Derren Brown, “The Experiments” – Review


Derren Brown’s latest four-part series The Experiments came to an end last Friday. Brown explored the power and depth of suggestion along with some stunning revelations about human nature. He proved that someone can plan an assassination and skilfully programme a random person to carry it out; that crowd psychology can be powerfully negative – especially when the individuals in the crowd are wearing masks; the idea that you can make someone confess to a crime they never committed; and finally, that we create our own luck – he showed that it is all about opportunities and how we exploit them.

The second episode of the series, The Gameshow, looked into crowd behaviour. One of the ways in which contemporary social psychologists try to explain the behaviour of crowds is via the idea of deindividuation. Members of a crowd feel anonymous, and this leads to a decrease in the feeling of responsibility and the loss of inhibitions. The phenomenon of deindividuation has been used to explain all kinds of anti-social behaviour. An example of this would be groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (with their identical attire) committing acts of terrorism and torture.

In The Gameshow, Brown looked at what happens when you put the power to make decisions (over someone else’s life) in the hands of a faceless crowd. Under the guise of a game show in which the audience got to decide the fate of one victim, Brown demonstrated how easy it was to fall into the trap of deindividuation. The audience were under the impression that they were taking part in a show called ‘Remote Control’; not realising that they were the real subject of Brown’s experiment.

In the show, the audience was given the chance to choose between two contrasting options that would affect the night of one person; Chris. One of the options had a positive outcome, the other, a negative one. As the show evolved, the choices became more pronounced; starting with the simple choice of either having someone flirt with Chris (hence making him feel good about himself) or have him be accused of pinching a girl’s bottom. With each proceeding chance to choose between two options, the majority of the audience continued to vote for the more negative and malicious option. Furthermore, the “mob-like” audience found all of Chris’s misfortunes hysterical. In fact, at one point they were frantically cheering for Chris’s property to be destroyed.

The behaviour of the audience was a reflection of the behaviour exhibited in the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 conducted by Philip Zimbardo. In this experiment, a selection of normal pedestrians were randomly allocated the roles of prisoners and wardens, and left to their own devices for an extended period in a prison-like environment (discussed in Zimbardo’s book The Lucifer Effect). The experiment had to be abandoned due to the overly cruel treatment handed out to the prisoners.

The show ended in a catastrophic incident that drowned the audience in a sudden surge of silence, the laughter and amusement had stopped and the audience looked like reprimanded school children as Brown revealed to them the actual aim of The Gameshow. Barring the initial monotony of the show, it was a good dose of insight and entertainment.

Can an innocent person be persuaded to confess to a murder they didn’t commit? This is the question that the third episode of The Experiments concentrated on. “The Innocence Project” in the USA estimated that in 25% of all cases overturned by DNA evidence, innocent defendants had made “incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions or pled guilty.” The Guilt Trip looks into whether someone can question their own judgement and memory to the extent that they confess to a crime that they have not even committed.

Jody, an ordinary young man, found himself staying for a weekend at a country mansion (where he thought he was attending a conference carried out by an entirely fabricated organization,) unaware that he had entered a version of the board game Cluedo, a game in which everyone was an actor and the house was full of cameras to watch his every move. Moreover, Brown and a production team sat in a van full of monitors just outside the mansion.

The plan was to control and manipulate Jody’s weekend, so that he begins to doubt his own memory and associate certain prompts with the feeling of guilt. Tim Minchin (who Brown had invited to be a part of The Guilt Trip) was Jody’s comedy hero. Brown, of course, thought that there was no better way to trigger the feeling of guilt than to convince Jody (via the actors) that it had sounded like he said something really rude to offend one of his heroes. The actors used this opportunity to connect Jody’s feeling of guilt to two other stimuli in order to condition Jody to feel guilty upon cue.

With a missing pearl necklace found in his room and furniture swapped around Jody was soon questioning his own memory. He was probably convinced that his weekend could not possibly get any worse when things were ratcheted up a level. Dr Patrick Black, (a man who had earlier cheated and beat Jody at a game of croquet) had been murdered. Jody was now a Pavlovian dog with Memory Distrust Syndrome he responded to cues and questioned himself to the extent that he was convinced he had killed Dr Black.

Almost automatically, Jody went to the village police station to hand himself in (a fake police station that Brown had set up). Soon after, he confessed to a crime he had not committed, Derren stepped into the police interview room to break the news that everything had been staged.

Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire is an expert on luck.  In his book The Luck Factor, he states that luck is a state of mind. People who believe themselves lucky or unlucky have assigned themselves a label that genuinely impacts their lives. The Final Experiment, The Secret of Luck, was fairly different to the three preceding episodes. This episode was jolly and cheerful in comparison to the previously darker ones. Based on the ideas of Wiseman, Brown examined the truth behind The Luck Factor.

With the help of TV journalist Dawn Porter, Brown conducted a 3 month project on Todmorden, a market town in West Yorkshire. The subject of this experiment was not just a person but the entire town of Todmorden. Dawn Porter was sent to ask the residents of the town if they have heard (an untrue myth) about the lucky dog (a statue in the park).

Over three months, Dawn’s barefaced lie started to catch on in this small superstitious town. The gossiping locals, an article in the local newspaper and (caught on hidden cameras) people who visited the “lucky dog” to give it a pat for themselves in hope of better luck. Brown’s scheme had worked as planned.

In 2010 researchers at the University of Cologne released a report stating that good luck charms or actions, such as crossed-fingers, can work (Damisch et. al). Subjects who used a lucky charm while taking part in a memory test outscored those who did not use a lucky charm. The researchers say that this was because over 80% of the subjects believed in the concept of luck. ‘Activating a superstition improves subsequent performance,’ says the report.

The end of the episode at Todmorden’s village hall was powerful and moving; Brown offered a villager the chance to win five times their stake in a game of luck with the roll of a die. Wayne, a butcher who considered himself to be very unlucky staked £1,000 (his life’s savings). He wanted to change his luck, so had to grab the opportunity. Watching Wayne roll for a four on the third roll of a die was a dramatic and exciting end to the show.

The Experiments has been a highly impressive and entertaining four-part series. The Assassin and The Guilt Trip were quite similar and seem better liked by most. The Gameshow, excluding its initial monotony, described and discussed a realistic idea in social psychology. Derren Brown added yet another experiment to that of Zimbardo’s and Milgram’s.  Finally, The Secret of Luck was a positive way to end the series and a great hour’s worth of entertainment. Just like Derren Brown’s early glories (his brilliant Trick of The Mind and Trick or Treat), his move into a kind of “quasi-documentary territory” where he conducts experiments, is entertaining, intriguing and informative. Brown’s understanding of the human mind and his effortlessly skilful mastery of mentalism has only become more captivating over the years.

About the author

Tara Sud

After living the first seventeen years of my life in India, I travelled to the England to study at the University of York. My undergraduate degree was in English Literature and Linguistics, and I am currently completing my Masters degree in Romantic and Sentimental Literature. Apart from writing, I thoroughly enjoy playing piano and consider myself a commendable Scrabble competitor. I have a keen interest in literature, psychology and biology and love to learn in general.