23:31 Mon 11 Jun 2007. Updated: 00:33 12 Jun 2007
[, , ]

After some IM discussion about the tendency that humans have to over- or underestimate risks (a topic that I’ll probably post about fairly soon) and about how our belief structures will tend to alter our risk and probability projections (a topic I touch on frequently) my friend Brian passed along links to some Derren Brown videos. Derren Brown is a kind of “magician”/con artist/hypnotist. I’d never heard of him before, but watching his videos has made me reconsider quite a bit about human nature.

The one Brian gave me, Subliminal Advertising, is a good introduction because it sets up the kinds of tricks that he uses. These tricks make one aware of how suggestible people can be. What fascinates (and frightens) me about that one is the precision involved.

I then watched “instant conversion” 1 and “instant conversion” 2, in which Brown convinces nonbelievers to believe in god (or a god). Here he uses the power of suggestion and the power of conformity, and I reminded myself of how important it is to stick to your own thoughts despite what authorities say and despite what others around you do—aspects of this remind me of the psychological experiment where a test subject is asked to perform some trivial arithmetic, but is in a group full of experimenter cronies who all give the same wrong answer, and the drive to conform pushes the subject (usually asked last) to abandon their answer and adopt the group one.

I was quite impressed by all of this. But “Russian Scam” really blew my mind. Watch it, and then watch another viewer’s explanation. I found that more disturbing, and began to worry a little about just how manipulable people are individually (I’ve worried about how malleable people are in groups for years, as it is of huge political import).

If you are ever shaking hands with someone you have any doubts about, be aware of what’s going on. Be aware that if they leave the handshake unfinished, you cannot trust them. Interrupting a handshake can induce a hypnotic state. (I’m not kidding. Interrupted handshake plus fast talking equals heightened susceptibility.)

Following on from that, “Paying with Paper” demonstrates more suggestibility, and after watching it I was more frightened and awed by how easy it was for Brown to simply insert himself at the level of people’s subconscious minds and literally program them (it probably helps that they’re doing rote tasks). (I consider it interesting and significant, in this video, what happens with the non-native speaker.)

After seeing him make people forget what train station they want to get off at and completely replace their idea of what they would like to receive as a gift, and then claim winnings off losing tickets at a dog track, I really began to wonder how much we’re all manipulated by this kind of thing all the time, without noticing it, and the extent to which our understanding of how our own minds work is essentially fiction. It’s possible that the “suggestible” are a small percentage of the population, but I’m not sure that’s true, and I wonder about the more subtle messaging we might all be subject to.

Sure, it could all be staged, and perhaps Derren Brown is merely using these videos to exploit the suggestibility of people such as myself, and our willingness to believe in the gullibility of humanity.

Naturally, beyond being worried by the effectiveness of what he was doing to other people, I was extremely interested in how to use these techniques on oneself.

3 Responses to “Suggestibility”

  1. sean Says:

    People are very programmable, and I think we’re designed that way so we function in useful groups. Plus, rather amusingly, there’s some evidence that in some cases the subsconscious makes decisions and then the conscious mind invents the reasons for those decisions afterwards :-).


    An interesting book on a similar theme is the Robot’s Rebellion by Keith E. Stanovich, well worth a read if you can find it. It’s about how “vehicles” for genes and memes (he uses Dawkin’s terminology) are unconscious robots pursuing atavistic, evolutionary imperatives that favour the genes and memes not the vehicles. The vehicles being us, of course. His thesis is essentially that through various methods, self-critique etc, people can alter consciousness so we act in favour of the vehicles instead of the genes and memes. Personally, I think consciousness, rationality, and so on are more delusional than he would hope and all the talk of genes and memes is a product of that, but it’s an interesting read nonetheless.

    Side note about Derren Brown; he had a TV show on in the UK. A lot of people though the first series was staged, so he took a poll on which celebs the public trusted most and then carried out his tricks on them. Stephen Fry, people like that. Very amusing. Most of his techniques are used in deep advertising – so, yes, you are bombarded with this stuff everyday. Further, if you feel an urge to go and buy a DVD or something after watching his show you know something’s up :-).

  2. Brett Says:

    I totally felt an urge to buy his DVDs after watching those clips. Which means he must be good… which means I should buy the DVDs… right?

    I kind of suspected that he pre-hypnotized the victims in the paying with paper, dog track, and maybe the Russian scam scenes, and then re-triggered their fugue states during the filmed part. Under that assumption, what he shows is totally on par with the kind of things you see in stage hypnosis. I mean, the guy in the first store even gave him change for the blank money… he had to be really far under. For example, he probably had to talk to those store owners to get permission to film first, and could have started the process (or at least assessed their suggestibility) before the cameras were rolling.

  3. Tadhg Says:

    Séan: I do think we’re programmable, but the nature and extent of that programmability is what’s open to question. The Brown videos, if taken at face value (which it would be unswise to do, I suspect), suggest that we, or at least some of us, are so programmable that people can literally accost us on the street and install their own routines in our heads, the implications of which are obviously staggering.

    I’m not convinced by Libet’s experiments as described on Wikipedia that we don’t have volition or free will, but I am convinced that free will is a complex notion and that we’re not as rational as we think we are (and reading Fooled by Randomness only reinforced these convictions). I’m familiar with the general idea that we’re vehicles for our genes and memes, and think that is also a very important conceptual model, one that has to be considered quite carefully as a way of looking at human actions. I suspect I would agree with Stanovich, and hence be more optimistic than you are about our ability to “break our programming”, and think that many of the meditative disciplines humans have come up with over time are very much concerned with doing just that. I mean, if we’re just drones, how have some of us both created and implemented a regimen leading to being able to control our mental states to the extent that we have physically-measurable and distinct differences in our brain (Tibetan monks, who can induce “happiness” through meditation)?

    I saw the Stephen Fry video, and the Simon Pegg one… it is, of course, still tough to see just what’s going on, and the extent to which suggestion versus sleight-of-hand and/or staging is responsible for the “tricks”.

    As for advertising, yes, these techniques are clearly used in it and have been for years… and it’s used as a form of social control more broadly, but there we start to slide into another (related) topic.

    Brett: I haven’t had the urge to buy the DVDs, but I did have trouble ceasing my viewing of the YouTube clips… I don’t think I’ll put that down to his suggestive powers, though.

    It’s quite possible that he hypnotized those people prior to filming. That makes it far less impressive, of course. But I’m still stuck as to what to believe there, because agreeing with e.g. your claim that the guy had to be really far under to give him change is essentially an optimistic viewpoint about how resistant to suggestion humans are—while I feel inclined to agree with you, I wonder if that’s just my inherent bias towards believing that we’re generally aware and thinking (if not necessarily “rational”). And while he might have had to get permission, it’s always possible that he got permission from owners unknown to the employees… but we just don’t know.

Leave a Reply