Friday, September 16, 2011

Derren Brown understands you better than you think

The worst mistakes are those that you don't even realise you're making.

I happened to learn about a bunch of them when I came across the work of Derren Brown. He does a lot of demonstrations of the power of suggestion, some hypnotism stuff (which I always thought was garbage, until I saw it in action), and things of that sort.

Bottom line, this guy is a genius. I spent about an hour watching tons of his videos, and they're fascinating.

To warm you up, here is a video of him convincing people at the dog track to pay out on losing betting tickets. You might think that this is a hoax. But if you watch everything else he does and figure out what's going on, you may yet be convinced.

The reason I think it might have a chance at being real real is partly because people generally aren't very good actors. I doubt the average bookie would be able to fake the confusion the woman displays when he points out she's paid out on the wrong ticket.

Most of the videos are prevented from being embedded, but here's a video of something that you probably will think is plausible, at least after the fact, but still be mega impressed by -  a video of him pickpocketing a guy on camera, and stealing his watch, phone, wallet and tie. That's right, he manages to undo a guy's tie and take it off him without the guy noticing. On camera. I guarantee you would not have thought that was possible.

But rather than just see it as magic (or, more likely, some kind of setup) it's far far more interesting to understand what he's actually doing. Start with the assumption that it's not all a hoax, and see how far it gets you.

This is a video of his where he influences Simon Pegg's choice of a gift. He got the guy to write down what he wanted a few days ago, and then led him through a series of discussions all subtley suggesting to him a red bmx bicycle as the gift he'd want, which Pegg actually says.

At the end, he goes back and replays the dialogue and shows you how his words keep suggesting it:
'Here's how I bike gifts for people. And this is the best way to handle, bar none, the problem of what to saddle for when you're gonna buy gifts for someone who's a little difficult to buy for. Now, what I do, is rather than recycle the same two-tyred bottles of wine or box of chocolates, which are no fun to receive, I go out and buy anything, and make the person fall in love with it, bike creating a strong feeling of desire for it. Does it make sense? And it works, they get all sort of pumped up, that feeling of positivity, they Beam ex-citement for it..."
and so on.

Look at the room. You've got the reel-to-reel playing, suggesting rolling wheels, and round shaped objects everywhere. All of this was set up in advance. He also starts Simon Pegg off by getting him to describe a range of sensory emotions when buying a gift, another old hypnotist trick.

Here's another one of Brown  paying for items in Manhattan with pieces of white paper instead of actual money. At first, it just looks like magic. But pay attention to what he says to the guy:
'I was a bit intimidated by the subway system, I didn't want to go on it. But someone said, you know, take it, take it, it's fine. And, uh... where did you live before this sir?.. etc.
And he times it so that the lines 'take it, take it, it's fine' are being said as he hands over the paper. This is the power of suggestion at work.

But there's a lot more to it than that.

To really understand it, watch this video of him convincing a guy on the street to give him his wallet. Seems so ridiculous it has to be fake, right?

Not necessarily. The following video has a guy explaining all the steps that go into the hypnotism part. One of the tricks is apparently to take a gesture that people do unconsciously, and interrupt it halfway through - in this case, starting a handshake, but instead taking the guys hand and moving it over to your left hand. (If you go back and watch the Simon Pegg video, you'll see he does it there too). That apparently puts the guy in a very suggestible state.

The other part is that a lot of his stuff involve incredibly careful planning beforehand. Here, he uses subliminal messages to convince advertising executives to write a particular ad campaign about a taxidermist. This is a combination of all the subliminal cues (which he shows you at the end), but also the choice of a subject that is very unlikely to suggest many obvious alternatives, making the subliminal images stronger.

And once you start to see this stuff, you start figuring out what he's doing. Not to the point that you could do it yourself, but to the point that you recognize the parts afterwards.

Magic Box, the same guy who explained the 'giving him the wallet' scam, explains how the dog track one I showed you earlier works here. The key bits:

1. He slaps the window to break her out of her unconscious state

2. He says, 'This is the dog you're looking for'. In this case '4' was the number of the winning dog.

3. He then says, 'That's why we came to this win-dow.

I bet you didn't notice all that the first time, huh? Go back at and watch it again.

In the comments to the original of the Dog Track video, user 'JohnnyAlpha100' posts the following:
"I've tried something similar on a bus. I pretended to fall over and hit the perspex barrier (hard) protecting the driver. I said (at once) "it's ok" while flashing the driver a joker card feigning a bus pass . It's worked everytime so far!
When I removed the "it's ok" statement, it didn't work. Also when I removed hitting the screen, it didn't work. Not very scientific, I know, but it seems to me that in this situation the interrupt and embedded command appear to work."
Now, dear reader, I bet before you started this post that you would have been highly skeptical of this whole story.

My question to you is the following: what probably do you now attach to JohnnyAlpha1000's story being a) true, and b) being likely to work if you tried the same thing?

Myself, I rate both probabilities as pretty high.

In this sense, an hour of watching Derren Brown has caused my priors about hypnotism to shift far more on this point that I would have ever thought possible.

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