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

by | Nov 5, 2011 | All, Reviews

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.


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.





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