Derren Brown: Good or Bad for Science and Skepticism?

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Recently Derren Brown signed a deal with Netflix to produce three specials, which is very exciting for me because he’s pretty much the only magician I like.

If you’re not aware of Derren Brown, he’s a very popular English magician who does tricks — I’m sorry, illusions — that are couched in the language of psychology. In the past he’s leaned on “neurolinguistic programming,” or NLP, to explain his powers. NLP is a garbage pseudoscience invented in the 1970s and now used almost exclusively by hypnotherapists and pick-up artists who want to pretend to be able to subtly manipulate people. It’s been completely debunked, and Brown stopped claiming to use it, I think when he realized he was basically being no better than a mentalist who pretends to have psychic powers.

But Brown still flirts with pseudoscience, which I kind of empathize with. A magician who does card tricks can still impress people even when they know she’s using sleight of hand, but people aren’t so impressed with a mentalist who tricks them using things like audience plants, camera tricks, and misrepresentation. People are more interested if you say that you’re reading their mind somehow, or manipulating them to do what you want.

But I know that Derren Brown is intelligent and a skeptic and an advocate for science, and I think he’s an incredible performer and I’m always super entertained by his specials. I think my favorite may be “The System,” in which he convinces a person to bet literally all her savings on a horse race. I won’t spoil it but you can watch it in full online and not only is there some magic involved, but you’ll also learn something about statistics and human nature. There’s also “Superstition,” which brilliantly shows us the power of the human brain to find connections in things where no connections actually exist, which is a core component of good skepticism. Also David Tennant is in it, so yeah, go watch that if you haven’t.

Unfortunately, sometimes his specials misrepresent science in ways that do everyone a disservice. For instance, I recently watched a special from a few years back called The Gameshow. In it, he has a game show audience all wear masks to anonymize themselves and then has them vote on what will happen to a man who they think is completely unsuspecting, allowing them to either give him a pleasant evening with friends or give him increasingly horrible punishments, like a waiter overcharging him for drinks at the start of the evening, and later being arrested for shoplifting and then finally kidnapped. The man isn’t actually unsuspecting — he’s an actor who is in on everything. But Brown points out that the audience did actually continue to vote every time for the negative consequence, which ends with the man accidentally being hit by a car while running away from the “kidnappers,” stunning the audience.

Brown calls this an experiment that illustrates how anonymity allows people to give up their individual ideas of what is right or wrong, and leading them to go along with a mob to commit gross atrocities. He draws parallels to looters and other forms of mob violence.

Here’s the problem with this: first, it’s not an experiment. Using that language is super dodgy and misleading — there are no ethical oversights, we have no way to know how much of it was faked or what the audience was actually voting for, and we don’t have a control group that, for instance, didn’t wear masks, or weren’t collected in a group, or weren’t supposedly in a game show audience.

Second, it doesn’t actually tell us anything new about anonymity or mob mentality, but it does maybe reinforce what we already know, which isn’t the conclusion Brown states. Research shows that being in an anonymous crowd does not make you more likely to be evil — mobs are essentially amoral. What it does do, maybe, is make you less likely to rely on your individual ideas of what you should or should not do and make you more likely to go with society’s ideas of what you should or should not do. By placing the audience in the context of a game show, then, they will be more likely not to act in an evil way but to act in the way society expects a game show audience to act: to choose the more entertaining option, not necessarily the meaner option. For instance, one of their decisions is for the “unsuspecting man” to either go home and have a nice evening with friends or to be falsely arrested for shoplifting. One of those options is frankly boring and would end the game. The other keeps the game going and is clearly the choice that Brown wants them to do (and yes, Brown was the host of the show, another way in which this is nowhere near to being an actual scientific experiment). Brown hypes up the audience to constantly want the “meaner” options, and they take that cue and go with it.

And when they go for those options, they always know that it is “just” a game show. They know the subject isn’t actually getting arrested or losing his job or being kidnapped. They’re told the man in question is a prankster and his friends all want him to be pranked back. The audience knows Derren Brown and they are happy to go along with this concept.

Again, this is an audience that is going along with the identity they’ve been given: game show audience. None of their votes can be construed as being evil or wrong for the sake of being evil or wrong — they are basically doing as they’re told.

As with a lot of tricks — I’m sorry, illusions — the real explanation might be a bummer for some people but for others, like me, it’s actually more interesting. Go read more about the true science behind crowds written by a few sociologists to learn more. I’m hoping that Brown’s Netflix specials keep the skepticism and lose the pseudoscience, because at his best he’s a powerful force for enhancing people’s bullshit detectors. At his worst, he makes my bullshit detector explode.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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One Comment

  1. Regarding mob mentality, I have noticed that groups tend to allow for more suspension of disbelief. Once you’re in an echo chamber, your perception of reality suffers.

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