Derren Brown on the inspiration behind The Experiments

The master illusionist explores the psychology of crowds

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A while back I watched Martin Scorsese’s movie Shutter Island. It turned out that I was in a small minority that didn’t enjoy it very much. Disappointed, I said as much to my nearly a million Twitter followers, exaggerating my disdain for comic effect.

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And then I felt dreadful. The blog comment sections, Twitter feeds and discussion forums that comprise much of the social networking aspects of the internet are too often hives of malignity. And, as anyone who has eavesdropped or read someone else’s diary may know, nasty comments about oneself are always hard to take.

I have been lucky, but most people writing witless spite on the net never imagine that the subjects of their bile, protected by the glittering winding-sheet of fame, might ever read it: surprisingly often they do, and it can be very hurtful. I’m sure that Scorsese and his team have more to do with their time than pore over my aperçus, but there I was, carelessly contributing to unpleasantness.

At least, though, I had put my name to the comments. As people express themselves in these arenas with entirely anonymous abandon, we move towards trolling and internet bullying, which has ruined lives as disastrously as its playground or domestic counterpart.

The exact reasons for the recent rioting will be studied by the experts, but what is clear is that perfectly nice people slip into vindictive behaviour when they act anonymously and as part of a crowd. The classic experiment was carried out with trick-or-treating children who turned up at a scientist’s door one Halloween: when invited to take a single sweet each from a bowl and then left alone, the kiddies who stole most were the ones wearing masks who hadn’t given their names.

This is what psychologists call de-individuation at work, and these sorts of experiments have tended to fire my imagination when it has come to ideas for new shows. Hence it’s the basis of The Gameshow, one of four one-hour experiments I’ll conduct on Channel 4 (beginning with The Assassin).

The Gameshow is just that, fronted by me, in which an unsuspecting member of the public will have various things happen to him during a secretly filmed night out, as decided live by a studio audience. It is the audience, though, who will be the real subjects of the experiment, as they choose kind or cruel interventions.

I will venture into this uncertain of the outcome. Some of the shows have their roots in existing sociological experiments, others I have created for myself. Rigorous academic guidelines make these dark waters for psychologists to tread.

Television offers rather more leniency and encourages drama, which has always appealed to me. Although my library shelves bow under the weight of psychological research papers, I’m only an interested layman: an entertainer with a passion for what makes us tick and produce all manner of alarmingly predictable behaviour.

This appetite came from working for many years as a magician and a hypnotist. Members of both professions are often talented applied psychologists: working every day in the curious, murky areas of human behaviour outside of ordinary volition. Psychologists are only very recently beginning to take an interest in what the magician has learnt about perception.

A third of my time is now spent touring with a magic show of sorts that is rooted in the golden era of “mentalism”, when stage psychics wore turbans and offered terrifying theatrical exoticism. I have tried over the years to move away from tricks and stunts to something less showy and for me more honest: to be more of a facilitator of psychological experiences and journeys that can then be followed in an odd hybrid of documentary and entertainment show.

I am sometimes asked if my work makes me cynical about people. Quite the opposite. The fact that between the bright, familiar world of our free will and the shrouded dark realm of the fictional Svengali there exists a twilight domain where we are neither our own nor another’s is one that’s richly resonant for me.

Perhaps, above all, it delights me because discoveries in this field are about the human experience: isn’t it, for example, so much more meaningful to understand the process by which we can convince ourselves that mediums can talk to the dead (a process that tells us about how we form beliefs and how our minds work), than it is to blindly accept that the dead can communicate with us?

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The real human experience – which my experiments explore – is always more fascinating to me than the imaginary superhuman one.