Monday, 13 January 2014

Derren Brown Makes Me Squirm

Derren Brown, photographed by Seamus Ryan
TV One in New Zealand has just been running Series One of The Derren Brown Experiments on televison. If you don’t know, Derren Brown is a British hypnotist, illusionist, psychologist, and performer, and he is very good at what he does. I have on several occasions enjoyed watching Derren Brown clips on you tube. In this television series, he examines a variety of psychological phenomenon by playing game host for a willing audience. So, why do these shows, and Derren himself, make me squirm?

In the first episode, after a fairly long selection process—keeping in mind that the general rule is about 10% of people cannot be hypnotised, about 10% are incredibly susceptible, and the remaining 80% fall somewhere in the middle—he chooses a likable and likely (e.g., highly susceptible) fellow and sets out to prove whether the old belief that you’d never do something truly abhorrent under hypnosis is true or not. The subject is (unknowingly) groomed for months to commit an abhorrent act--in this case the public assassination of a popular public figure--and when all of the pieces are in place, he is subliminally cued to pull the gun and shoot. Will he do it? The program is nail-biting, and the result when he pulls the gun thought-provoking. You can watch the episode here:

Squirm factor while I was viewing it? Yep, I was squirming. But I was still squirming, and thinking about it, after I went to bed, and again the next day, not so much because of the ramifications (yes, Virginia, you CAN be brainwashed to do unspeakable things), but I was even more bothered that Brown would take this poor guy and put him through this experience, and I wondered what that would do long-term to the psychological well-being of his subject? What sort of man exploits his subject for public entertainment? (Okay, perhaps there was some genuine insight gleaned from this experiment for everyone watching, but did the end justify the means?)

I was curious what would happen in the second episode, touted as exploring how crowd behaviour can affect our sense of right or wrong, and what our capacity for evil might be. This time a studio audience was given voting buttons and invited to cast their votes whether a completely innocent and rather likeable chap should have something good happen to him, or something bad. An elaborate set-up involved a variety of accomplices and plenty of hidden cameras. You can watch the episode here:

Now I find it disturbing enough that in every single instance, the studio audience voted to make this poor chap’s life increasingly miserable, but I can kind of see how and why that might happen. The audience was, for the most part, young and out for a good time, and Derren created a sort of surreal atmosphere by asking audience members to don masks. Every psychologist knows that when you take on a mask or alternative persona, it carries with it permission to do things you might not normally do. 

Furthermore, Derren Brown provides entertainment, and the audience was there to be entertained. Perhaps there is a greater entertainment factor when people face adversity than when nice things happen to folks--its more “interesting.” And entertainment is the name of the game—this WAS presented as a game show—and all the action was seen on a big screen reminiscent of a movie or tv show or Xbox game (in fact, the computer game analogy is particularly apt given the participating audience member’s ability to choose the future of their “character”). Furthermore, Brown seemed particularly delighted each time he reported that “over half of you voted to make this man’s life worse,” a positive response that undoubtedly encouraged more “nuke him” votes.

It was bad enough that this guy was accused of a variety of things he didn’t do and made to look foolish, hauled down to the police station in a paddy wagon, told he was being made redundant from his job, and in the coup d’etat the audience voted to have him kidnapped by thugs. I think what bothered me the most, though, was the Darren Brown affiliate who broke into the man’s apartment, made himself a sandwich in the man's kitchen, prowled through the chap’s bathroom for things to chortle over in front of the audience (he found a nail clipping and managed to generate some hilarity out of that...personally, I thought it was a remarkably tidy flat, and bathroom!), tore up the bed, went through the man’s underwear drawer sharing giggles and snide comments for the whole audience, and smashed up the man’s television. Now the audience told him to do this stuff, but the idea of making fun of someone’s personal life, home, and belongings within a public forum (not just the audience, but everyone who ever watches this program on tv or you tube video) to me is so incredibly abhorrent that I can hardly believe anyone would be so cruel as to do this. This was beyond a practical joke, worse than bad taste, this was criminal. (And the new tv and letter left behind for the guy to find when he got home after his horrible night out seems no compensation at all.)

I sometimes work with people who have had traumatic events occur in their lives, and I know how even small things that others might have considered a bit of harmless, insignificant fun can sometimes have a negative impact on some people for the rest of their lives. Home invasion is particularly nasty, akin almost to rape in some cases. To have a home invasion made so incredibly public and apparently condoned by the program makers for whatever ulterior motive (Darren claims he wanted to show how group behaviour can make monsters of us all) is the ultimate in nasty. No wonder it made me squirm.

No stars for this one, Derren Brown. What you did was stinko. Meanwhile, I hope our hapless victim managed to pull some good out of this, and I wish HIM all the best. 

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