Trick or treating for eye candy

A few nights ago, while perusing Youtube for morsels of David Tennant-y goodness, I came across an episode of Derren Brown’s Trick or Treat with David in. The premise of the show is that Derren will choose participants from a pool of applicants, and then surprise them with the news that they’ve been chosen, at which time they must blindly pick from two cards; trick or treat. This then determines what type of activities Derren will be performing with each guest. In the one episode I saw, David Tennant chose a treat card, and Derren proceeded to perform several tricks (treats?) with David involving time travel (what else?).

The show is definitely entertaining, but it left this Skepchick feeling a bit uneasy. The tricks were fascinating, David was sexy as ever, but it seemed to me that there was too much room left for the paranormal. This had been sort of bothering me for a few days, until this morning, when a nice Skepchick reader sent in a link to the series finale (thanks, Ballookey Klugeypop!) which consisted mostly of Brown explaining superstition psychologically.

I watched it right away, in the interest of science, of course (David who?). The show opens with Brown gathering all of the guests from the show’s previous episodes, ostensibly for an end of run party. Just as they were beginning to settle in, an alarm went off, and they were directed into a large, white room full of all sorts of random objects and large, colored polka dots on the floor. A sign on the wall told them that if the counter on the wall got up to 100 within 30 minutes, they would all get 500 quid (damn my american Mac with no pound sign!).

What they weren’t told was that they were basically trapped in a giant skinner box, and the counter had absolutely no relationship to their actions, but was actually counting the number of times two goldfish crossed a line in an aquarium a few rooms away. It was fascinating to see how quickly guests made connections between their actions and the counter, and hilarious to watch the bizarre things they started to do. To top it all off, there was another message written on the ceiling. After five minutes, the doors would unlock, and they could walk out and get a whole trunk full of money. Of course, they were all too wrapped up in their silliness that they failed to look up and see it.

At the end, all of them except David (I’m sayin’, the boy is totally a skeptic!) had formulated a system of beliefs explaining how it was that they had “scored” the 100 points necessary to “win”. At this point, I would have loved to see the truth revealed, and the participants’ reactions, but instead, Brown allowed them to take their mistaken beliefs home to be crushed later on when they saw the finished episode. Fair enough, I suppose.

I’m still not sure what to make of Derren Brown. Despite this great examination of human psychology and our predisposition toward superstition, he still strikes me as someone who’s trying to play both sides. I guess I’ll have to do some more research.

I’d be curious to hear what David Tennant has to say about his experience on the show. Maybe I can hook up with him (yeah, right!) in August when I’m in Stratford to see Hamlet. I will try, though, you know, just for the sake of y’all Skepchick readers…any of you know anybody that can hook me up?

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  1. In the interviews Derren has given he absolutely comes down on the skeptic side. He in no way believes the tricks he can perform are in anyway supernatural (in my opinion).

    I think in his show he often says much less to help with the dramatic effect, he is a performer after all! Part of his act is that he is supposed to make you think – is this person for real?

    At the end of one show I remember seeing he even went back through a trick he had performed on stage demonstrating how he had influenced an audience members into circling a particular word from a particular page or a particular newspaper (it was ‘Influential’ from page 14 of the Daily Mail if I remember correctly).

    Derren is one of the good guys!

  2. Absolutely he is one of the good guys.

    Just check out his series Messiah for some religious debunking!

    His book is a great sceptical read too.

    – – –

    No we are not related.



  3. This post got me to stop lurking and register…

    Derren is totally skeptic. He is very explicit about it (look at his messiah series). In fact hje needs to be invited to TAM one year.

    Also you must read his book if you can, it is one of my favorite skeptical books, totally unequivocal.


  4. De-lurking from Google Reader…
    I’ve always had my doubts about Derren Brown, but I think a lot of that is the atmosphere around his work: cultivating a woo vibe with actual skeptical thought underneath. The woo vibe draws more people in than skepticism, I’m afraid.

    Incidentally, as a big huge David Tennant fan, I find his level of skepticism interesting, between growing up as a minister’s son and yet being a massive fanboy geek type. Not that we all have to follow our parents, of course.

  5. @glosrob

    Just remember that he is a magician and takes misdirection very seriously. Often he tells you how a trick works, so you’re misdirected looking at the wrong thing, so he can spring an even more surprising effect.

    Just because he tells you it is all done with suggestion does not mean it is.

  6. I think the ‘woo-vibe’ is definitely deliberate.

    He is showing how the frauds would set up their shows and use their ‘abilities’.

    In essence, quite often he is playing the part of a woo-artist only at the end to reveal that everything he achieves is through age old stage tricks and anything but paranormal abilities.

  7. sago, Derren was invited to speak at TAM6 (next week) but unfortunately couldn’t make it.

    Note of warning for those not familar with his stuff: the ‘psychology’ explanations are often as bogus as any paranormal explanation from magicians of old!

  8. cool…glad to hear he is one of us, so to speak.
    i thought so…but like a lot of people have pointed out, he does cultivate a woo vibe.

    good point about the psych stuff, teek…but the psych in the finale ep at least was legit…he just wove in new tricks along with his explanations. but yeah, i have noticed more and more that mentalists use the psych explanation instead of the woo to contextualize what they are doing.

    entertaining stuff, regardless.

  9. In reference to your remark that David is a skeptic… if you check around on YouTube, I… er…. “bet” you could find him ranting and razzing Catherine Tate for her belief in astrology. It’s from her interviewing him on… I think it was BBC4? A worthwhile interview all around, but that bit made me helplessly happy.

    Hitting my buttons as a Doctor Who fan *and* as a skeptic? Priceless. ;)

  10. jrose-yeah…i heard that too (i think rebecca actually posted about it a few months back), so it made me all the happier to see that it extends to other areas as well.

  11. £££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££


    i knew there had to be a way…i was just too lazy to figure it out, and what do you know? the answer found me.

    thanks, alexdodge!

  12. Yeah, Derren is an interesting figure. His psychological explanations for his feats lack credibility but I’ve never heard a really good explanation for what he actually is doing, especially as I’m operating on the assumption that he is not simply using confederates.

    I’d love to see a detailed discussion about this somewhere where we can nail down exactly how he seems to get a superstitious woman to believe he’s controlling her body with a voodoo doll, or seeming to cause a guy to think he’s inside a zombie-killing video game, or seeming to make someone want an object of his choosing for their birthday, attributing it to fictional subliminal programming, or seemingly making a cashier accept blank paper instead of cash money.

  13. A lot of people in the comments of Derren Brown’s videos on Youtube try to explain his tricks using the framework of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). NLP is completely bogus (see Tony Robbins is an advocate, enough said.

  14. The A-Team, you would be horrified (and then bored) if you knew how those tricks were done. It’s really not ethical for me to reveal magic methods (people make a living from them, apart from anything), and it spoils other folk’s enjoyment, but if you have an interest in magic methodology then it’s a nice hobby to take up. If you just want to know how tricks are done then that’s not really in the spirit of magic, but that’s not your problem I suppose! But if you enjoy Derren’s work, the fairest thing to him would be not to try and ‘nail down’ his methods in a discussion. Apart from anything, unless you have magicians contributing, you won’t get close, and magicians are unlikely to tell you anyway!

    But yeah…the methods are mundane. You’d spoil your own fun if you knew, and you’d definitely stop watching the show. Magic methods are boring, I promise.

  15. @dreamsphere – Read Derren’s book – he’s quite scathing about NLP in it.

    @teek – I couldn’t disagree more :D I’ve been studying magic as a hobby for 30 years, and I find knowing how it is done _increases_ my appreciation and desire to see good magic. It truly is an art. Particularly magicians who design their own effects. Most people know how to do a french drop, but there have been many times when a good magician has got one past me in the middle of a good effect. And I’ve seen thoroughly enjoyable effects where a french drop was the only sleight the magician used.

  16. sago – i completely agree. i find that knowing how a trick is done makes it much more interesting, even if the method is mundane.

  17. sago, we’re talking about the internet here. You suggested starting a discussion to expose methodology’s used in a popular TV show. I know many people who make a living from magic, and they’d be horrified at that idea. As would many of the unsuspecting people who google for Derren and NLP and psychology because they think there’s something to it. Just because you find “hidden camera and envelope switch” fascinating, it doesn’t mean it’s nice or even sensible to publish that to the world wide web.

    If you want a private discussion, there are plenty of private magicians forums, I’m a member of a few myself. They all have ‘secret’ areas for regular, trustworthy posters to discuss methods and I’m sure you’d find plenty of people willing to discuss those specific tricks.

    I didn’t have you pegged as a student of magic from your original post, so I addressed you as a layman. Most laymen really don’t like it when they find out certain magic methods. There is a minority who have to know how it’s done, and then there are people interested enough to take up magic as a hobby. So my tone was from that perspective, but even as a student of magic you should still be cautious about revealing methods on the internet.

  18. PS, “hidden camera and envelope switch” disclaimer: that’s not meant as an explanation of any trick!

  19. ETA2: sorry, it was The A Team who suggested that, not sago. It’s been a long week :D

  20. Right, start again. Sago, I got the impression from The A-Team’s post that he’s a layman when it comes to magic. All the magicians I know (and I think there might even be studies on this) tell me that most of the laypersons who claim to want to know how a trick is done, are very disappointed if they find out, and easily lose interest.

    If you’re a 30 year student of magic then I suspect your perspective is very different to the average layman.

    I still don’t think anyone should try and publicly expose methods if the magician hasn’t said that’s OK :D

  21. @teek – Identity confusion – two separate people: Me and A-Team.

    I _definitely_ don’t want you to spring people’s tricks! I’d rather work it out, and if I can’t, so much more is my respect for the magician.

    I just disagreed that knowing how it was done makes it boring or spoils the show :D

  22. @teek ;) Comments that pass in the night…

    Also, I’ve noticed “30 year student of magic” sounds a lot more impressive than “30 year student of cross-stitch”… And it most certainly sounds a lot more impressive than my actual magical skills!

  23. good points teek.

    i was not in any way suggesting that it would be cool to “out” magicians…just my personal opinion that i often find that when i do figure it out, it’s much cooler to me.

    and you’re right…taking away the mystery would ruin it for many. i just happen to be one for which that is not the case.

  24. Oh me too, don’t get me wrong, I feel the same. I just happen to move in magical circles socially and professionally on occasion. I would MUCH rather know the method than enjoy the trick as a punter, but that’s actually quite unusual. Maybe it’s more common amongst skeptics? We’re a questioning bunch.

    I actually hate being the ‘victim’ of a trick. Never offer me a card :D

    But there are certain magic performances that are beautiful. Teller’s goldfish bowl, for example. But your average table magician…noooo.

  25. i think you’re right about the skeptic connection. i think skeptics generally tend to see beauty in the math and science of things rather just in the asking.
    i know i do.

  26. Soooo, teek & carr2d2 & everyone else. We seem to agree that we enjoy seeing great artistry when we understand its base mechanics but marvel at the aplomb and skill of its execution.

    We might also agree that we understand the base mechanics of nonsense (cold reading, playing on confirmation bias, etc). And doubtless there are those who are better and worse at it. Can you appreciate the aplomb and skill in a great weaver of woo?

    I find I am unendingly curious about the number of standard and unique tricks involved in religion, for example. And can certainly appreciate the artistry of a great evangelist, slipping in his tricks, misdirection and showmanship.

    I don’t like the fraud, but I appreciate their well honed skill.

  27. Read Browns’ “Tricks of the Mind.” He’s as careful about what he takes as true as any skeptic I know. He’s very adroit at stage hypnotism, but does not regard it as a special mental state, and although he has some NLP training, he is quite critical of how NLP is sold.

  28. interesting question.
    i guess i’d have to say that i appreciate the art of it, but this appreciation is far outweighed by my repulsion at the fraud of it.

  29. @Amanda: Thanks! I was turned on by dd and you all, and I’m glad I made my way here.

    @jrose: Thanks for mentioning that, I’ll totally have to dig it up. I knew about the BBC4 interview but had never got around to watching it…much like this season of DW. I swear, one of these days.

    @sago: Regarding the ‘weaving of woo’, even though you didn’t exactly ask me–I’m with carr2d2 on this. It takes talent, but I don’t think the woo is as necessary as you imply to create a good atmosphere. At least, not in my book.

  30. I must weigh in and say that Derren Brown’s “Trick of the Mind” book is an absolute top-shelf, must-read, top-five, all-time desert island book.

    Very hard to get a hold of in America. I used Eruitor, and paid extra for the shipping. But to say it was worth it would be a gross understatement.

    Absolutely one of the most life-changing books I have ever read.

  31. Having studied for some time the mechanisms for how people are fooled, I can safely say it’s incredibly unlikely I’d be bored with the explanation for how Derren’s tricks in particular are achieved.

    But an interesting issue is raised that I think may be worth greater discussion for a later time within skeptical forums: why the skeptical community should handicap itself in this way. While professional magicians such as Houdini, Randi, Penn & Teller, Derren Brown, Criss Angel, etc. have had a long history of pushing skepticism, obviously a great many skeptics, like myself, are not professional magicians and therefore, have sworn no oath to protect the secrets of magic. And even those like Randi, Penn & Teller, and Criss Angel, etc. have from time to time broken their own magicians’ code when they felt it appropriate. And obviously the internet has made many magicians’ secrets more easily available.

    I don’t see any serious threat to the profession of magic or to the “awe” of magic caused by revealing or discussing how tricks are done, especially within predominantly skeptical forums. Rather, such knowledge seems to only benefit the cause of skepticism. It also may give greater incentive to the magicians themselves to come up with bigger and better illusions. As I think about the magician’s code, it seems to me (and this is only conjecture on my part) that it probably was originally designed for the explicit purpose of blurring the line between reality and the supernatural in a time when magicians might not have seen any serious ethical problems with leaving some people to believe they really may possess supernatural power. Bottom line is that people love to be deceived by magicians regardless of whether the trick is later spoiled or not, and they’d probably still enjoy the artistry of it even if they go into a show knowing how the trick is done already as I do often.

    I don’t think magicians would suffer terribly from such discussions, but even if they did, SO WHAT? Unless I’m a professional magician, that’s not my problem. And even if we imagine the worst scenario for the magician, that the entire art form disappears (and that’s extraordinarily unlikely), if its disappearance heralded a far greater critical thinking populace not easily fooled by charlatans, I think far more would be won than lost. Of course, that’s a matter of perspective. All I can say is my priority is protecting innocent people from being scammed over just one particular form of entertainment (though like everyone I’d miss it if it were truly gone). and I think it’s clear that the more familiar people are with the methodology of deception, the harder it’ll be for the Sylvia Browns of the world to get away with their own brand of crap.

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