Derren Brown – Fear and Faith (Part 2): religious conversion on tap in episode

Derren Brown and Simon Dinsell, “Derren Brown – Fear and Faith (Part 2)” (2012)

In this second episode of “Fear and Faith”, UK hypnotist / skeptic Derren Brown explores the psychology of religious belief as the ultimate placebo by performing three experiments. The first experiment involves his performance of a supposed Satanic rite before an audience and the second experiment has a number of people sitting for 15 minutes each on their own in a darkened room which they have been told is haunted by spirits. In the third experiment, Brown attempts to give a confirmed atheist, Natalie, a profound religious experience that will convert her to religious belief while they are sitting in a church.

The bulk of the episode is taken up by the third experiment in which Brown attempts to encourage belief in a loving father figure using Pavlovian psychology by tapping his fingers on a table while Natalie recalls warm childhood memories and imagines a perfect parent. He then prods her into believing that the things that have happened in her life, good and bad, are part of a narrative arc created by a benevolent external agent. Finally he plants suggestions into her mind including one in which when she rises to her feet, she will feel overwhelmed with love from an external source; Brown then gets up and leaves her alone. Natalie gets up and is suddenly overcome with awe and feelings of being loved.

This episode is the more enjoyable if no less manipulative of the two in the series. Due to the speed with which the experiments flash past one’s gaze, the creep factor was not so high. Brown demonstrates the apparent ease with which, using psychological techniques, he can at least change Natalie’s attitude from atheism to agnosticism. What is not said is whether Natalie had originally been a very strict materialist atheist or had at some time in her life believed in a vague power or intelligence in and of the universe that directed its creation and the creation of the solar system, Earth and all the life upon it. The conversion might have been more interesting if the audience had known more about the history of Natalie’s beliefs, what she had been brought up to believe as a child, when and how she became a skeptic and an atheist, and if she ever entertained the thought that maybe she might be challenged to change her mind again.

As it is, the episode is fairly innocuous: Brown demonstrates that all humans are psychologically primed to believe that apparent random occurrences happen for a reason and that there may be an external force responsible for them. So powerful is this tendency that even skeptical people like Natalie can be manipulated with methods such as suggestion and association to believe that there is a cosmic force that is watching over them and caring for them. It is just as well that Brown uses “conversion” methods in a caring, nurturing way; if he had used more coercive methods based on manipulating Natalie’s fears and suggesting that all the bad things that have occurred in her life are due to transgressions she had committed as a child or in a previous existence, he might have also converted her to belief in a powerful force and done considerable damage to her as well. Then again, encouraging Natalie to think of a perfect parent and remember warm feelings about her childhood and parents could be potentially damaging also, especially if Brown had started to suggest that she should associate some acts or behaviours with the warm feelings and so prime her to believe that certain criminal activities are not evil or unethical on the basis that they are acceptable to the perfect parent.

The minor experiments that Brown conducts during the course of the episode in which among others he tricks people into smelling peppermint oil where there is none shows that religious belief can be induced even with smells and sounds. This implies that physical sensations play a strong role in priming people to adopt attitudes and emotional moods that encourage belief and worship and suggests that traditional established Christian churches and their counterparts in other religions were clever in emphasising the form of worship and reverence for it rather than reverence for the object of worship to their followers. This might explain the importance of performing rituals in a particular order when for example Muslims perform the hajj or believers in Tibetan Buddhism constantly bow down and touch their heads to the ground while on pilgrimages to temples.

At the end of the show, Brown concludes by asking viewers why they believe in God or Its equivalent and responding that belief in a deity makes people “happy”. What he means by “happiness” is deliberately left obscure: on a certain level, and this is the meaning most people will accept, is that happiness is the peace and satisfaction people gain knowing that they and the world around them are part of a greater design and purpose and that random things happen the way they do because such a pattern actually conforms to this grand tapestry. This belief allows people to believe that bad things happen due to humans not accepting or ignoring this cosmic directive, or that such bad things might be part of a lesson humans must learn so they can rediscover the straight and narrow weave. The problem comes though when disasters or conflicts occur that appear to target the innocent and the blameless in such ways that suggest the cosmic parent doesn’t care about its creations at all; examples of such tragedies include the prevalent of paedophilia among institutions such as the Church, government or others people are taught to trust and respect, or the existence of serial killers and cannibals.

As with previous shows hosted by Brown, this documentary is very slick and smooth (maybe too smooth to the point of brusqueness) in its presentation.


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.

Derren Brown – The Heist: an experiment on conformity and deference to authority and self-help twaddle

Derren Brown and Benjamin Caron, “Derren Brown – The Heist” (2006)

Under the pretence of training a group of middle-level managers in a corporate workshop on motivation set in a country retreat, Derren Brown aims to see if he can persuade ordinary people with psychology against their consciences into committing a bank robbery. The psychological methods he uses play on the managers’ deference to authority and authority figures and their desire or willingness to conform. Firstly he brings the businessmen and women to the country retreat and trains them in his motivational methods, flavoured with plenty of business pop psychology and loads of bulldust; during the training, he inserts subtle subconscious messages that stealing money and robbing banks are not really unethical activities.

Gradually Brown introduces the managers into committing small deviant acts of shoplifting lollies under the cover of an exercise designed to boost their confidence and induce a positive attitude. The shoplifting exercise is hilarious in itself: the shopkeeper and his assistants watch and comment in disbelief as adult men and women in business suits stroll into the shop, nick all manner of small objects off the shelves and confidently walk out. Finally the shopkeeper corners one student and tosses him out into the street; the businessman so dispatched confesses to feeling a failure!

After eliminating four people once this exercise is done, Brown puts the remaining nine through a version of the famous Stanley Milgram / Yale University test in which they must give instructions to a pupil to do something and if he fails to do it correctly, they give him electric shocks. Some of the business people balk at giving the pupil extra painful shocks but the “scientist” supervising the test tells them to continue the shocks even as the “pupil” screams at the pain when he gets the wrong answers and finally falls into a “coma”. The results Brown obtains, apart from being depressingly the same as the results that Milgram obtained in his original experiments, enable him to choose four people who will carry out the heist. Finally Brown gets his subjects to believe through hypnosis, positive thinking teaching, deliberately loaded language including words like “steal” and “grab”, subliminal training and various mental and image associations that they can overpower a security guard.

Brown then brings each of his subjects separately to Gresham Street where a van is parked and a security guard is carrying suitcases of money towards it. The subject must threaten the guard with a toy gun, force him to drop the money and fall to the ground, and then run off with the money.

The results are intriguing: one of the subjects chosen actually resists his conditioning and walks past the security guard even though he has received all the cues the others got. The curious thing though is that in the shoplifting exercise, he stole more goodies than the others did! For another participant, the heist is a traumatic experience as he actually threatened to kill the guard; he was also the one who objected most vociferously to increasing the voltage of shocks to the “pupil” during the Milgram tests. The different results Brown gets out of his subjects suggest the situation and its context are powerful influences on whether the subjects decide to carry out each and every one of the activities they are asked to do.

The episode moves at a brisk pace and at times Brown talks rather too fast for people to absorb all the necessary information about how he influences people through hypnosis, mental imaging, positive self-talk and other psychological techniques to do things they would otherwise never dream of doing. The camera moves quickly as well, panning around Brown as he walks and circles about in Gresham Street, giving the episode a jumpy edge suited to its heist theme.

The lesson to be learnt from the heist experiment is that people are much more conformist and deferential to authority than they are prepared to admit but at the same time the extent to which they’ll conform depends very much on the situation and its general social, maybe cultural and political context in which they find themselves, and what they bring to it from their own upbringing. The guy who hesitated at increasing the voltage of the shocks he was delivering to an actor had no hesitation at threatening to kill a security guard but doing so nearly had him gagging and in shock; the happy fellow who stuffed his pockets with lollies and went all the way to 450 volts, which would have killed the actor had they been for real, simply walked past the guard. He later explains that he’s a “good” person.

Hmm, what was Brown tapping into when he was conditioning these people? If I’d been one of the subjects, would I have forced the security guard to the ground simply because I felt I had to conform to Brown as an authority figure or would he have somehow appealed to the inner rebel in me that says fuck the Bank of England because it already steals from the common people and favours the British political elites? Would I have walked past the guard because my little voice told me not to go through with the heist or because regardless of what I think or feel about Brown and the Bank of England and what that institution represents and does, stealing just is immoral anyway? Did the man who walked past the guard do so because he wants to be thought of as “good” (in other words, he conforms to a higher external authority than Brown, such as government or a religious authority) or because he is “good” in himself (that is, he has internalised goodness as part of his being and essence)? At this point, we have entered the realm of philosophy and morality ethics and Brown’s experiment has been left way behind.

The episode is also critical of motivation seminars and self-help programs that use pop psychology and motivation techniques to induce a sense of personal power and invincibility that may be shallow or be applied in situations that could actually harm the person who has been exposed to these self-help tools. One thinks of native American warriors who were told that if they underwent special magic rituals or wore special talismans, paint or ointment on their bodies as part of their preparation to fight battles, they would be invincible to bullets. Perhaps the creepiest part of the episode is that nearly everyone who participated in the experiment failed to see that the motivational and self-help pop psychology they received was practically a form of brainwashing. The episode also highlights the use of language and how it can be a tool to persuade people to make mental and linguistic connections between things and acts that are considered good and those considered bad.

Derren Brown – Apocalypse (Part 2): heavily staged and predictable post-apocalypse experiment

Derren Brown and Simon Dinsell, “Derren Brown – Apocalypse (Part 2)” (2012)

Second and final part of a mini-series in which Brown conducts an experiment on an unsuspecting young man called Steven, in which Steven is led to believe that civilisation in Britain has crashed after a meteor strike hits it, releasing a deadly virus that turns people into ravenous, flesh-eating zombies, and he is one of a few uninfected survivors. The purpose of the experiment is to help turn around Steven’s life and set him on a more positive course than one he has led so far in which he has lacked direction, motivation and confidence in himself. In the course of the experiment, various scenarios Brown sets up with the help of three actors and his technical crew enables Steven to discover inner qualities he never knew he had, and he almost literally transforms from overgrown immature teenager into self-confident and bright-eyed young man in 48 hours under one’s very gaze.

The episode is quite predictable: apart from the smooth (and heavily edited) running of the post-apocalyptic part of the experiment in which the actors (under Brown’s instructions) gently nudge and guide Steven into situations where he must take the initiative and show leadership, courage and compassion, you have the “emotional reunion” between one of the actors and his “wife” which tears at everyone’s heart-strings, the breathless wait for the rescue helicopter, the dramatic rescue itself which of course has to be jeopardised by the “sudden” arrival of hordes of zombies, the little girl Leona’s fear which causes her to hide in the compound rather than risk being chased and run down by the creatures, and Steven’s heroism in guiding Danny to the helicopter and sacrificing his own chances of being rescued by running back for Leona. All very dramatic, often too much so, and very tear-jerking soap-opera drama this “28 Days Later” experiment wrings out as we see Steven trying to persuade Leona in vain to come with him or convince Danny that the helicopter pilot must wait for Leona and Danny is shaking his head and admitting his own cowardice all the while. There are moments in the documentary where it appears the actors must shove Steven into action as he seems slow in taking the initiative but that could be due in part to the way the editing was done which might have had the unintended effect of “prolonging” certain scenes.

Of course the whole thing is resolved and explained to a very relieved and embarrassed Steven who meets all the actors and the crew who participated in the experiment at his belated 21st birthday party. Funniest part has to be when the actor who played the 14-year-old Leona tells Steven she is actually older than he is! About 28 days later, Brown checks up on Steven to see how much the episode has transformed Steven’s outlook on life and character, and he finds a very changed young man indeed. What would be even more interesting is if Brown were to visit Steven 28 months after the experiment or when Steven is 28 years old, to find out how deeply the experiment has changed him and he has developed other qualities as a result that Brown hadn’t anticipated: qualities such as resilience, determination and taking reasonable risks. The other thing Brown should check up on with Steven is to see whether the lad has broadened his media search networks and changes them often enough so that it would be difficult for Brown to try to control his access to news and information!

As to the worth of the experiment, it would be difficult and expensive to replicate just for one person in need of cognitive behaviour therapy to turn around his/her life, and to be worthwhile it would have to be repeated on a small group of people, say, corporate executives as part of a corporate team-building exercise, who haven’t already seen “28 Days Later”, “Day of the Triffids” or any other movies in the post-apocalyptic survival genre. The exercise would need to be run over several days to test all participants’ mettle and people would need to undergo psychological testing to ensure they are mentally and emotionally prepared and robust.

The creepy aspect of the “Apocalypse” experiment as shown in its two parts is that people can be much more malleable than they realise and that what they rely on for news and information to form and reinforce their concepts of the world and how its systems and networks operate is readily subject to manipulation by governments, corporations and others in whose interest the public should not have access to all information about a range of issues that affect their lives.

Derren Brown – Apocalypse (Part 1): clever if daft and stagey experiment hides some sober truths

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

A cleverly staged if at times daft and rather too cinematic experiment in which UK hypnotist and sceptic Derren Brown convinces a young man called Steven that planet Earth has been devastated by a meteor strike which has brought a mysterious and lethal virus that kills off nearly everyone save a few and Steven is one of the lucky ones who survived – or maybe one of the unlucky ones who survived. Steven soon discovers that many people infected with the virus have turned into – aargghh!!! – vicious, flesh-eating zombies and comes to realise that if he is to avoid being infected, he must summon up all the courage and inner resources he never thought he had just to survive.

Actually the experiment has an ulterior but ultimately benevolent aim: it’s to encourage Steven to change his attitude towards life and the people around him, to prod him into taking charge of his life and make something of himself. Whereas in his previous “The Experiments” series, Brown had said very little about the subjects of the experiments and why he chose them, for “Apocalypse” he goes into considerable detail about why he chose Steven: Steven is revealed as a feckless lad who as the youngest child in his family has been indulged and is quite immature for his age; he lacks motivation and drive, has trouble holding down jobs and handling responsibility, and spends his free time as a couch potato or down at the pub drinking with his mates. His parents are at their wits’ end trying to get him to take control of his life and the entire family agrees to participate in Brown’s grand and complicated plan once the hypnotist has selected Steven as his patsy. During the auditions in which Brown comes across Steven, everyone has undergone psychological testing and the tests have determined that Steven is psychologically robust but quite suggestible.

The prequel to the experiment proper takes six weeks to unfold and in itself involves elaborate preparations to trick Steven into believing that the meteor strike is imminent and to ensure that he receives no other news that conflicts with the fake information Brown feeds him. Steven’s brother hacks into his mobile phone so that Brown can place fake news stories about the meteor strike into the news apps. Brown even arranges with the radio station in Steven’s town to plant fake news stories. The family TV set is adjusted so that it receives planted information. Steven’s favourite TV programs and websites include information about the meteors. As time goes by, the electronic appliances in the family home experience interference which people attribute to the imminent arrival of the interstellar rocks. Brown even feeds fake information to the neighbourhood mechanic who fixes Steven’s van!

At last the day when the meteors are due to strike arrives and Steven and his brother take a coach trip to a secret gig by their favourite band in a faraway secret destination. Of course the whole gig is a set-up and the coach driver and passengers are all actors. The coach travels to a disused industrial site during the evening and suddenly fireballs fall out of the sky. Steven looks out the windows and sees upturned cars, fires on the ground and injured people lying in the coach’s path. He blacks out (actually, one of the coach passengers who turns out to be Brown puts him into a hypnotic trance) and wakes up several hours later in an apparently abandoned hospital. A news announcement on an overhead TV set tells him what he needs to know: that Britain has been hit by meteors which have unleashed a virus that has wiped out most of the country’s population and turned most survivors into zombies. Sure enough, Steven encounters a number of these unfortunates but he and a little girl he befriends escape with the help of a paramedic and the trio hide out in a compound. Steven is forced to contemplate on what his life has been so far.

The experiment looks quite straightforward and Brown appears to be in total control but it has been edited quite heavily to give that appearance and probably in reality Brown and his crew had to go to enormous lengths to ensure Steven did not hear, see or otherwise find any news that contradicted what Brown was feeding him. The fact that over time Steven appears to accept what he is told without question might suggest that humans are highly suggestible and don’t spend much time challenging their own beliefs or going out of their way to test their beliefs and ideas. It seems that the majority of us really do rely on a very narrow range of media for news and information to help us navigate our way through life and with others, and the range of media we do depend on tends to cater to our beliefs and values. Rarely do people investigate media whose views, values and ways of interpreting events and information differ greatly from our own. A person who believes that certain groups of people are inferior in intelligence and culture to his/her own group will seek out information sources whose expressed opinions and mindsets closely match his/her own and confirm his/her view that there is a hierarchy of ethnic groups and human races. This is something that Brown might explore in more depth in a future series. However, due to the edited nature of the program, it’s hard to say whether Steven merely swallowed what Brown fed him without questioning it or tried to find information that contradicted the familiar sources he relied on.

It’s hard to believe that Steven swallows the post-apocalypse scenario lock, stock and barrel, and one wonders if he’s ever seen the Danny Boyle film “28 Days Later” in which a young man wakes up in a hospital and gradually learns that Britain has been hit by an aggressive virus that turns its human victims into mindless, aggressive zombies who infect other humans with the virus by biting them and turn them into zombies too. If he had seen the film, he ought to have realised that maybe there is something strongly smelling of fish about his situation, especially when he sees the zombies running out of the hospital after him and the little girl. Certainly the experiment could have been rather more original and less Hollywood in its staging, right down to the little girl Leona he befriends and must look after.

The episode is quite a laugh and I imagine it was very surreal for Steven who spends a good proportion of his screen time looking like a poor stunned bunny caught in an oncoming semi-trailer’s bright headlights before its forced flight into Carrot Heaven. The film looks impressive with its elaborate preparations and their seemingly smooth scheduling. No hitches appear. I imagine the reality was very different with people working overtime and Brown tearing his hair out to make sure Steven stuck to the prescribed straight and narrow path.

One soberly considers that it would not be much of a stretch for governments, corporations and their agencies and proxies to drip-feed false information and news stories into our media to influence, shape and direct people’s views and mental paradigms about the world around in order to direct popular emotion into supporting policies and ideologies that actually work against the general public’s interest and which divide people into warring factions based on differences in ethnicity, social class, religion, marital status, work status, whatever, so as to keep the population weak and easily controlled. If there is a serious lesson to take away from this documentary and experiment, this would be it.


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.





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.

Crowd behaviour stereotypes confirmed in disappointing if fun “Derren Brown – The Experiments: Gameshow”

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

In Episode 2 of a 4-part psychology series, sceptic and mesmerist Derren Brown is in charge of a faked gameshow in which a masked audience is given control of a man’s life to do with as they please. The objective is to see the extent to which people conform to social pressure, especially if they are anonymous individuals in a crowd and the chances are more than good that they will escape the consequences of the decision they make. In social psychology, the phenomenon is known as deindividuation and has been studied in several experiments of which some of the most famous include Stanley Milgram’s Yale University experiments in 1963 in which participants had to give electric shocks to a man that escalated in voltage the more the man failed to do what he was supposed to do, and Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment.

In Brown’s version of the experiment, the punishments dealt to a man called Chris are more ordinary and common-place but just as unsettling and traumatic. Brown sets up a fake TV gameshow called “Remote Control” in which audience members wear masks and are called upon to choose and vote for one of two scenarios (one that will confer good luck on Chris, the other bad luck) to happen to the victim: the majority choice wins. When we first meet Chris, he’s in a bar with friends: the first set of scenarios the audience must vote on includes one where a girl flirts with him or accuses him of sexual harassment and sets her boyfriend on him. Later scenarios include one in which Chris can either win a prize at a shop or be accused of shop-lifting; one in which the police declare Chris innocent or arrest him; one in which Chris is advised a work colleague is giving him a present or has been sacked by his boss; and one in which he goes to his apartment and discovers he has won money or gets kidnapped by hoodlums.

Invariably the masked audience chooses the worst-case scenario every time and so poor Chris is subjected to ever more distressing if hilarious events that escalate in severity until the climax where he breaks away from the thugs and runs into the path of an oncoming car. The behaviour of various people in the audience becomes more crass: in scenes where a man is rummaging around Chris’s apartment and examines his DVD collection and his underwear, audience members egg him on to sniff the bed-sheets or smash up the TV set.

It’s amusing to watch but on a certain level the episode fails because Brown doesn’t ask individual audience members why they felt they had to behave as they did and vote for the “bad luck” scenario. The answers would have been interesting: some people, no matter what Brown had told them earlier about the authenticity of the events, would still have thought they were watching a melodrama in the making. Brown’s description of Chris earlier in the show also would have been a significant influence on the audience’s choices: Chris is presented as a pleasant and affable fellow, extrovert and happy-go-lucky, full of himself, convinced that he is a Casanova and perhaps needing to be taken down a notch or two. There is nothing in the description of Chris that suggests he ever had an unhappy childhood, was a bully or a bully’s victim. Brown suggests that he has two-timed his girlfriend and this may have been enough for female members of the audience to vote for the “bad luck” scenario to get even with him on the girlfriend’s behalf. Had Brown instead suggested that Chris’s girlfriend had been unfaithful to him and that previous girlfriends had also used him in spite of or because of his good nature, might the choices the audience made have been different ? Would the women in the audience have chosen differently from the men?

It might also have been interesting to know exactly what proportion of the audience voted for the “bad luck” scenario each and every time as opposed to that proportion who voted for the “good luck” scenario. Early on, Brown suggests that the decisions made are by clear majorities (about 80%) but as the program continues and the scenarios become more harrowing, traumatic and unrealistic, the majority vote drops to about 67% or 60%. It might have been interesting to find out why some people were still plumping for a “bad luck” scenario as the choices became more outlandish: perhaps they enjoyed the opportunity to play God and to see how an ordinary guy like themselves reacted to ongoing stress and a run of unusual bad luck after a relatively uneventful life. Perhaps in a way we should not be too hard on people in this particular crowd situation: many in the audience might have identified closely with Chris and were experiencing his hardship vicariously.

One also notes that the “good luck” choices usually involved material rewards and in themselves were not interesting and the “bad luck” choices posed tests of character in a way that didn’t endanger Chris’s life, apart from the last set of choices. The audience may have been looking for Chris’s reactions to each and every disaster and his stoic nature at the bad news – he does not react much to news of being fired from his job – may have influenced people to continually vote for the “bad luck” options just to see if and when he would crack up.

As it is, the episode merely confirms popular stereotypes about people in crowds and mob behaviour: that people will be brutal and uncaring if given the chance and if they know they can get away with being nasty and sadistic with impunity. Brown and the producers leave the episode as is without questioning whether some aspects of the gameshow they created  influenced the audience’s decisions and whether the audience had very different and conflicting motivations for choosing the way they did.

How to train people to kill celebrities in “Derren Brown – The Experiments: The Assassin”

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

An ingeniously planned experiment in hypnosis and mind control aimed at discovering whether it is possible to direct an ordinary member of the public to kill someone is the focus of this episode in a 4-part series hosted by UK hypnotist and sceptic Derren Brown for the British TV station Channel 4. The direct inspiration for this experiment is the shooting of US Presidential candidate Senator Robert Kennedy by Sirhan Bishara Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after a Democratic Party convention in 1968; as of this time of writing, Sirhan is still alive and serving a life sentence in a Californian prison. Sirhan maintains that he has no memory of killing Kennedy and it is thought by some conspiracy theorists that the Jordanian man had been hypnotised and brainwashed under the CIA’s infamous MK-ULTRA project to carry out a killing. Brown decided to test this idea by designing, planning and carrying out an experiment over several months to mesmerise an ordinary person and direct that person to kill famous British celebrity Stephen Fry. (Darn, you wish it had been Tony Blair instead.)

The actual program itself shows the experiment in progress: the planning and design aspects are not shown. Some of these would have been boring for audiences to watch but it would have been fun to know how and why certain parts of the experiment were designed the way they were and what the scientific / psychological reasoning behind them was. Brown gathers about him an audience of people willing to be hypnotised, though they are not told what they are applying for. Gradually Brown selects a small group of people and through various tests in which he hypnotises them and makes them do things they would never dream of doing, he selects a young marketing executive Chris as his potential assassin. Thereafter, Brown puts Chris through more tests to make sure he is the right person for the job, trains him under hypnosis to shoot with deadly accuracy at a firing range, goes through a training run with the young man at a restaurant and finally takes him to the theatre where Fry is giving a public talk.

The results Brown obtains are quite chilling though enjoyable and riveting entertainment. Clever editing and a fast pace ensure that suspense builds during the episode to the moment where Chris falls into a trance in the theatre when he sees his cue: a woman in a polka-dot dress, an idea copied from the Sirhan / Kennedy assassination incident. Fortunately all turns out well and Fry survives to see another day and meet his would-be assassin. The young man is shocked and embarrassed to see himself in his trance on film, and Brown hypnotises him again to remove the polka-dot and other cues that might set him off again.

The real surprise is the reactions of the people in the theatre when Fry collapses on stage and lies very still: the dominant reaction across the audience is one of shock and nothing else. A few people look towards the back, see the audience up there sitting still (these were security guards who’d been informed in advance of the experiment) and Chris seated with his head bowed, and they settle back in their seats. This is perhaps the most terrifying part of the experiment that Brown missed; this is known as the bystander effect aka the Kitty Genovese phenomenon, in which people don’t respond to an emergency if they observe other people around them acting as if nothing happened. There have been many famous incidents around the world illustrating this phenomenon, the most recent in China in 2011 in which a small girl was hit by a van and then a truck in a crowded street and while she lay injured on the road, pedestrians, bystanders, other drivers and cyclists passed her by. A recyclist rescued her and she was taken to hospital where she died a week later.

What would have been really informative is why Brown chose Chris and what he looked for in the people he selected as potential assassins. Chris isn’t anything out of the ordinary and Brown even shows clips of Chris’s relatives vouching for his good character (and then shows an old film of one of Sirhan’s relatives, taken before Kennedy’s killing, saying that Sirhan wouldn’t hurt the proverbial fly). What did Brown see in Chris and another, equally harmless man Alex, that he didn’t see in the other people? What personality characteristics does Chris have that might make him more susceptible to hypnosis than other people? Contrary to what most people assume about hypnosis victims, some factors that might have predisposed Chris to be amenable to hypnosis include an open and fearless personality, a good imagination, an excellent memory, a strong capacity for concentration, strong physical responses to mental imagery (eg crying at sad scenes in movies) and intelligence; in other words, qualities that might be considered desirable to be an above-average achiever in many areas of life! 

A very fun episode that makes you think and wonder, and maybe shudder and thank your lucky stars that Brown is not working for the CIA or any other spooks’ organisation!