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Why Derren Brown’s “Assassin” made me uncomfortable

I recently watched the first of Derren Brown’s “Experiments” series, “Assassin”. In it, Derren proposed to find out whether it would be possible to use hypnotic suggestion to “program” a complete stranger to carry out the assassination of a well-known figure yet retain no memory of having done so. The remainder of this post contains spoilers, so read no further if you don’t wish to find out what happened.

Now you might think that the reason this made me uncomfortable was the notion that Derren (or anyone else, for that matter) could, if he so desired, cause a person to commit murder at his bidding. And indeed, such a prospect—if true—would be extremely disturbing. But what troubled me about the program was that it seemed to me that Derren was crossing a line that I believe he has previously been quite careful to avoid, and that he chose to do so in a manner that has the potential to cause trouble.

The program started off in a manner similar to some of his previous shows; a small pre-recorded stint with an intimate audience, demonstrating some “parlour tricks” of the sort typical of a stage hypnotism show. He tells the audience that he will be assessing their susceptibility to hypnotism, and narrowing down to one individual to take part in an unexplained experiment. The audience at home, of course, know what the so-called experiment will be about.

Having selected his preferred candidate (and verified, through a stunt with an ice-bath, that he lies in the “top 1%” of hypnotic subjects, as required), the rest of the show follows this candidate being taken through a variety of tests of hypnotic suggestion. The subject is not told what the intended goal of these tests is—a day at a shooting-range is spun as a test to see whether his “focus” could be improved via hypnotic suggestion, etc. Viewers, meanwhile, are told how each “test” builds up to the programming required to turn a everyday citizen into a cold-blooded killer.

Finally, with all of the program in place, he is brought to a live seminar on language by Stephen Fry. A lady in a polka-dot dress gives him his audio and visual cues, and after a pause (for effect?) he reaches into a case, withdraws a pistol, and fires three rounds at Fry. Afterwards, he is asked if he has any recollection of the event; of course he has none, until the video is played back to him. Stephen Fry (who was “in on it”, and had worn blood-packs to pop in time with the shots) was sitting in for the replay, and appeared flabbergasted at the seemingly genuine confusion of the would-be killer.

But the question, and where I take issue, is this: was it real? This seems an odd thing to ask of what was, after all, an entertainment program, but it is a subject about which Derren Brown tends to be quite unequivocal. He often prefixes his shows with the disclaimer that what you will see is a combination of “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship.” There was no such statement attached to this program, and none of the supporting website information made any attempt to clarify this. So was this, as publicised, an experiment, or was it just another grand illusion?

Now I must admit that while I have always been a great fan of stage magic, I tend to be left a little cold by mentalism, so I can’t claim to be a huge fan of Derren’s effects. The closest I can come to explaining why would be to say that my instinctive thought on seeing a magic trick being performed is to wonder “how could that possibly have been done?” And unfortunately, for many feats of mentalism, the default answer—a stooge—readily comes to mind. Never mind whether or not a stooge actually was involved (and I’m not saying one was in this show), the fact that one could in theory explain the effect takes the wonderment out of it for me.

However, there’s no denying that he is a superb showman, and I think his greatest trick is that, despite routinely telling his audience that he intends to employ misdirection and showmanship, he seems to have them believing every word he says.

[As an aside: one thing that endlessly fascinates me is the number of those who argue that none of Derren’s effects make use of stooges, because his programs almost always carry a subtitle explaining that there were no stooges involved. When did we start believing what magicians tell us?]

So by labelling this show as an “experiment”, and making none of his usual disclaimers, I think he is in danger of blurring the line between misdirection and misrepresentation.

Of course this is assuming that the show was an illusion. On balance—and let me stress that this is purely the opinion of one with no expertise in the subject whatsoever—I believe it was such, based in part on the following:

  1. It is my understanding, and the opinion stated by some academics present at the pre-recorded selection phase, that programming a subject to perform an act as out-of-character as to kill without reason has been shown to be beyond the scope of hypnotic suggestion.
  2. The entire show seemed to pan out a little too neatly; finding a suitable candidate, Derren repeatedly remarking that his subject was progressing better than he’d hoped, the final shooting showing the subject “pausing” far longer than ever before as each of his “triggers” were activated; all seemed to smell somewhat of dramatic licence.
  3. The mere fact that the experiment, which, if real, would seem to raise some serious concerns regarding criminal law, was performed in the context of a Friday night entertainment show suggests to me that Derren himself is not taking the “experiment” too seriously.

As it was, however, not only was it never suggested that the show was anything less than 100% factual, one of the major themes of the show was the claim of Sirhan Sirhan—who shot Robert Kennedy—that he was acting under precisely this sort of hypnotic suggestion. Already, I have seen Internet discussions involving people who are convinced that, because the format of this show was different to his previous events (regarding the usual disclaimers), it must have been real. Perhaps this view can be forgiven when we note that alongside Derren Brown’s grand illusions, he has also made a number of television shows exposing fake mediums and psychics, who, he feels, are exploiting vulnerable people by claiming to have powers they do not. Could a show, falsely claiming to prove that conspiracy theorists and a convicted murderer could, in fact, be correct, not be classified as exploitation? It’s a fine line, but for me it’s too close for comfort.

As for the possibility that the show was, in fact, entirely kosher, I’m not sure I’m any more comfortable. As suggested above, if Derren really thought such a thing might be possible, why on Earth would he choose to present it as a piece of throwaway television? Is it not serious enough to warrant controlled scientific research? I would imagine Sirhan Sirhan might well wonder the same. And what of the polygraph test taken by the subject after a dry(ish)-run with a water-pistol (pun intended)? The man conducting the test (I don’t recall his name, but he was billed as the first professional polygraph operator in the UK) was filmed saying that as far as he was concerned, the subject genuinely believed that he had not done what we had seen him do, and that he would testify as much if asked. If that was genuine, does it not raise concerns regarding the admissibility of polygraph evidence? Of course, if this were all illusion, we have no idea when this polygraph was actually administered…

I don’t want to spoil a magic act for anyone, but the point at which performers suggest that what they are doing is anything beyond legerdemain, it’s my opinion that they risk fuelling some dangerous beliefs, and to be honest, I don’t see the point; people will continue to be astonished by magic even when they know it’s not “real”.

October 31, 2011 Posted by | TV | , , | Leave a comment


OK, so this blog is nominally about physics and associated topics, but

Having watched Doctor Who this evening, and tolerating no spoilers whatsoever, Steven Moffat is an arsing genius and I love him to bits.  That is all.

June 20, 2010 Posted by | TV | , | Leave a comment