Featured Post

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Saturday Essay: Derren Brown: The Guilt Trip: a step too far or an elaborate hoax?

Image Credit: Channel 4
Derren wields a croquet mallet in front of the 'murder' scene
As predicted, Derren Brown's shows always provoke controversy, but has he gone too far this time? 

I'm a skeptic and an ex-psychology student. I like to see evidence for claims of special ability whether that be claims to be able to speak to the dead or claims to treat illnesses with pseudoscience. Derren Brown is a bit of a poster-boy for the 'skeptical movement', the existence of which is debatable. However, with these newest experiments, Derren Brown has upset more than a few people. I should explain. This post will be addressing the 'if' questions. I'm always questioning the veracity of Derren Brown's claims of misdirection, psychological illusion and showmanship. After all, Derren claims not to use any stooges or TV tricks to do his work, but then again, it was revealed that his 'Russian Roulette' stunt never involved any risk whatsoever. Another couple of heroes of mine, Penn & Teller, also say that they never do anything that will pose a danger to them or their audience. However, if we take Derren's claims to have actually provoked his subject, Jody, to have admitted to a fictitious murder seriously, ethical questions are raised.

SPOILERS FOLLOW 


What happened?

Part one: guilt
The basic premise of the show, for those who haven't watched, is that Derren was to create guilt in his subject so that he would admit to a murder that hadn't even occurred. Jody, his malleable, somewhat uninformed participant, had applied to be in one of Derren's shows and been rejected. He'd also been through vetting procedures to ensure he was psychologically sound enough to be toyed with in the manner Derren had planned. Jody attended a fake conference and was induced, in the manner of Pavlov's Dogs, to respond to others' guilt, and his own, by classical conditioning. Every time guilt was felt or discussed, Jody was squeezed on the shoulder and a bell was sounded through the house.

Jody was also star struck by his favourite Aussie comic, Tim Minchin, who pretended to be upset by Jody. Jody was told he'd used a particularly rude word to describe Tim by accident.

Part two: memory
Once guilt was 'conditioned' in to Jody, the second part was deployed: make Jody doubt his memory by swapping his plate while he was distracted, having the speakers subtly and covertly change their clothes and by having Jody think he'd stolen a pearl necklace.

Part three: motive
Derren also introduced a mild motive for Jody to dislike his potential victim: he was irascible, rude and a cheat at croquet. The third part was to get him drunk and move him outside so he'd wake up believing he'd lost his memory of the boozy night before and he'd believe that he could potentially murder someone.

Was it a hoax on the audience?
I'm not entirely convinced that Jody wasn't a plant. There are several posts on forums around the net that raise various questions about the elaborate staging and whether Jody was supposed to confess to the 'murder' at the Country House where the fake conference was held and then be arrested and taken to the fake police station or whether things just went conveniently against Derren's plan and Jody ran to the police station to create some more tension for the benefit of the programme.

As Ash Pryce, a fellow skeptic and actor, says;

"By dressing it up as using psychology and science he is giving it a legitimate veneer, and one that people believe in[...] is this Brown’s fault? If the show started with an onscreen disclaimer stating “This show is for entertainment purposes only, any claims should be investigated fully before being believed”, I doubt it would damage his reputation, but that disclaimer is better than 'I’m going to lie to you'”. *
*For more information about entertainment disclaimers and their worth when it comes to claims of psychic ability, go here


Ethical ponderings: where to draw the line?

 However, if we believe that Jody was indeed really not in on the programme's premise, I have some questions. What are the ethics of putting someone under so much duress? Jody was an excellent actor if he wasn't real - something revealed by the somewhat hammy acting of the stooges that surrounded him around the Country House. After all the shenanigans of the changing plates and the swapping of a speaker's tie from red to yellow, Jody finally admitted he may have stolen a pearl necklace, despite not remember taking it (it was planted in his room by Derren, where Jody then was stunned to find it). At the point where Jody admitted he might have stolen the necklace, Derren had proven his point: it is indeed possible (if you bought in to the premise) to get someone to admit to something they'd not done. Making an innocent (and very amiable) man believe that he had murdered someone was unnecessary.  Jody looked under huge duress when told that the man had died. He was crying whilst waiting for his turn to speak to the police officers who were interviewing everyone.

Having been left outside to wake up (under hypnotism, apparently - something Derren doesn't entirely believe in, as he confesses in Tricks of The Mind**), Jody was concerned he had no alibi and that the other attendees had seen him outside.

** - comparing hypnotism to 'magic' (page 134, hardback edition, published 2006), Derren says: 
The hypnotist uses certain methods, or the subject shows certain behaviours, which when put together create an overall effect we can label as 'hypnosis'. We can comfortably call it that without needing a single definition of what is really going on. [In] the same way that a magician might secretly apply 'magical' methods or trickery outside a performance environment to bring about some desired result we wouldn't really think of as magic [...] so, too, seemingly, hypnotic techniques can be employed covertly in a way that might also make us question whether there is a better word to describe them in that context.

Contrasting views

From my own study, I find it difficult to believe that any screening process could accurately predict someone's behaviour in such a (purportedly) real situation. But others disagree. Simon Clare, who runs one of my local skeptic groups, said:
It did get rather close to the wire, especially as it neared the end of course, but all along, I knew [..] as soon as he showed any sign of being irreversibly affected, they would have stepped in and stopped the whole thing. My sensation of drama and of fear for Jody was part of an illusion. They are experiments in that there's a chance they won't work, but that's about it. [We shouldn't] judge it by the same standards as proper experiments. I was satisfied by the steps taken to reduce the chance of permanent damage [...]. Judging by [Jody's] reaction, they did this very well. I am also content that Derren Brown has demonstrated an acute ethical awareness.
I asked Keir Liddle, a PhD student of psychology, for his opinion of the vetting procedures: how could any psychologist predict the harm done to someone in such an unusual situation? Keir was unhappy with Derren's programme, saying Derren's experiments have thus far "reduc[ed] some important areas of psychology as a tool for cheap misdirection or clumsy moral messages" and added that Derren's shows have the "pretension of being about important social issues and behaviours". Keir was explicit about his feelings about TV psychologists, saying Jody was put "under extensive psychological pressure and [was] caused considerable upset. All to make him believe that he had it in him to kill a man and forget about it."

Keir was, like me, also concerned that no serious or ethical research would ever be conducted in this way without it being halted due to "extreme duress and psychological strain". There were some ethically and morally reprehensible studies in the early days of psychology research (see Little Albert, Harlow's Monkeys and the Stanford Prison Experiments for more information) but they'd never be permitted by the British Psychological Society today; an experiment that involves such ethical concerns would need to have an exceptional reason to even be considered.

How should studies or 'experiments' be conducted?

Psychological experiments are subject to rigorous controls which include the standards of informed consent (something Jody never gave, given he thought he'd been rejected), giving the participant the knowledge they may leave the experiment at any time and proper debriefing after the experiment, to ensure the participant leaves the same way they went in: psychologically sound.

Given that we already know that thousands of people across the world already admit to crimes they didn't commit, for various reasons, what reason, other than ratings and polemic, could there be to do this to someone? I'd be fascinated to know what kind of screening process reality show participants and those who apply for Derren's shows go through. What are the ethics of psychologists and psychiatrists who agree to take part in such a show? What would have happened if Jody had behaved differently - were there trained professionals on hand to deal with that? What are the legal implications? Surely, with no informed consent, despite any agreements Jody would have signed beforehand, Jody would have had some legal avenues to pursue if he'd suffered harm? None of this was addressed, and this strikes me as irresponsible.

I'd like to finish this piece with another quote from Keir and invite viewers and professionals to comment below if they have any views about what went on in the show. Where should TV programmes, commissioning editors and channels draw the line when it comes to psychological 'experiments'? After all, Keir says, "if you want to do highly dubious, potentially unethical research, it seems you'd be better going to Endemol, or similar, rather than a reputable funding body." Is he right?

Posted by Tannice for The Custard TV. Follow Tannice on Twitter here.

20 comments:

mattdaley said...

Very interesting blog. My own feelings are that Brown is never wholly honest with us, and really we shouldn't expect him to be. After all, he is an entertainer. The show is scored, like a drama. It is colour graded, and it is edited as entertainment. Was Jody a stooge or the real thing? My gut tells me the latter, if only because actors would be hugely risky for Brown. And for sure, there is a discomfort for the moral to watch a seeming innocent be so stressed. I suppose Brown justifies it in that applicants to his programmes are invariably fans of his work, and they seek an experience. Jody certainly got that, and seemed grateful. There are probably other experiments with folks less compliant or understanding. And we just don't see them. What it ultimately boils down to is that Brown's shows should be judged like all art - from documentaries to fiction:"What is the author trying to say, and does he say it well", By that standard, Brown is a success. His thesis this series on.....guilt. On Will. On Morality has been fascinating, and if Jody and others are just stooges, it makes it no less worthwhile.....For me at least. Artists use lies to tell the truth afterall.

Wendy V said...

Good review of yesterday's Derren Brown show. The ethical questions (that weren't addressed in the show) did bother me, probably more than with any previous DB show. There were moments when Jody was agonising over what he might have done when I seriously worried about how it would affect him.
'This is so mean. What if he tops himself?" I wondered out loud, and I was only half joking. He looked absolutely distraught after learning about the murder, when he was alone in his bedroom.
Jody seemed to respond well in the end (amazingly so, considering the trauma he'd been put through). But does his appearing to be ultimately okay with it really make it okay? I was left feeling uneasy.
But hey, I watched the show with fascination, so I feel complicit, and ambivalent.

andyourelectronmicroscope said...

Derren Brown cannot be faltered for his art. The very reaction that the show prompted in me and many others (both positive and negative) is a testament to that.

I think his body of work is that of a fantastic showman and a consummate performer. Which is why I continue to watch and why I continue to be a fan.

However I think anyone with the slightest notion of human psychology would take great issue with the idea that Browns work provides us any deep insight into the issues of Will, Morality or Guilt. Particularly as the premise for many of these experiments seems to be based on cherry picked and outdated studies.

He mixes science and art and he does it with an authority and trust over his audience that will lead to many misconceptions and myths becoming accepted as psychological fact. I have no problem with this when it is just an annoyance that shatters the illusion for me when he goes on about some bollocks about "the wisdom of crowds" or some such but when it is attached to a supposed "moral" message (implicit or explicit) it gives me serious pause.

To give an example at the start of the program Derren stated in the voiceover that "guilt and shame were the primary causes of modern depression". Which is not only untrue (they are if anything only symptoms arising due to feelings of self loathing) it is stigmatising. As to me, a sufferer of mental health issues, it implied that somehow there was some fault in those who experienced these emotions that they had something to be guilty or shameful about.

Now I will forgive Mr Brown many things but I will not forget the way he made me feel by saying those words. I will not forget how I felt when he appeared to almost imply that the depressed deserved it.

Some may disagree with me on that issue. Fair enough. I have a degree of personal bias that may cloud my reaction to the way he used those terms.

However I feel it points out how mixing science and art in a misleading manner can be damaging.

Ash Pryce said...

First, thanks for the link!

I haven't seen this latest show and don't intend to. For me his Assassin a few weeks back was the final straw and I shall not, if I have a choice, be watching any more of his "experiements" or "events".

I find a lot of what he does to be potentially damaging, especially as he is so vocal about his disgust with mediums and yet he acts in a way that is similar in many regards- making money from misleading, but not in the honest misleading way of magicians or other entertainers.

He doesn't even start with his usual disclaimers any more which could worryingly lead to people believing in his nonsense- indeed, after Assassin i read several comments from people on Twitter now genuinely convinced that you can be hypnotised to kill, and even calls for the assassin of Robert Kennedy to go free based on the fact he must have been hypnotised, all thanks to Derren Brown.

He is a fun and skilled entertainer, and when he goes after the frauds and charlatans is very good, he was well on his way to becoming a British James Randi and his actual "magic" is amongst the best I've seen.

I worry about the impact he may have on the viewing public, misleading them in a way that implies he isn't misleading them.

Entertainment is one thing, and I expect magicians to lie to me, but I find myself asking more and more that if this is magic then where is the trick?

He has been dancing upon an ethical blade for sometime now and has set himself up as a reliable bringer of truth in certain situaitons which then add credibility to his nonsense later on.

As to Keir's comment: "Now I will forgive Mr Brown many things but I will not forget the way he made me feel by saying those words. I will not forget how I felt when he appeared to almost imply that the depressed deserved it."

I didn't see the show, but had heard what was said and as someone else who suffers from depression I find the comments wholly unprofessional, stigmatising and even cruel.

The respect I, and many, had for Brown has started to slip. I understand he has to do newer things otherwise he would disappear from the television screen, but he is prolonging his career in such a way that is in some instances offensive, in others downright stupid and further more damaging to the publics understanding of science, reason and ethics.

Faithless Eye said...

His comment about "Feelings of guilt and shame leading to depression" was indeed clumsy to put it mildly, if he was referring to clinical depression.

However, as someone who DID watch the programme AND has suffered from clinical depression, I didn't feel at all stigmatised nor was I left feeling that Brown "seemed to almost imply" that depressives somehow deserved what they got. That is a pretty tenuous and overblown extrapolation.

People were calling for the release of Sirhan Sirhan on the grounds of hypnosis (or something) long before Derren Brown mentioned it.

Yogzotot said...

First, thanks for an excellent post, as I asked myself the ethics question as well, watching Derren's latest programs.

I am a long-time fan of Derren, especially his stage shows and books, but some of his TV specials are a bit "too much" for me (and I am also a professional psychologist, though not a clinician). While I adore stunts like "The System" which are both fascinating and educational, "The Experiments" make me cringe for various reasons, but ethical concerns being the common denominator.

"The Assassin" left too much of an impression that hypnotising someone into becoming a killer actually works. As said already, Derren is actually quite critical of hypnosis, so I was surprised this program was aired as it was, without any further skeptical angle. To be honest, I found it more cruel to the unsuspecting audience of the Stephen Fry lecture that Stephen was "shot" on stage than on the poor guy who allegedly was hypnotised in shooting him.

"The Gameshow" on the other hand showed exactly what Derren set out to show, i.e. demonstrate how cruel people can act when they are de-individualised and remote from the action that is happening. Still, I would have preferred for the "target" also being a stooge, instead of putting him through the ordeals of a "show" that had the aim to embarrass the audience, not him. And - for me this episode didn't have enough psychological "meat", it was "only" about the de-individualisation, a single concept.

Finally, "The Guilt Trip" I found the most cringe-worthy from an ethical point of view, but probably because overall if was the most "believable" of The Experiments so far. The psychological concepts are real, and while again hypnosis came up at one point, it was not played up as in "The Assassin", and only played a minor role here. Conditioning a guilt reflex and making people doubt their own memory is much more powerful - this is the "meat" I was missing from the previous episode, something that the audience can really take away with them as an insight. (...)

Yogzotot said...

(...)


I don't think Jodie was a stooge, and I agree with the post and comments so far that there is no way to assess in advance how resilient a person really is when facing a situation like in "The Guilt Trip".

However, everyone else around Jodie during that weekend was in on what was going on, he was under constant surveillance, and I even believe that the crew's stress that showed when Jodie left the house and the surveillance radius, they really freaked out a little bit, concerned for his safety. What I am trying to say: Within the premises of the show and its questionable ethics, Derren & Co. clearly ensured that when things would go wrong, they could step in at any time and clear up the situation.

By the way, I wouldn't be surprised if they had several candidates for "The Guilt Trip", and it didn't work with others. Like with the premise of "The System", we may have only seen the run that actually worked as they wanted it.

So, yes, "The Experiments" leave something to be desired, and the ethics are somewhat questionable. However, I rather have someone like Derren Brown show an "entertainment audience" in a still rather safe environment that some of the "ridiculous findings of psychology from decades ago" like the Milgram experiments still indeed work today.

By the way, I completely agree with Faithless Eye, that the depression comment was certainly not intended to stigmatise people with depression. On the contrary, take the step back what Derren showed in this episode: We can be *made* feeling guilty by our environment and other people. There are situations when we feel guilt, don't trust our memory, or blame ourselves for doing something that *we are not actually responsible for*. Jodie committing to the murder was certainly not his own fault. Likewise, if the show implied anything with regards to depression, it is that is *not* completely down to the person feeling depressed, if at all.

Mark Hawker said...

Thanks for this post and for tweeting me about it, Tannice. I'll comment off-topic and then come back again.

I have found the recent series interesting on a number of levels and in particular "The Gameshow" from a sociological perspective and "The Assassin" from a scientific perspective. For example, did he *really* get a person to "cheat" a lie detector test? Did he *really* get them to improve their shooting ability through the sound of a ringtone? Did he *really* talk a man into sitting in a freezing cold bath and feeling fine about it? These are questions to be answered by science, surely. I question whether they really are demonstrations of mind over matter and would be great to really dig into how they "work" on some level.

Back to the post. I think the "ethical" is really important but wondered how you had come to its conclusion and whether it was "scientific". That's not a criticism, just an observation. You mention two "visuals" about Jody which are his apparent duress and crying. Would everyone take them as being signs of crossing an ethical boundary? I do agree that in terms of research we have come far since the Milgram experiments and other deceptive practices. Although, what if in certain therapies and treatments peoples' natural reactions were to cry? Would they be deemed unethical?

I guess it may come down to the issue of power and control and whether it is ethical to manipulate another human being in the interests of entertainment.

Anonymous said...

The Zombie one was a bit silly... considering if it had been be default zombie rules entail severing the the head.. if the gun was working it would have been simple enough to bludgeon the people to death

andyourelectronmicroscope said...

deeSo we have two people with clinical depression who found the statement offensive and one who didn't.

Carl 'de grasse' Sagan said...

Derren Brown has never really clicked with me except his earlier stuff...

I do like his beard though

Alistair Pulling said...

The thing to always remember with this kind of programme is that it is not an experiment, it's a television programme.

This means that there will be a certain amount of artifice, but you can probably rely on what anyone is saying directly to camera to be true. From a certain point of view. There will almost definitely have been pick up shots and reshoots of some parts, probably after the subject has been made aware of the deceit, so that whilst some of the reactions will have been genuine, if Derren says something like 'here's what happened' it could well be a reconstruction of it, which was filmed later. I'd imagine that the 'dream sequence' may well have been an example of this. It possibly happened. But what we saw wasn't quite what happened.

The next thing to think about whether there was only one subject. This would have been expensive to set up and could have gone wrong at several points. So it makes sense to have at least one understudy, possibly more, and possibly even to actually film the same events with more than one subject and to show the best. A very heavy NDA combined with a reasonable payment and an explanation that their version may not be shown would probably be enough to obscure this.

The other possibility is that the subject (or subjects) *did* know what was going on, even if they weren't directly told, and that the level of suggestion used wasn't to convince him (or them) that they killed someone, but to *play along*.

Pressurising someone into believing that they may have killed someone is unethical and extremely dubious, sure, but my strongest feeling about this, based on watching it and what I know about stage magic, is that the suggestion and pressure used wasn't 'you killed someone' - it was 'this is a performance, join in and give it your best shot and then you'll be on TV with a moment of glory'. Which doesn't quite make someone a stooge, because they're not pre-briefed, but their personality type is selected - not as someone who can be made to feel guilty - but someone who will play along and give a good performance in these circumstances.

The misdirection in this piece was the chime and the shoulder squeeze. I'm very sceptical that these would have had much effect on anything, what was probably more use in terms of influencing the subject were the Cluedo cues, such as the names and use of terms from the game, and the Croquet game itself too. I don't think that the suggestion and pressure and subliminals were 'you killed someone' they were 'play along'.

Ash Pryce said...

@Faithless EYe

"I didn't feel at all stigmatised"

Great for you, I do find the comment pretty stygmatising- neither guilt nor shame lead to my depression. A serotinin imbalance did. What brought that on is another question and I have ideas, none of which involve guilt or shame.

"People were calling for the release of Sirhan Sirhan on the grounds of hypnosis (or something) long before Derren Brown mentioned it. "

So? People are saying that 9/11 was an inside job, if someone in the public eye makes the same claim and in doing so helps to spread it further to poeple who hadn't heard about it, should we just ignore it simply because it's been mentioned before anyway?

Samantha Ashleigh Hayhurst said...

What I'd like to know is exactly what kind of psychological testing is done to make sure that the people participating in the shows are "mentally robust enough" (forgive the crass phrase, I can't think of another way to put that), to take part? I assume that there must be some way of assessing participants to make sure that they will not be subjected to levels of distress that they are unable to cope with?

I can't think of anything more distressing than believing you have committed a murder and not being able to remember it, even if you are later assured that it was all part of a show. Does anyone have the right to put someone through that kind of experience?

On a slightly lighter note, when I was watching the confusion on Jody's face when he was trying to figure out what was going on with the plate swapping and moving around the furniture in the room, I was thinking, that's a bit like what mild psychosis is like. You know what you saw can't be true, but you have to believe it anyway, and your mind is forced to alter itself to make things make sense. I know he only experienced it for a short period of time, but I've had similar experiences because of a medical condition I have, and it's not very nice! I think about how it felt when my bedroom turned purple and I heard a symphony orchestra playing in my ears (as far as psychosis goes, I think I was pretty lucky there!), and even though it wasn't an unpleasant experience, it left me feeling more than a little unsettled for some time.

Now, imagine you're confessing to a murder you can't remember doing, but know you must have done, because your mind is forced into that conclusion by all the strange things that have happened to you.

How does anyone know that Jody wouldn't be completely traumatised by that?

chenlina said...

chenlina20160218
lebron 13
ugg boots
cheap oakley sunglasses
louis vuitton handbags
louis vuitton
ray ban sunglasses
gucci outlet
louis vuitton
cheap jordans
hollister outlet
canada goose outlet
louis vuitton bags
michael kors handbags
abercrombie and fitch
nike trainers uk
louis vuitton outlet
timberland outlet
tory burch handbags
oakley outlet
louis vuitton handbags
michael kors outlet online
vans shoes sale
chanel bags
beats by dr dre
tods outlet online
micheael kors outlet
air max uk
gucci handbags
oakley sunglasses
louis vuitton outlet stores
uggs outlet
lebron james shoes 13
toms wedges
the north face outlet
michael kors outlet
ugg outlet
ray ban wayfarer
north face outlet
michael kors outlet online
swarovski outlet
as

Gege Dai said...

michael kors handbags
hollister clothing store
air max 90
michael kors outlet
michael kors handbags sale
cartier outlet store
ralph lauren outlet
pandora jewelry
louis vuitton handbags outlet
michael kors outlet online
fitflop sale
true religion jeans outlet
swarovski crystal
fitflops sale
mont blanc pens
michael kors outlet sale
toms shoes
cheap mlb jerseys
michael kors handbags clearance
basketball shoes
polo ralph lauren
rolex watches
lebron shoes
christian louboutin outlet
cheap nfl jerseys
juicy couture outlet
kate spade handbags
mlb jerseys
nike roshe
hollister uk
ralph lauren outlet
oakley sunglasses wholesale
fitflops sale clearance
fitflops uk
michael kors uk outlet
chanyuan0606

chenmeinv0 said...

christian louboutin
ray ban sunglasses
christian louboutin paris
air jordans
cheap rolex watches
pandora jewelry
adidas originals uk
chanel bags
coach outlet
ray ban wayfarer
hzx20170228

jeje said...

nike air force
jordan retro
links of london sale
hermes belt
adidas stan smith men
kobe sneakers
michael kors handbags
michael kors outlet
yeezys
fitflops clearance

chenmeinv0 said...

michael kors handbags
lebron 12 shoes
coach outlet
ray ban outlet
kd 8 shoes
calvin klein jeans
adidas nmd xr1
caterpillar boots
levis jeans outlet
reebok outlet
hzx20170513

adidas nmd said...

montblanc pens
ralph lauren
cleveland cavaliers jersey
coach outlet
true religion jeans
ralph lauren
ugg outlet
ray ban sunglasses
christian louboutin shoes
nike blazer

Recent Posts 2

Popular Posts Logo

Popular Posts

Popular Posts