Lying To Entertain

Derren Brown is an extremely talented guy, clearly intelligent and thoughtful, and probably the most prolific person I’m aware of in showbusiness. I wonder sometimes if there are five Derrens made in a superted style factory somewhere, all churning out their multiple live shows, series, paintings and what-not.

But, over the years, a slight hypocrisy has emerged which I just can’t shake off, and as much as I want to side with Derren, I just can’t.

Its a difficult thing to discuss, because everyone has their (usually quite energised) take on things – spouting out anything from “its all just fun!” to “he’s psychic!” to “he’s just a magician – everyone knows its not real!” I would say all of these generalised ways of reducing what he does are inaccurate.

So here’s my problem.

Derren does a mixture of magic, misdirection, suggestion and showmanship. We all know that. However, the cleverness is in how something that looks like its psychological is actually a trick. That’s straightforward – most reasonably aware people have realised that. Uri Geller pretended his tricks were caused by mystic energies, David Blane pretended his tricks were caused by him being some kind of chosen messiah, Derren pretends his tricks are caused by psychological influence. Its more fun than simply saying “its a trick! LOLZ” because the mechanism of the trick is far more buried if you’re happily distracted onto thinking about psychology, NLP, suggestion etc. People think “wow, is that possible? It must be!” Its made all the more powerful (and confusing) of course by the fact that Derren does mix genuine hypnosis and suggestion in with the tricks.

See this clip for example:

In it, Derren pretends to guess the letter that Judy thinks of. To the casual watcher, it looks like mind-reading, or subliminal suggestion, or whatever else. Some will think that Derren “implants” the letter in her mind, others will think that he somehow psychically “knows” whatever she thinks of. Maybe its a subtle body language cue he picks up on. They may then think “wow, its possible to influence someone without them knowing”, or “people have no freewill! Derren is able to manipulate them!”

Such people of course would be the usual victims of Derren’s misdirection. Its a trick! Derren uses what is called a “gimmick”, a crafted-for-magicians device. In this case its a small envelope with carbon paper inside. Here’s how it works:

    Derren pretends to write the letter on the card.
    He places it into the envelope.
    He holds the envelope in a strange, unnatural way so his thumb is pressed on the other side (able to imprint onto the carbon paper).
    When Judy tells him the letter, he has a second to write (with his thumbtip – possibly holding a blunt instrument) the letter she says.
    He gives himself longer by verifying what she has said (“A for apple?”)
    He then does a strange, unnatural movement where he gets rid of his thumbtip instrument behind his back.
    He then takes out the card, to show them the letter “A”.
    He immediately excuses the strange wobbly writing by saying that he wrote it behind his back. Which of course, he didn’t! Its wobbly because he wrote it with his thumb – no one writes an A like that.

Now thats standard mentalism – do a trick, pretend its mental, and you look like some kind of psychological wizard. With standard mentalists though, there is something in the presentation that says “actually guys, you know its all magic, but lets have some fun”. So they pretend to be overtly psychic or something, so you know that its just a nice illusion. Derren though takes it to the edge where you might really think its all down to psychology. (If at this point you’re thinking “don’t be ridiculous! Everyone knows its a trick!” then you’d be wrong – many people don’t).

Now, on its own, that would be one thing.

The problem comes with Derren’s fierce backlash against other people manipulating the creation of a belief system. Psychics etc.

Now, I despise the psychic industry, and whilst its ok under the guise of “entertainment” there are too many “psychics” out there pretending to channel the dead, influence peoples life decisions. And some people are really vulnerable to that kind of influence.

But I find it difficult to see the difference between that kind of thing, and what Derren does. He’s just as phoney – using trickery to make himself appear to be using psychological skills (admittedly he is very psychologically skilled, but often in a very different way to how he is making out). You may argue “but psychics influence peoples lives, Derren just entertains”. But that would be wrong! Derren reaches a much wider audience and influences peoples’s lives with the false idea that hypnosis, suggestion, NLP etc can create the illusions he suggests it can.

I really admire Derren, and find him a down-to-earth and likeable guy. I also love his work that shows encourages people to question belief systems (e.g. “Messiah”) or the nature of influence (“The System”, “Heist”). But when he’s doing magic tricks and pretending them to be psychological, there’s something painfully trite about it.

What do you think?


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  • hi there,

    i see your post is dated 2012 so i’m not sure how relevant your point still is but if it is – please see below 🙂

    i really liked your post. you outlined your argument carefully making sure you are understood. on top of that you are interested in other people’s opinions which i must say is quite impressive and rare these days. although i see your point there are a couple of things i would argue so if you allow me, let me describe what i mean.

    first of all, the clip you chose is quite an old one dating to beginnings of Derren’s career. it seems to me that he’s grown a lot since then and now does a lot more impressive ‘tricks’ 😉
    to quote: ‘the cleverness is in how something that looks like its psychological is actually a trick’; my question here is this: when exactly in the clip did he describe this as a ‘psychological’ trick? cause i think i missed that;)

    you may very well be exactly right as to how this was done, which if it was – good observation by the way – but nonetheless he only described it as a ‘party trick’; that’s when your point of ‘where you might really think its all down to psychology’ – he never says here it’s all down to psychology. or did he? 🙂

    and here is another point you mentioned : using trickery to make himself appear to be using psychological skills’; it may only be my imagination but is it possible that it may appear to be… etc.. TO YOU ?

    now, it may be i’m too much of a fan (as you might have guessed) to be impartial on this kind of thing, but for me just one video with what you described does not convince me he’s what you call a hypocritical; not to mention a ‘phoney’ which is what i would call Uri Geller – to me Derren is nowhere near in the neighbourhood and frankly it seems a bit harsh;

    the difference between him and other magicians/illusionists etc. is that most of them do not reveal their professional secrets; and the fact that he is kind enough to show us some of them seems to make people more hungry for revealing it all; which i don’t believe he has ANY obligation to do; i would probably speak for a lot of fans to say we prefer to appreciate he does that at all; and if he wants to use silly tricks like the one in the clip – i’m not sure how it does any harm; everyone has done something that does someone else harm – would you hold yourself responsible or would you say ‘it’s their point / problem/ perspective’ that i could not have foreseen?
    but that’s just my opinion.
    would love to discuss more if you fancy 😉

    • Hi Eni,
      Thanks for your response! Its really difficult to get stuck into something like this without getting misunderstood – especially if you’re a fan. I am really grateful for Derren doing his thing – I’m really enjoyed his work since it began.
      The use of the clip – I appreciate its old, but for me it illustrates the point I was trying to make in a nice simple way. The bigger stunts and routines are using the same dynamic – just in a bigger way.

      In his book Pure Effect, he outlines his presentation a little more – to not just hint at the process – but to show it. The process being the misdirected cause of the effect (e.g. “bodyreading, mind reading” etc). Even if he doesn’t overtly say “hey, I’m going to read this person’s mind”, he absolutely suggests that’s what he’s doing by the presentation. He’ll pretend to be concentrating, guessing, changing his mind, hovering about and letting something emerge in his mind – all that kind of thing.

      Now, fans like you and I know very well that a more mechanical cause is at hand. Its a trick. In the same way that you and I know that psychics aren’t really psychic, and Uri Geller isn’t really a mystic.

      But for the masses (and the kinds of people I overhear in the intermissions at the live shows), they absolutely believe that he’s using mind-reading, body reading, divine intervention, psychic ability or whatever. Derren doesn’t explicitly say that he uses those things, but the strength to which he implies it is almost the same thing. People take those suggestions, and believe them.

      There are many ways to cut it. You could argue that its up to them what they believe – but that would also apply to the customers of psychics or homeopathy. You could argue that Derren is honest about his trickery – but is he, really? In most of his routines he doesn’t “show the process” in a tongue-in-cheek way. He knows that people are absorbing the suggestions he’s offering about how the trick is done. (Actually, you’re right in that the link I posted is a poor choice, because he does say “this is just a party trick”. Yet, the title of the video is still “Derren Brown Mind Reading”)

      For me, I enjoy the tricks and his performances, but I find it hypocritical that he bashes other people who use a similar kind of masked suggestion and deception for their audiences. I actually agree with his views – I think psychics are immoral and prey on the vulnerable. But the same kind of people think mind control is possible and powerful, because of his illusions. People think certain hypnotic effects are instantly achievable without appreciating the background work that he would have done with a subject beforehand. That kind of thing.

      He is as phoney as the people he bashes (he creates an illusion that looks like its because of something else when its actually a trick, that people then believe in). In Cheltenham, I saw him stand on the stage and pretend to “get in touch” with an audience member’s dead relative. She started crying. Many people believed the facts he came out with were because he was somehow channeling the dead person. How is that different from what a psychic “does” with their audience? Its exactly the same.

      I do love discussing this kind of thing, so I’d love to hear your thoughts!


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