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Spectacular Psychology or Silly Psycho-babble?

by Simon Singh

Published in The Daily Telegraph.

Derren Brown ... But is he a genius of psychology or merely a skilled magician?

'His mass appeal relies on his uncanny ability to predict and control human behaviour. He can read your mind, tell if you are lying, plant ideas in your head and mess with your subconscious. The audience is told that this is all down to Derren's stunning understanding of psychology. However, I now believe that his amazing demonstrations of mind reading and mind control are little more than clever magic tricks.

So why is this a big problem? Let's take an example. In one TV show [...] a boxer and a woman (Derren's assistant) face each other. He places his hands under her arms, hoists her easily into the air and returns her to the ground. Next Derren stares into the boxer's eyes and defies him to lift the woman, having apparently sapped his strength. Sure enough, the boxer finds it impossible to lift her off the ground.

Derren says in narration, "Some athletes use the mind to try and improve stamina and strength, can I use my mind to take it away?", clearly implying that this is a psychological effect, presumably the power of suggestion. Although the power of suggestion can affect people, I am convinced that it does not explain this dramatic demonstration. In fact, this stunt is most easily explained using GCSE physics.

If the woman stands 4 inches from the boxer, then the boxer can lift her. If she stands 8 inches away, then the force required to lift her doubles. It is the physics of levers. Nobody notices that she moves a few inches back or forth, but the results are very dramatic. [...]

You might ask, "What's the harm? Leave the poor guy alone. It's only a bit of fun."

There are three problems. First, any TV performer has a contract with the audience. In this case, Derren's contract is based on a claim to perform effects based on psychology, but this is simply not the case. Often his psychological explanations are bogus. Viewers are left with a false understanding of psychology[...]

Derren says, "Giving explanations, which we do some of the time, is not about patronising people. It's about playing to people's intelligence." It is actually about misleading people. [...]

The second problem is that Derren's show taints the science of psychology. He makes statements about psychology and what can be achieved with the human mind, but they directly contradict scientific knowledge.[...]

The third [...] taints factual television ... misleads and appears to elevate magic to the level of science. [...]

Of course, magic does involve the science of psychology. But Derren implies he is using a branch of psychology distinct from the psychology of, say, magical misdirection [...]

Please do not misunderstand me. I do love magic. I merely hate it when magicians pretend to be psychologists. By the way, I apologise to magicians for revealing the poker trick, but in my opinion Derren only brings magic into disrepute. Giving away one secret seems like a small price to pay to highlight the problem.

My fear is that this is the start of a nasty trend. Reality magic is becoming increasingly fashionable, but TV execs need to be honest with their audience in terms of what they are actually delivering.

Finally, I suppose I should put my money where my mouth is. Derren performed two stunts on This Morning. If he can repeat them - read my childhood thoughts and replicate a drawing that I make - then I will happily donate �1,000 to charity. Derren, if you are happy to accept the challenge, then just contact the Telegraph offices.'

NOTE: Published in The Daily Telegraph newspaper on 5 June, 2003. Derren has yet to accept the challenge.

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