Derren Brown returned to Channel 4 last Friday with the two-part special ‘Apocalypse’. It’s the latest in a string of specials from the psychological trickster, and is surrounded in the usual mire of controversy one would expect from his latest outlandish project. Amidst accusations of actors being used and general ethical considerations, we take a look at ‘Apocalypse’ – as well as some (gentle) psychological theory that will hopefully shed some light as to whether the show is legitimate like the producers claim, or if it’s just one big pile of steaming Lance Armstrong.
Since the show aired last week there have been people claiming that Steve Brosnan (the participant in the experiment) was an actor, claims that basically stem from three things. The first being that he reacted and spoke very ‘clean’ lines as though it had been scripted (I would point out that the show has been edited to look like a movie and presumably has left out the unimportant stuff), the second that he had a CastingCallPro account (a networking tool for actors which currently has 35,000 registered ‘actors’ in the UK, and the fact he looks similar to the guy from a pot noodle advert (remember those?). Clearly in ‘Apocalypse’ the role of Steve ‘could’ have been played by an actor (presumably one that over performed in a Hollyoaks audition), so let’s assume for the moment he isn’t. Is it actually possible to create the effect that is being portrayed here for real?
Let’s first figure out exactly what is going on.All of Derren Browns shows (by his own admission) use a blend of psychological techniques and special effects, and this is no different. Behind the explosions, zombies and technical wizardry there’s a very simple premise. I.e.- convince someone a disaster will happen (news reports etc), put them deep into that disaster (to do this Derren puts him to sleep and moves to a hospital and then see how they react to a very controlled scenario.
The main principles in question here are those of ‘Perception’ and ‘Manipulation’. Two frequently investigated areas of psychology, they directly influence our day to day interactions with others and often produce controversial results, which many people find hard to accept.
An example of manipulation technique every worthy A-level psychology student will tell you (in far more detail than I’ll write here thankfully) is that of Stan Milgram, a professor at Harvard in the 50’s. He set out to investigate why the Nazis were so obedient during WW2 with the hope of showing they were different in some way to the rest of us (and therefore reassuring ourselves that we weren’t capable of the horrors). By using fake electrocution experiments his results ultimately implied that around 70-80% of people would have reacted in a similar way (that of inflicting serious pain on another human after being told to do so)- a result which, to this day, is still contested in some corners (mainly due to the inability to accept such a shocking idea). I think most people who claimed this new show to be fake are suffering from this anxiety, in other words refusing to admit that anyone would behave in such a way that it must be fake (if it was you there would have taken a more dominant role, or picked up a weapon? Are you sure?? I wonder what Steve would have said before the shock of losing his family and life as he knew it). Nevertheless it uncovers a problematic question, if people can be manipulated into harming others, surely they can be manipulated into doing virtually anything?
Perception is an equally interesting field of psychology. Having done my dissertation about subliminal messaging it may be reassuring to know that things aren’t quite as simple as adding flash frames in movies to make people buy coke and popcorn. But there are definitely more subtle effects that you can make use of. Take a moment to think about what you are perceiving right now. This article for one. Can you smell anything? How about sound or vibrations? You’ll notice that the more you think about what you perceive, the more you become aware of. Now, this isn’t because your ears have only just picked the sound up, or that the Bonsai tree in the periphery of your vision has just appeared, it’s because your brain had previously determined these to be irrelevant and so has not made your conscious mind aware of them. The information that doesn’t make it to conscious process accounts for at least 60% of all environmental input and, despite you not being consciously aware of it, is all stored in unconscious memory (since the brain has already processed it to determine as unimportant).
Another great example of how your perception is altered without realising too much is with writing. I can prvoe this by the fcat you hvae mgeanad to raed tihs eitnre senentce withuot too mcuh coilpmcation. Things that you expect to see are interpreted more intensely.Unexpected information (that poses no apparent threat) is then left out. In the sentence before, your expectation is guided by the first and last letters of each word as well as the context. When these crucial letters are scrambled as well (or even just by switching the first and last letters from an otherwise correctly spelt word) the tffece is completely lost as there are no guiding indicators. The idea behind perceptional manipulation takes this idea a step further to implant images in the subconscious that the brain doesn’t consider important enough for you to know (or skims over). These images can then be used to affect behaviour later on.As you’ll see in a bit, this technique is regularly used by Derren for his shows and can be found in many forms, from pictures to sounds. This is also the beginning of the technique used to make someone go to sleep suddenly without meeting them before (don’t worry, although it seems this way from the show, this can’t be done without per-preparation otherwise people would do it to each other all the time!).
So, assuming they are not using actors, what does this mean for Apocalypse?
What this all leads to, of course, is picking the right person. It’s all good knowing the tricks, but they can’t be used on everyone. Different people have a different susceptibility than others for various reasons, so some people simply wouldn’t buy it. By sending a tweet out to his followers to meet for auditions, Derren has immediately narrowed the field down to people that are at least open to the idea of what he does. From the years of experience he’s had, he’ll quickly have a good idea on the perfect person and start setting things up there and then during the auditions. Steve is a great example of a suggestible person. From the clips of him at home you can see he’s a typical 21 year old. Loves wrestling, zombie movies, football and beer, doesn’t have a great deal of life experience, doesn’t exactly seem to be the smartest of people (sorry to all the oven cleaners out there!) and definitely open to the idea of a zombie apocalypse (something a huge percentage of people believe these days, myself included!)
From that point on, everything is fairly simple. Getting hidden cameras into his house is standard hidden camera show magic, and with his family on board he’d have no reason to be suspicious. The biggest thing some people should be worried about is the ease with which his phone was hacked (simply for your own security), but once he’s reading the articles on his phone/radio and TV about a meteor then why wouldn’t he think it was real? Huge production budgets go a long way to making things believable, and this was one of the best I’ve seen for a while (recently saw a terrible US hidden camera show where a woman screamed at a kid dressed in sticky coco pops for at least 5 minutes before realising the joke). All the hard work (in terms of convincing him) was done once he woke up in the bed, all they needed to do from then on is put on a good show, the actors were decent, and any faults from the actors or the set (for example stopping to listen to talkback) would easily have been ignored for the perceptional reasons I gave earlier, particularly in the intense situation.
The final criticism I’ve seen for the show is that of ethics. I saw it put quite succinctly on one of the forums ‘Every A-level psychology student worth his salt would know that this wouldn’t be allowed, it must be fake!’ Now, while I’m glad they’re still teaching ethics in schools, and acknowledge that no psychological board would allow this because of the deceit involved (the Milgram experiment I mentioned earlier is expressly banned these days), this is not a psychological experiment, it’s an entertainment show on TV. And, as we know TV has no morals. In a world where The X-Factor regularly ruins peoples lives, Discovery channel is recreating the ‘banned’ experiments of the 50’s (including the Milgram experiment) and Channel4 has people popping pills live on air, I think we’re far beyond the moral boundary that would prevent Derren from doing this. He does try to justify the experience by giving the impression that his life will be improved. This is still to be seen, I’m sure it may have a short term positive effect but this is a red herring. Apocalypse is the modern day version of what Paul McKenna making you bark like a dog was 20 years ago, and let’s love it for that.
It’ll hardly take a super sleuth to realise that I’m a fan of Derren’s work; personally I believe ‘Apocalypse’ was run as they say it was (but maybe with a reveal at the end how he tempted Steve down certain routes) but ultimately the answer of whether it’s real or fake is down to you. Do you believe someone could be influenced in a way to accept this scenario? Would someone really act in that way during an apocalypse? Can Channel 4 risk the ethical consequences of this and the possibility of harming Steve? Can they risk the representational damage that would happen if evidence came out proving it a hoax? Or, and I think most importantly, why would Channel4 commission a show about convincing someone of the Apocalypse, only to go through all the expense and effort to put an actor through it and con the viewers??
Well, there’s my opinion but there’s a comments box below for a reason, so make sure you let us know what you think about ‘Derren Brown’s Apocalypse’. Don’t miss part two on Friday at 9pm (Channel 4).