lucky-dog statue illustrate the human tendency to attribute cause to external rather than internal factors leading to such phenomena as the self-fulfilling prophecy.





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