Derren Brown is a Liar

by Dan H

Dan rehashes a five year old Simon Singh article, and then spends a really, really long time discussing that show where the girl kills the cat.
"I am often dishonest in my techniques ... I happily admit to cheating, it's all part of the game. I hope some of the fun for the viewer comes from not knowing what's real and what isn't" - Derren Brown, Tricks of the Mind p341

I'm opening with this quote in order to make clear from the start that this article's self-consciously attention-grabbing title is not actually supposed to be a personal attack on Derren Brown. I think the guy's amazing, I think he's one of the most charismatic showmen and most talented performers I've ever seen. I think he's a phenomenal magician.

That sentence again with emphasis. He's a phenomenal magician.

When I say Derren Brown is a liar, I mean it as a simple statement of fact. He is a magician, magicians lie. It is their job, it is their method, it is their modus operandi. Of course magicians seldom lie directly (when a magician says he has nothing up his sleeves, it is to attract your attention towards his sleeves and away from something else) but they do lie. They lie all the time. Sometimes they lie by omission ("here, take a look at this marked deck of cards") sometimes they lie by claiming they have done something they haven't ("I will now shuffle this deck of cards so that there is no possible way I can know where your card is") they lie by pretending that they're letting you do things yourself when really they're making all the important decisions for you.

Derren Brown is a liar, so is Paul Daniels, so is David Blaine, so was Tommy Cooper.

Simon Singh wrote a rather scathing article in which he denounces a lot of Brown's work on the grounds that it pretends to be "genuine" psychology when it actually fairly clearly isn't according to a large number of reputable psychologists. Brown himself apparently found the article quite fair (see this interview) as he freely admits that his shows belong squarely in the category of "entertainment" not "science". Ultimately, I agree absolutely with Singh's observations: for a large part of his act, Derren Brown dresses up traditional and original "magic tricks" as psychology. Unlike Singh, I don't think this makes him a fraud, I think this makes him a fucking genius.

Derren Brown's first series began every show with the line "I mix magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship". In Tricks of the Mind he adds that he tries to be "honest about his dishonesty" and in his interview with Jeremy Ian Swiss (linked above) he elaborates on that famous introduction, saying:
"In the back of my mind I knew that all the things that make mentalism interesting, and all the things that you adore talking about with fellow performers ... are all the things that you're not allowed to talk to the general public about. So you make up some line that isn't true. But because it's not essentially true, people will sniff that and know it. Because people do. So my feeling was that if there was a way of still maintaining, still maximizing the impact of the effects, but allowing people in to appreciate the process or the thinking behind it, in a tantalizing way ..."

All day, I've been trying to put together my idea of how I think Derren Brown works and I think that quote sums it up better than anything. He gives you just enough of a glimpse of his methods that you believe that he does exactly what he says he's doing.

To play psychologist myself for a moment, there's an idea in psychology called "reciprocity". The basic idea being that if somebody does something nice for you (or something which they present as being nice for you) you will feel a sense of obligation towards them, a sense of trust. According to the Criminal Minds episode I got this idea from, it's how car dealers persuade you to pay over the odds for a car: they offer to drop the price "just for you" and because they've tried to help you, you feel the need to help them by buying the car.

Brown's act works in a very similar way: he shares with his audience just enough information that they feel that they're "in on it". This creates a sense of trust, which creates a sense that he's telling you the truth, which of course he often isn't because he's a magician. It's fantastically interesting (to me at least) because this allows him to draw even the most sceptical audience members into believing in him. People who would never in a million years believe that you could predict the future by magic are more than willing to believe that you can predict people's actions by "psychology".

For example: in one of his shows, Brown performs a fairly traditional book test. For the uninitiated, this is a very very old trick in which the magician gets a member of the audience to pick a book at random, then pick a page at random, then pick a word at random, then they "magically" choose the word. People have been doing this trick for centuries, and there's a bunch of ways to do it, from the obvious (use a plant) to the complex (get them to do something involving random numbers in such a way that the numbers always come out the same).

In Brown's version of the trick, however, there's a twist. Having miraculously revealed the word that he forced (in the magician's sense of the word) the spectator to pick, he goes on to explain that he manipulated them into choosing that word using psychology. He then goes back to show clips from the show in which he had casually slipped words and phrases into his conversation which subconsciously programmed the audience member to pick exactly the book, page and word he wanted.

Now in the spirit of open-mindedness I should say that it is possible that he was telling the truth, but let's look at the facts:

1.There exists a well known trick in which a magician "miraculously" predicts or "guesses" a word chosen seemingly at random from a whole stack of books.
2.Derren Brown, a magician, who freely admits to using regular common or garden magic in his show, and who admits to being dishonest in his methods, performs a trick with exactly this effect.
3.Psychological manipulation, subliminal messages, and the like are very, very hit and miss affairs. If they weren't people would be using the damned things to rig elections.
4.Brown is performing this trick in front of a paying audience, and on television. He can't afford to have it go wrong.

Now is it possible that he really did use psychological manipulation to control the outcome of the test? Yes of course, but can you really put your hand on your heart that you believe that it is more likely that he was able to manipulate somebody's decisions with 100% accuracy just through slipping a few words into a conversation than that he just did the trick in the normal way?

What I find so peculiar, and so impressive, about Derren Brown is that so many people will swear blind that he really does everything the way he says he does. I've had people point blank refuse to accept that the book test was worked by anything other than raw psychological manipulation, refuse to even countenance the possibility that the bit where he makes a girl kill a cat represents anything other than 100% genuine applications of 100% kosher psychology. (There's a Youtube video of it here .)

I said earlier that Derren Brown was an absolute fucking genius, and I'll say it again. His genius is that he's found a way to make people really, truly believe in magic. Of course it's not the "magic" of a hundred years ago, when people would readily believe that there really were mysterious techniques out of the Orient that would allow a man to fly or saw a woman in half, it's a new magic for the modern age. Ever since Hannibal Lecter, the media has presented us with this image of the Psychologist as a being of incredible power, able to dissect our innermost thoughts and manipulate us with flawless precision or unleash our darkest fears. It's bunk of course, psychologists and psychiatrists are no more able to infallibly control our minds than doctors are able to infallibly control our bodies, but it is a powerful image and as Brown himself observes:
"The ease with which something can be represented to oneself makes a real difference in its emotional impact ... If a newspaper runs an ill-researched story that screams out that such-and-such a product causes cancer, that awful image lingers in the mind much more vividly than the actual facts of the scientific report ..."

He's talking about pseudoscience and anti-scientific thinking, by the way. Later on he adds (with reference to fraudulent mediums):
"We can picture the psychic's perceived skill in our minds, whereas it is harder to picture the various techniques he may actually be using."

Both of these lines come from Tricks of the Mind, page 311-312, and they explain, with perfect clarity, why otherwise sensible people believe in completely impossible things like Alternative Medicine, psychic phenomena, and of course Derren Brown. It is easy for us to imagine him using clever psychological techniques (never fully explained, but oh-so-tantalizing to speculate about) to manipulate people, just like we've seen movie psychiatrists do all our lives. It's not easy to imagine him going through the kind of elaborate (and largely mundane) charades that tend to be the real explanation for most magic tricks.

The sixth part of Derren Brown's best selling Tricks of the Mind is entitled "Anti-Science, Pseudo-Science and Bad Thinking". It is from this section of the book that both of the above quotes were taken. Although consciously avoiding being seen as a "debunker" he has made two well-received shows (Sance and Messiah) in which he reveals the tricks of various charlatans and confidence tricksters (mediums and charismatic religious leaders respectively). Partly out of a sense of irony and partly because I have a sneaking suspicion that he would appreciate the joke, I thought I'd end this article by applying some of his helpful information about the dangers of pseudo-science and bad thinking to ... well ... his own work. So without further ado I give you...

Debunking Derren: How Derren Brown Uses Psychological Manipulation To Make You Think He's Using Psychological Manipulation On Other People

Again, I should stress that this is intended not as a criticism of Derren Brown, but as a tribute. I repeat the man is a genius, he's such a master of manipulation that he can manipulate the entire viewing public into thinking he really can do things which are clearly impossible.

I thought I'd start with that beautiful statement from the start of his act: "I mix magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship."

Well magic, as a discipline, is all about misdirection and showmanship. Misdirection is clearly applied psychology (plus some showmanship) and suggestion is misdirection by another name with added psychology. This wonderful introduction (which, as I have already pointed out, creates such a beautiful sense of intimacy) tells you nothing about his methods, but leaves you feeling that you have been let in on something secret and private. He makes you feel clever for understanding the way in which he manipulates people. He makes you feel so clever that you forget to question for a moment whether he's really doing what he says he does.

In fact, it's even more interesting than that, because not only does he make you feel clever, but he makes your feeling of cleverness (and how we all relish that) contingent upon your accepting his cleverness. You only get that reassuring feeling of saying "oh yes, I can see him using suggestion on that person there" if you first accept that he really is using suggestion in the first place. In Tricks of the Mind Brown talks about "presupposition": making the subject of a suggestion take that suggestion as a given rather than something they have any particular choice about. When Brown puts people into a hypnotic "trance" (a state which, he freely admits doesn't really do anything or have any meaning) he will do it by saying things like "as you sink deeper into the trance" (as opposed to "you will sink deeper into the trance," saying "will" admits the possibility of "will not"). A very good example is from his hypnosis of David Tennant.
"As you sit down, as you relax, as your hand goes right there [he lifts Tennant's unresisting hand] and that hand doesn't need to come down any more quickly than it takes you to drift away, at your own rate and speed..."

Notice that he doesn't for a second admit to the possibility that "drifting away" is anything but inevitable. He makes Tennant focus on his hand, and how it drifts down, presupposing the idea of "drifting" into a trance. In exactly the same way, much of Brown's presentation presupposes that he is working through psychological manipulation. The front cover of Tricks of the Mind describes him as "either a balls out conman or the scariest man in Britain" he presents the idea that he can do genuine "mind control" (hell, it was the name of his first series) and a lot of people accept this at face value.

Probably the most striking demonstration of Brown's "mind control" abilities was the episode in which he uses the power of "negative suggestion" to make a perfectly ordinary girl electrocute a kitten. Watch the clip.

No really, go and watch the clip.

It looks pretty convincing, doesn't it? It looks pretty clear that Derren Brown is doing exactly what he says he's doing: using the power of negative suggestion in order to force this girl to kill the kitty (the kitty actually survives, they can't do that sort of thing on TV, whatever he says at the start of the episode). But the question is, is it really the girl who has succumbed to Derren Brown's powers of mental manipulation, or is it you...

(Sorry, that bit was pointlessly melodramatic).

In keeping with the "applying his own methods to his act" theme of this part of the article, I thought I'd open this analysis of the "Cat Episode" with another quote from the book. For those of you that absolutely insist that Derren Brown really did get that girl to fry a kitten by the power of suggestion, I say the following (and I quote Derren Brown, quoting his creative partner Andy)
"Let's absolutely presume that your explanation is correct. No-one is contesting it or attacking it, and I'm not trying to prove it wrong, OK? Now let's put that in an imaginary box so it's safe. Now that we know it's safe, let's look at some other possibilities, which might explain things in a different way."

So that's how I'm going to round out this article, I'm going to analyse the second episode of the second series of Trick or Treat (or at least a seven minute clip of it) in reasonable detail, and try, not to say how it was done, but to look at it from an angle that does not presuppose that Derren Brown really can make people slaughter innocent animals through the power of suggestion.

Leaving aside the "it all works exactly like he says it works" option, then, I can think of three other alternatives.

Option One: She's a Plant

I mention this first not because I actually think she is. Derren Brown denies that he uses actors or stooges, and as I said at the start of this article, magicians very seldom lie directly. On the other hand, I think we should remind ourselves of two important points.

One: Magicians sometimes use plants. There are a whole bunch of tricks that only work with a plant, or that work best with a plant. Magicians use a whole bunch of methods in their tricks which you or I would think of as cheating. The reason they do this is because they cannot, of course, really do magic.

And the second thing to remember is, as I have said many times in this article Derren Brown is a magician. Now I actually believe him when he says that this girl was just somebody who agreed to be on the program (it's about all I do believe, but we'll discuss that later) but if you don't accept at least the possibility that she's an out of work actress who he paid fifty quid to pretend she was being mind controlled, you're simply not thinking clearly.

Now we've got that one out the way, what's the next alternative?

Option Two: She Doesn't Actually Press the Button

Still got that clip open? Open it again if you haven't. Fast forward to the seven minute mark (seven minutes fifteen seconds if you'd rather).

What do you see?

Well you see the girl get increasingly agitated and then suddenly, seemingly spontaneously, go and press the button exactly as the countdown hits one second (and in passing, isn't it a bit of a coincidence that this "negative suggestion" had such an amazing sense of dramatic timing).

Look at it again. What do you see.

We see a close up of the kitten.

We see a close up of the girl.

We see a close up of the clock.

We see a blonde girl in a pink top walking across a room towards a table.

We see a hand in a pink sleeve pressing a button. (And if you look really closely, you'll see that the button moves up as she moves her hand towards it, what's that about?)

We see the lights go out as a flash comes from the cat's box.

We see a night-vision shot of the girl looking really upset.

Steps four and five there are vital. Again, I'm not saying "this is definitely how it was done" but I think it's extremely interesting that in the two crucial shots (which altogether last approximately three seconds) we do not get a clear look at the girl's face, and when she pushes the button we only see a hand.

Again, again, all I'm saying is "this is an alternative, plausible explanation". Anybody who has seen The Prestige must realize that magicians regularly use doubles, they regularly make you watch something, thinking it is something else. That's how a great many teleportation/translocation/escapology tricks work.

Again I'm not saying that the trick definitely works like this, but I think it would explain a few things. It's been suggested (okay, it's been suggested by my brother, who's an amateur magician but a successful one who does actually know quite a lot about this stuff) that a magician never does anything by accident. His every move and gesture will be either performing or concealing some significant action. That natty bit of decoration on the stage isn't there to look good, it's there to stop you seeing something. Applying this piece of logic to the cat routine, I am forced to ask myself why the lights went out, and I am inclined to answer "because they wanted to stop you seeing something, and they wanted to scare the shit out of the girl".

This of course leads to the follow-up question "what did they want to stop you seeing, and why did they want to scare the shit out of the girl?"

And isn't one plausible answer that they wanted to cover up the fact that the girl was standing nowhere near the button, that she hadn't pressed the button at all? And that they wanted to provoke a reaction from her so that it would looklike she had pressed the button, and was now freaked out about it.

This is probably the most interesting option of the three I'm going to consider, not because it's most likely to be right, but because it highlights most clearly the very narrow line between "legitimate illusion" and "cheating". I think if Brown were to come out and say "That Dan Hemmens guy is totally right, what we do is we cut away from the girl in the room, and then get a double to press a copy of the button, then kill the lights" a lot of people would feel cheated: it would seem like a camera trick (after all, if you had actually been in the room, the trick would be impossible) but you have to remember that this isn't a stage effect, it's one designed specifically for television. The actual use of camera tricks would of course be utterly unprofessional, and no magician who didn't want to risk his career would ever stoop to using actual "special effects" (although of course, many do use stage special effects such as secret doors and flash paper).

The thing is, if the trick (notice, by the way, how I've taken to calling it a trick, thereby encouraging you to accept my interpretation of events, it's that damned presupposition again) really was worked in the way I've just outlined, I for one would defend its legitimacy. Most magic tricks work by presenting you with a start point and an end point, and letting you fill in the middle for yourself. You see a coin, you see a magician take a coin into his hand you see him open his hand and it is empty. You conclude that the coin has vanished (not least because the magician has told you that he will make the coin vanish). You don't clearly see the coin vanish, you don't even really see it go into the guy's hand (because it regularly doesn't). Nothing in the trick is actually dishonest (even if it includes the method I suggest) because it still ultimately relies on the magician's ability to fool you into accepting his version of events (the coin has vanished, the girl spontaneously decided to kill the kitten) over the events you actually perceived.

If that's how he did it.

Option Three: Derren Brown is a Liar

Okay, you should still have the clip open now (I did tell you there was another option coming up). Rewind all the way to the beginning and watch the intro.

Watch the bit where Brown says "when you push the button, it electrocutes the kitten". Notice the lack of reaction. Now this bit is actually a flashback to earlier in the episode, so it isn't entirely clear, you can see the full episode:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Looking at that clip, either the abbreviated one, or the full clip, I could not put my hand on my heart and say "there is a girl who is totally certain that if she pushes the button it will kill the kitten". It doesn't look like she's even heard him to be honest (she's too busy looking at the kitten to notice). Not only that, but if you look at the second of the three links above you should see that as he says that pressing the button kills the kitten be turns away and covers his mouth. Again, remember that we're operating here off the maxim that a magician never does anything by accident.

So here's my guess, and for what it's worth it's the guess that I actually think is right (or as close to it as I'm likely to get without stealing Derren's diary).

This particular episode is interspersed with clips demonstrating the power of "negative suggestion" he tells a couple of children not to open a box, and they do. He tells a tightrope walker not to fall off and he does. One of these clips plays between Derren meeting the girl and his leading her to the room. During this time we have absolutely no idea what he has said to her. Probably it has something to do with her being put in a position where she might kill a kitten, but I'd bet a reasonable sum of money on his not having told her that the death of the kitten was triggered by her pressing the button. I'd even bet a slightly smaller sum of money on his having explicitly told her that the death of the kitten would be triggered by something else entirely.

Watch the introduction again (you might want to use the full episode links). Notice that when he's explaining the parts of the trick which to the audience are most important (this is the electrical cable, it is connected to this button, if you press this button you will kill the kitten) he's usually facing away from the girl. Brown says "don't kill the kitten" a whole lot, but he only actually says "don't press the button" once and be deliberately downplays it. Listen to it again (am I sounding obsessive at this point?) his statement that pressing the button kills the kitten does not provoke any kind of reaction from her, and he makes it in a casual, offhand way that would make it very easy for the girl to miss it. Remember as well that while we hear everything Derren says through the magic of television, she's just in a room with him, have you ever had somebody try to explain something to you while facing in a completely different direction, talking in a quiet monotone and deliberately drawing your attention to other things?

Brown presents the audience with a very clear, very simple impression of the "demonstration": he will use the power of "negative suggestion" to suggest to the girl that she kill the kitten. "All she has to do" we are told, is just resist the temptation to press the button for five minutes and she gets 500 pounds and a healthy kitty. The fact that she fails we take as a conclusive demonstration of Brown's awesome powers of persuasion. But look at the girl's behaviour. From the moment she steps into the room she looks distracted, agitated. There's something not right about her. As the time progresses she grows more and more upset, until by the end of the sequence she is close to tears. She glances from the cat to the clock to the cat but there are a couple of things that I think are very important.

Firstly, she never looks at the button. Compare that with the small children in the real negative suggestion video. They just clearly want to press the button from the outset, they sit there staring at it and saying "we shouldn't push it, we mustn't push it" and then they inevitably do. The girl in the trick, though, pays no attention to the button at all, all her attention is on the cat. If there was really a "negative suggestion" making her want to press the button then she would be looking at the button, not the cat and the clock.

Secondly, she looks distraught. All the language Brown uses to describe the way "negative suggestion" works is that of childishness, naughtiness. The clips in the show that show people looking in the "don't look through this hole" hole, or the children with the box they mustn't open, show their subjects looking gleeful, happy at the idea that they're doing something they're not supposed to. The girl in the "demonstration" however is just completely freaking out.

The only explanation I can give for this is that Derren Brown explained the demonstration to her before she came into the room, and that the explanation he gave to her was something completely different to what he gave the audience. Whatever he told her, it must have been something to do with the cat, because that's what all her focus is on.

"... but Here's What Really Happened"

Okay, I couldn't resist the Clue reference. Of course I don't actually know how Derren Brown does his routines, what's coming up is just a guess, but I think it's a good guess, and I think it's a guess which explains the actual events of the episode far, far better than "negative suggestion".

The key to understanding the "Cat Trick" (I think) is that it's really three tricks, one played on the girl, and one played on the audience, and one to stitch them together.

The trick played on the girl goes something like this:

She comes to this psychological interview at which she is "ambushed" by Derren Brown. Derren offers her the usual "trick or treat" choice, but doesn't tell her which she's had until after the demonstration is finished. On the way to the demonstration, he explains to her what she'll be expected to do. My guess is that it was couched in terms of the Milgram experiment (which Brown has heard of, and which may have inspired the whole "cat in a box" deal in the first place), I think that she was told that she would be given a two minute time limit (remember the clock only appears at two minutes) in order to make the cat do something " probably perform some kind of trick. I think that Derren probably informed her that he was going to use some kind of psychological or hypnotic technique to help her, and probably expressed it in terms of "positive and negative thinking". I think he told her that if she failed to succeed in her task within the time limit, the kitten would be killed (perhaps suggesting that the potential death of the kitten was a kind of "negative thought" that he wanted her to try to keep out), and I think this is where the real "suggestion" came in, I think he encouraged her to accept that if she failed in the task she would have effectively "killed" the kitten.

I'm also pretty much certain that at this point he tells her that, succeed or fail, at the end of two minutes she should press the button to be let out of the room. Again remember that the button visibly "pops up" just as she's about to put her hand on it.

So they walk into the room and they chat for a bit, he's obviously been talking to her for a while now, and because the cameras are all hidden she's not aware that she's now on film when she wasn't previously. This explains why she doesn't ask for clarification when he tells her that "all she has to do is not kill the cat". That has already been cleared up in their earlier discussion. Listen to the conversation again if you like, doesn't it sound like they're continuing something they started earlier? They carry on talking for a while and Brown gets her to perform a couple of arbitrary tasks (drawing a picture, doing some simple visualisation). It's possible that he's told her that these exercises will help her do whatever she's supposed to do with the cat. Then he takes out a sodding great digital clock and starts a two minute countdown (did you wonder why the clock only came out then? I did) and it's now that the girl gets really, really upset. Again, look at the clip, and notice that her attention is now totally on the cat. If she was really just trying not to kill it, she'd be trying to do something, anything else in order to distract herself. But no, she focuses on the cat intently, but gradually becomes aware that it's not going to do whatever she has to get it to do to save its life. So she gradually comes to realize that she's going to "kill the cat". She gets more and more upset, glancing at the clock (like somebody who feels they're running out of time, not like somebody who's willing it to go faster) until finally it ticks down to zero, and she presses the button to signal that she wants to be let out. This triggers a huge explosion and she freaks the hell out.

Then Derren Brown comes in and reassures her that everything is okay, that it was "never about the cat" but that it was about the way that "negative thinking" could affect her. She is silent and obviously overwhelmed with the conflicting emotions of thinking she'd killed a kitten and then discovering she hadn't.

Then there's the trick he played on the audience.

The aim of this trick was to make the audience implicitly accept the terms of the "demonstration". To make the audience absolutely accept that (a) negative suggestion works that (b) negative suggestion was the only force at play in this trick and that (c) it was therefore possible to achieve amazing effects purely by the force of this "negative suggestion".

The first thing to realize is that the audience has a very, very different experience to the girl. The girl's first experience is meeting Derren Brown in real life, the audience's first experience is the introductory sequence to the show. Remember all the talk earlier about the power of images? How the image of a psychic who can read minds is so much more powerful than the image of a man using a variety of fairly banal techniques to make a string of decent guesses?

The episode begins with a picture of a cute little kitten and Derren Brown's authoritative voiceover saying to you "would you kill a kitten, just because someone told you not to?" You just don't get a stronger and more powerful image than that. No matter what happens in the rest of the episode, no matter what else you see or hear, what stays with you is that simple, powerful image: "would you kill a kitten, just because someone told you not to?" It's a bold image that carries a simple promise: in this episode Derren Brown will make somebody kill a kitten, just by telling them not to.

The next step in the audience-end trick is to make the idea of "killing a kitten because somebody told you not to" plausible. To this end, Derren devotes a good portion of this episode to exploring an idea he calls "negative suggestion" or what you might call the "don't push the button/don't think of orange penguins" effect (and on a side note, I just lost The Game). He starts with a simple shot of a big set of blue boards with a hole in them and a huge yellow sign saying "don't look through this hole". Of course people keep on coming up to look through the hole, it's human nature. After this he shows us some children who are told to look after a box and on no account open it. Of course they all do because they're kids.

The purpose of these two clips (and a third shown later, where he gets a tightrope walker to fall off his rope, effectively by saying "don't look down") is to cement firmly in our minds the concept of "negative suggestion" they function, in fact, as a form of suggestion themselves. By introducing the ideas in this way, Brown constructs an argument designed specifically to make his central promise, that he can make a woman kill a cat just by telling her not to, sound more plausible.

Of course, it's still a bit of a leap from "don't look down" to "don't kill that cat" but he adds another layer of plausibility (which is to say, another layer of misdirection) by telling us that he will "regress" the girl to a childlike state. So throughout the demonstration he treats the girl as a child, he gives her orange squash to drink, gives her crayons to draw with, and makes her talk about her childhood, about times when she was "a big naughty". We, the audience, cleverly interpret this as psychological manipulation, but we foolishly think that it is the girl who is being manipulated when in fact it is us. By making the girl behave in a childish manner, he encourages us to compare her to the children we saw earlier, who couldn't stop themselves from pressing a red button once they had been told it was forbidden. If you actually look at the girl's behaviour in the episode, there is nothing remotely childlike about it except when she's actively doing the childish things Derren Brown tells her to do. The whole "regression" element, I am convinced, is misdirection for the benefit of the audience.

Then there's the clicking the pen, the banging on the table, and all the other little things which are supposed to "reinforce" the "suggestion" which he has in fact never given her. Again these are all misdirection for our benefit, spotting them makes us feel clever, makes us feel closer to the trick, stop us realising that the trick is being played on us, as much as on the girl.

Then the countdown comes out, and as things tick down we get hooked on the question of whether the girl is going to kill the cat, and when she presses the button at the end it functions as the final demonstration of Brown's argument, and a conclusive proof of the power of "negative suggestion". We are duly amazed.

Of course, for this to work, you need the all important third trick.

The third trick is made up of the masterful pieces of misdirection which allow Derren Brown to convince the audience that the girl has exactly the same understanding of the situation that they do and this is the bit that, if I'm right, is really mind-blowingly clever.

Brown repeats and repeats and repeats the idea of "negative suggestion" to the audience, and he repeats it so often that the audience completely fail to realize that he never actually makes any kind of "negative suggestion" to the girl at all. Oh he says "don't kill the kitten" but, as we've established, that could just as easily mean "don't fail to do the thing which will stop us from killing the kitten" as it could mean "don't press the button which will kill the kitten". Of course he has to be seen to tell her that pressing the button will kill the kitten, but he does so in a way she obviously won't hear, he distracts her by attracting her attention to the power cables, and then and only then says "pressing the button will electrocute the kitten" and he says it in a quiet monotone, while turning away.

Of course the audience hears him perfectly, because we're watching through the hidden cameras, and that again is a crucial part of the psychological manipulation Brown is practicing on us. Because these are "hidden cameras" we feel we are privileged to be using them, that we are spying on the contestant without her knowing. We feel that we are in control, because we can see her and she doesn't know we're here. In fact, the hidden cameras allow Derren Brown to control exactly what we hear, and to manipulate our perception of events perfectly. He needs only to turn his back on the girl and speak into a camera, and the audience will believe that she has been told something she in fact never heard, or didn't take in. So the audience is tricked into believing that the girl has the same understanding of the situation that they do, when in fact she is operating on a completely different set of rules, which Brown has confided to her in secret (and again, our lovely secret cameras make us forget that we don't see everything).

There are only a couple of points at which the gaps between the two tricks become noticeable. The first is when Brown brings out his digital timer at the two minute mark, it seems to me to be a strong sign that the contestant believes she is trying to achieve something within a two minute time limit. In the actual show, there is a constant countdown from five minutes on the screen, but the girl only gets a timer for the last two.

The second, and most interesting, is at the end after the cat doesn't die. The girl is totally silent, as you might expect from somebody who has undergone such an intense emotional experience, but Brown's words of reassurance are extremely interesting:
"and the treat, Laura, because it was a treat that you picked today, is that every time that you find yourself focusing negatively, your brain is going to take you back to this very powerful emotional experience that you've had tonight..."

Notice that he talks about negative thinking not negative suggestion. he does mention negative suggestion earlier in the debriefing, and the idea of her having to "cave in and press the button" but he dashes over it which again seems to me to imply that he wants her to ignore that bit and focus on "thinking in a negative way". Listen to the debriefing again, remember that (as Brown tells us in Tricks of the Mind) we tend to focus on information that reinforces our expectations. We, the audience, ignore the talk about "thinking negatively" (not the same as negative suggestion) because the idea of "negative suggestion" is so firmly planted in our minds we just assume that he means the thing he's already talking about. I believe that, in exactly the same way, the girl ignores all the (extremely casual, very rushed) references to "caving in and pressing the button" and the difference between "negative thinking" and "negative suggestion" just as we do.

That, I think, is how episode two of season two of Derren Brown's Trick or Treat works. He used, as he always said he used, magic, misdirection, psychology, suggestion and showmanship to convince his contestant that her failure to perform some impossible task was going to "kill a cat" and to convince his audience that she was actually just struggling to resist the urge to kill the cat by pressing a button, and to blend those two completely different sets of assumptions together seamlessly (or almost seamlessly) to create the simple, powerful illusion that he had made a sweet nineteen year old girl "kill a cat, just because he told her not to."

Derren Brown is a balls-out conman and the scariest man in Britain.

Themes: TV & Movies

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Comments (go to latest)
Surreal at 23:58 on 2008-08-03
Nice article. I will treat Derren's explanations of his act with more scepticism in future.

Your suggestions about how the kitten execution worked are clever, but left me with a question. If she is not a plant, why did the girl not go to the press if her experience was not as it appeared on TV? She could have had to have been paid off after the trick was completed. But I also imagine that the draw of publishing a "Derren Brown a Fraud" story would be fairly strong and so the corresponding pay off (fame or monetary) for snitches would be too. If Derren's act required him to regularly trust participants not to blab, I would have expected one of them to have come forward by now. Maybe this has happened and I have not heard.
Dan H at 10:07 on 2008-08-04
Hi, nice to see a new poster around here.

I don't think she'd blab for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that she had to sign some kind of non-disclosure agreement. Secondly, most people recognize that it's really bad form to give away a magician's secrets (I felt a little bit guilty about writing this article to be honest, but I figured that since it was all guesswork it was kosher). When a magician puts a member of the general public in a vanishing cabinet, they don't go around telling everybody about the secret door in the back.

Besides, as I hope I've made fairly clear in the article, if Derren Brown *did* do the Kitten Effect the way I think he did that doesn't make him a fraud, just a master illusionist. Remember that magic is 99% misdirection, and one of the most important aspects of misdirection is making sure your audience doesn't know where to look for the trick.
Surreal at 15:59 on 2008-08-04
Hello. I'm a friend of Rami by the way.

I was thinking when I posted, that a participant unwilling to stay quiet might just refuse to sign a non-disclosure agreement. But I suppose then Derren could then pull the trick from the show entirely, which would leave the participant without much to blab about. We do also know that Derren can be very persuasive. Given the setup, they might even have got them to sign even before taking part, if it could be made to appear a formality.

The analogy of the people in the vanishing cabinet seems fair. I suppose it is unlikely that they experienced being "disappeared" as a trip to pixie land, so magicians must often have relied on some complicity from their participants. I suppose it is cynicism to think that with such a high-profile magician not everyone would be unwilling to be a spoilsport.

I agree that if your explanation is correct, it would not make Derren a fraud. I was thinking how the story could be spun for maximum scandal by a news outlet.
Arthur B at 20:05 on 2008-08-05
I was thinking when I posted, that a participant unwilling to stay quiet might just refuse to sign a non-disclosure agreement. But I suppose then Derren could then pull the trick from the show entirely, which would leave the participant without much to blab about. We do also know that Derren can be very persuasive. Given the setup, they might even have got them to sign even before taking part, if it could be made to appear a formality.

Surely, in fact, the normal procedure with these things is to expect people to sign non-disclosure agreements before they take part in the thing you do not wish them to disclose details about?

Also, as Dan points out "Magician does not actually use magic" is about as newsworthy as "dog bites man", and as such it would be very hard for most news outlets to actually make a scandal out of that. In fact, most of the Derren Brown scandals I recall seem to involve newspapers acting as if he's actually playing Russian Roulette live on television for real (for example), which would seem to bolster his act more than it undermines it.
Dan H at 13:20 on 2008-08-07
Actually IIRC there were a few articles after the Russian Roulette trick loudly proclaiming "Russian Roulette Trick a Hoax!"

With the Cat thing, though, people were mostly complaining because they assumed it was real.
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