In episode one[i] of his controversial series The Experiments, popular TV ‘mentalist’ Derren Brown explored whether it is possible to hypnotise someone into becoming a killer. The idea is not a new one, having been explored in the Manchurian Candidate, a Cold War thriller in which a senator’s son is brainwashed into becoming a sleep agent assassin for the communists. It has long been rumoured by conspiracy theorists that the CIA has a history of turning people into unwitting killers using a program called MK ULTRA, a murky project explored by the writer Jon Ronson in his book The Men Who Stare at Goats.
The conspiracy theory Brown uses for an analogue is the case of Sirhan Sirhan (not a typo – he has a Humbert Humbert-esque double name), who claims to have no memory of killing Robert Kennedy in 1968. I have no knowledge of that case, so I’ll stick to discussing the hypnotic ‘facts’, as I see them. The first thing to note is that this is a TV show, and it wouldn’t make for much of a spectacle if Brown failed to achieve what he set out to do. So, ***SPOILER ALERT***, his chosen subject goes on to ‘assassinate’ Stephen Fry, in public, with a gun he believes to be real. So could hypnosis really turn you into a killer, or is this truth actually far more mundane? ***SPOILER ALERT*** It is.
It’s interesting to note that Brown makes a big point of citing the Hypnosis Act of 1952 as the reason why he can’t show us the full induction that he uses (an induction is name for the formal procedure used to initiate hypnosis – it’s not a series of magic words, rather a way of setting the scene for what is to come). He tells us this is to ensure no one at home gets ‘stuck’ in hypnosis with no one to bring them out, when this can’t actually happen. Showman that he is, Brown is hamming it up for the audience at home, softening them up to accept the explosive conclusion he knows in advance his show will have.
Very telling is how he has the academic experts on early in the program to beef up the show’s credibility, but strangely these experts are not asked to comment on the show’s climax, where the test subject supposedly believes he’s killed Stephen Fry. They give a pretty unequivocal answer that in their professional opinion, using hypnosis to create a killer is not possible. Presumably, if he had really achieved something that went counter to all received wisdom, it would have been interesting to hear the expert take on it. But, of course, Brown has no interest in diminishing the impact of his experiment – where would be the fun in that? Moreover, he has form with playing it fast and loose – his methods are called into question elsewhere in the series, where a couple of professors called him up on the flawed methodology he uses to prove a dubious, and potentially dangerous, point about the nature of crowds[ii]. While his program may be titled ‘Experiments’, it’s the entertainment business he’s in. Coming here for facts is like watching Braveheart to get the true story of William Wallace.
It will take too long to go through step by step and explain the theory behind each of the tricks he uses. It’s all standard hypnotic fare, and there’s no doubt he knows his stuff – the reservations are more to do with how he presents his findings. The principal factor at work is introduced by Brown himself – namely, compliance. He underplays its role, however. The studio audience are there because they are interested in and fascinated by Derren Brown’s work. They don’t want to be in the audience for a dud show – they want to be part of something spectacular. The stage is very well set for Brown to do his work. There is the sense of being in safe hands – it’s a TV show, after all. What’s the worst that could happen?
When explaining how he gets the four men to throw ‘acid’ at others, he points to the fact that they are in a TV studio, and are thus aware that it’s very unlikely they’d be asked to do anything so immoral. He tries to suggest that his final chosen subject has no idea he’s being filmed when performing his ‘assassination’, but this is simply not true. He is given the gun by one of the show’s producers. He is at the venue for reasons connected with the show. These are all factors in his response. The subject experiences dissociation, sure, but all the suggestions that trigger it come from Brown, and are associated with the ongoing project of the show he’s involved with – his fifteen minutes of fame! A mixture of compliance and a social safety net at work. At the end Brown ‘removes’ his amnesia, and we see the subject is in fact conscious of what he’s doing, but he’s merely dissociated from it by choice. It’s worth noting that RFK’s killer Sirhan Sirhan claims many years later to not remember anything at all about the experience.
Alongside compliance, another factor is at work: expectancy. When Brown ‘steals’ his shoe, the subject intimates that he wouldn’t be surprised if he would be able to do it, because, after all, he’s Derren Brown. Because of the way he is perceived, Brown is able to wield enormous influence in his suggestions simply by being who he is. When allied with the all-too-willing agreeability of his audience to suspend scepticism and buckle in for the ride, a clearer picture begins to emerge of how this trick is achieved.
Hypnosis can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do. However, if your eagerness to please the person making the suggestions outweighs your doubts about performing the suggested action you might do things you would ordinarily be reluctant to do. There’s a lot that can be done with conditioning, and many psychological tricks that could be used to deconstruct someone’s personality, a la Pavlov, and rebuild it to your own ends. I’m not saying that it’s impossible to create a killer – a lengthy deconstruction of someone’s personality, fundamentally altering their values, could well do just that. But it’s very different to do this with just a man off the street, and Brown’s findings should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt.
After all, reconditioning is a big part what we do when engage in hypnotherapy – use suggestion to change behaviour, albeit in a positive way – e.g. stopping smoking. However, the reason our attempts meet with success is because the process is entirely consensual, and the suggestions are only accepted because you, the client, recognise them as beneficial. Rest assured, no one has yet left my consulting room sporting the eyes of a stone cold killer!
[i] link here: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/derren-brown-the-experiments/on-demand/47993-001