After the brilliance of the first in the hypnotist Derren Brown’s new series ‘The Experiments’, he rather shot himself in the foot with Remote Control. Under the guise of a new Game Show he got the audience, wearing white face masks to make them anonymous and part of the snarling crowd, to vote on whether a victim should experience nice or nasty events, in a filmed evening, using actors around him he did not know about. It is perfectly true they voted to take him straight down the nasty path, to the point of losing his job, having his TV smashed, being arrested and then kidnapped. That led to a staged escape and a car accident, although by then the victim had been supplanted by an actor, so it was just shock effect.

But firstly it was little surprise, since in the studio setting, and with continuous encouragement from Brown, they were constantly given permission to push the ‘drama’. You imagine too that they assumed that in the long run the victim would be protected from real harm, as in fact he was. But more importantly, just like the TV evangelist programme, when a theatre was filmed at a different angle to look fuller than it was, there were moments when the either-or votes may have gone in favour of the bad over good turn of events, but you were not told by how much, unless it was 80% for the bad right at the start. 60-40 was not so terrible for the human race, at one point, especially when being encouraged.

It was all rather distasteful in the end, however shocking it was a producer invaded his house and was encouraged to smash his TV with a base-ball bat. It was the show itself that set up the pretence he had lost his job. It taught us nothing new about crowd behaviour, human cruelty, or manipulation and indeed Brown is making a deal of money out of it. He has great talent, but is best when he pushes the envelope with more serious programmes like the one on ‘The Assassin’ and links to real cases like Robert Kennedy. Not only did this audience feel under Remote Control though, but the wider audience too, and for the sake of what TV is constantly about, entertainment. The medium is the message!


Filed under Culture, Science


  1. Anonymous

    That was the most horroble show I’ve ever watched. This outcome is nothing new for me as a german. What I find much more shocking, is this huge step into someones privacy and that everybody seems to be ok with it. We all have seen his bed and bathroom, he was put into awful stress situations. And everything he gets is a fucking teli and a fucking letter???? He had a good teli before. So all this for a letter from Derren Brown???!!! Even if they’d gave him the 10000 pound, that wouldn’t been enough for all he went through in my eyes! He should get 50000 at least for the entertainment of Great Britain.

    • Shiny

      I’ve been obsessing over that exact thing. Like, this should have been illegal. How did the studio face no repurcussions for conspiring to harass a man all evening.

  2. Joshua

    Looking at you post Sam, i can see that what you are talking about is Leadership and how a leader can influence people to do things by making them believe that it’s ok and the norm in that environment, my old primary teacher called this “being part of a sheep gang”.
    However, I haven’t seen one post about the use of the masks in the audience which is similar to what thugs are using in everyday life when they do things. The mask is used to take away the face, take the face away and you take the identity. No one can see you and no one can judge you. De-Individuation is about doing just that in my opinion. Granted, Derren encouraged the audience and again granted, the environment that the audience were in was safe. But what happened when the masks went on the faces of the audience was that they were no longer themselves. THEY had the ability to vote and they chose for the ‘Nasty’ outcomes.
    If you look at the recent riots that happened in London, Manchester and other places in the UK, the rioters wore masks. Those masks were used so the individual wearing it could remain anonymous, blend in and be able to do things without people personally judging the individual. That is an example of De-Individuation. Derren Brown was proving not what influential effect leaders have on society, but what De-Individuation does to a society and how it brings out that other side of people that majority refuse to believe is there.

    • Sam

      This is precisely the point – Brown claims to demonstrate de-individuation, but was is going on is actually more like leadership. The distinction is crucial because of all the practical and political problems I mentioned that stem from viewing crowd behaviour as inherently irrational and dangerous, and therefore something to be curtailed and restricted.

      Here are a number of reasons why the concept of ‘de-individuation’ is an extremely poor explanation of the audience behaviour on ‘The Gameshow’:
      1) Although the audience were complicit in the outcomes suffered by the target and clearly enjoyed them, they did not initiate them. Ultimately, the tricks/stunts, etc were planned and carried out by the friends of the ‘victim’, the programme producers, and Derren Brown himself. Since none of these people were masked or anonymous (far from it!), we cannot conclude that anonymity was the cause. In terms of morality, how can we say that any audience member did anything worse than Derren Brown did himself?
      2) Although called ‘The Experiment’, the show was nothing of the sort, because there was no condition in which no masks were worn. This means we have no idea whether the behaviour would have been similar without anonymity.
      3) While this was an entertaining TV show, the effects of anonymity of behaviour have been studied systematically in experimental social psychology. This line of systematic, peer-reviewed research shows that there is no necessary link with antisocial or cruel behaviour – it depends entirely on the relevant group norms, which may be ‘good’ or ‘bad’, as well as who one is anonymous to. ‘The Gameshow’ is entirely in line with this.
      4) Who were the audience anonymous to? Certainly not each other, or their friends and family they were with, whose judgements of them would be the most important.
      5) When things seemed to go pear shaped (in that some actual harm appeared come to ‘victim’) what was the response of the audience? The atmosphere changed, fun stopped, and the masks came off! Have a look at 49.04 if you’re watching it online. This is precisely the opposite of what we should expect if de-individuation was in operation making the audience unaccountable. Why make yourself identifiable at exactly the point when your actions have caused someone harm? For me, this audience reaction, including the removal of the masks, as actually the most powerful part of the programme – and it powerfully disproves the notion of de-individuation.

      I don’t really want to get into the London riots because I don’t honestly know a lot of the details about the events or what was in the minds of the rioters, but with regard to masks I would point out the following: The rioters masked up because they intended to act in a way that could land them in trouble if they were identifiable to the police – it wasn’t that they happened to put on masks and became antisocial as a result. To see anonymity as the cause seems totally back-to-front. By the way, if you want to read an account of the riots written by two recognised crowd psychology experts, then I strongly recommend getting a hold of this book when it is released next week:

  3. If it shocked the audience, in the studio, or beyond TV sets, that was its moral purpose and we think certainly justified and justifiable. Brown tries to step beyond being just an entertainer and that is his power and even importance, surely. It is why he is constantly ‘exposing’ the illusionists art, his own, challenging the real frauds, but also investigating the fascinating power of the human mind, and others power over that too.. But it’s always going to be the paradox of TV, and the enterainer’s world he comes from, that what might be serious study can fall between stools, as this did for us. Not because we don’t think the majority didn’t go for the bad, but because of the reasons we and others have mentioned. Stil, it’s only one programme.

    • Sam, you seem to know a lot about it, but we are not sure the idea of de-individution has been so discredited. Wasn’t it the prime technique of the Nazis too, to create the idea of other, and the enemy within, with the concept of The Jew and then channel mass hatred towards that group? But part of that process was something Scott points to, which is dehumanisation. That was the point of invading the victim’s flat, generating disgust at a hair on the sink, or smelling his sheets. It allowed the audience to judge an individual and express their full contempt. It was also the propoganda of equating Jews to rats, vermin, like Gaddafi tried in Libya, or even internationally conspiring bankers(!), that allowed groups to ignore them as people and individuals, just like them. They say that if you are in a dangerous, kidnap situation, by the way, it is probably better to make some kind of fuss, to stand out, rather than retiring into a crowd, so your attackers will find it harder to shoot you!

      • Sam

        Well, group processes can indeed be powerful, and can certainly lead to extreme examples of violence and so on. I’m certainly not denying the power of the situation on human behaviour. The question is how to account for this.

        Deindividuation is the idea that, merely by being part of a group, people become anonymous and therefore no longer constrained by morality and social norms, leading inevitably to cruel, irrational and destructive behaviour. It’s this idea that Brown was promoting in the show, and this is what is simply not credible if you consider up-to-date social psychology of groups and crowds. In the early seventies, deindividuation was quite a popular way for psychologists to interpret the urban unrest that had taken place in various cities in the U.S. around that time. However, it soon became clear through empirical research that people were not abandoning social norms in crowds, but becoming responsive to the particular norms associated with the groups involved, which could as easily be prosocial as antisocial. In other words, it isn’t that people in crowds cease to be guided by moral norms, but that they are guided by the norms of the group. The research focus then turns to how particular behaviours might become normative in different groups and situations as a result of things like leadership, conflict with other groups, etc – a huge area. The point is that we can’t see cruelty as arising naturally from some kind of loss of identity in a group. Instead we have to ask how certain leaders and certain norms become influential within a group.

        Your Nazi example is a good illustration because, as you say, what happened had so much to do with the meanings that the Nazis were able to create whereby the Jews were seen to constitute some kind of existential threat to the German nation. It wasn’t that people became anonymous, lost their sense of responsibility and so naturally reverted to barbarism – they were acting according to a peculiar morality that the Nazis were able to disseminate. We also have to bear in mind that it is through crowds and collective action that people have been able to resist tyranny of all sorts. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about crowd behaviour.

        Going back to Derren Brown, there were very obvious ways that he was invoking particular norms, directing the audience in certain ways, and generally acting as a leader. The crowd behaviour didn’t just appear as a result of anonymity. And as I said, there were definite constraints on what he created in that as soon as things went beyond the norms of a game show (someone actually getting hurt) the mood was totally transformed – game over. So this was definitely not a crowd that had lost its moral inhibitions as the deindividuation idea would have it. Their behaviour was guided by game show norms – more like Beadle’s About than the Third Reich.

        One reason why these issues are of more than academic importance is that they inform the way that crowd situations are handled by authorities – for example in public order policing, emergency evacuation, etc. In these areas, there is now strong evidence that the ‘deindividuation’ view of the crowd as inherently irrational, fickle and immoral leads to the kind of planning and response to crowd situations that makes them more dangerous rather than safer.

  4. Sam

    I agree with your assessment of the show. I was also underwhelmed by the audience behaviour – as you say, all they did was to collude with the guy’s friends and colleagues (and Brown himself) in a series of practical jokes towards someone whose was constantly described as being a practical joker himself. If the audience had turned ‘evil’, then so had Brown, the actors, producers and so on who actually engineered the pranks – none of whom were anonymous or ‘de-individuated’ but on the contrary were identifiable to all and on television. And, as soon as the audience thought their target had actually come to some harm, the laughter was replaced by stunned silence. Absolutely no evidence they that were acting antisocially in any real sense or that they had no concern for the welfare of the ‘victim’.

    For me, the worst aspect of the show was that it promoted a completed flawed and out-dated crowd psychology based on the discredited concept of de-individuation. Thirty years of research on crowds in both psychology and sociology demonstrate that the concept is false and misleading in all sorts of ways. Decades of genuine psychological research on crowds ignored and undermined by an illusionist.

  5. Fiona

    Am a huge fan of Derren Brown but thought the programme was shocking, that is not entertainment!

  6. Mart

    A blood-chilling show; I wasn’t aware of the studies that have already been done on the subject of crowd anonymity. I don’t find it misleading that Brown cited a majority without stating a percentage (I don’t remember whether he did). Suffice to say more than 50% voted for the very worst of the bad outcomes. Perhaps that finding isn’t new, but it was to me and I was stunned; not least because that is enough to get a government into power. When I was watching I presumed the victim was an actor… it didn’t make sense that Brown would subject an innocent person to such stressful situations when his point was to emphasise the depravity of the crowd.

    • The point of democracy is not just the vote, it is the ability of a voting public to change their minds and remove Governments after certain periods of time. It may seem unfair that the other side can win with just 51%, but actually a living democracy is also about a complex interaction of free thinking representatives, who, in whatever party, often have very different and often surprising views. Democracy can never be perfect, indeed can have huge flaws, but as Churchill said, is probably the best of a bad lot. But it does make you question the value of what is supposedly scientific and hyper democratic, in those voter response graphs they had during the leadership debates. Because then perhaps we are in the hands of push button responses, much influenced by peer pressure and eventually in the hands of the media, often didctated by their own agendas.

  7. Thanks for those thoughts but no, we didn’t miss the point. All we are questioning is the techniques needed to make it a ‘show’, like immediately saying the majority was on the side of the bad bits, but not telling us the votes. It underwhelmed. We don’t need to be woken up to what people are capable of, take a stroll through history, but with awareness they are also capable of resisting too, and also in extraordinary and surprising ways. We also think Derren Brown can be remarkable, and is also an admirable man, we just don’t think this one was a remarkable example.

    • Scott

      thanks for responding to my comment, I understand the reservation as to why Darren felt the need to coerce the crowd, but he was trying to recreate a anonymous environment in a fully lit studio with television cameras, if he had simply said, oh 51% of you voted for that, and made it seem like half the audience were against. the environment would have changed within the room and the experiment would not have worked. In real life when group mentality takes over a crowd there is hardly ever a distinguished loud enough voice to calm the mood, or if there is a voice of say a police officer on a megaphone, that voice always tends to be the voice of conflict or authority and thus exacerbates the problem. I understand why it may have seemed like a pointless experiment to an intelligent person such as yourself or your other commenter, but there are many people in the world who never take time to question themselves, they never have an opportunity to develop ideas in a flourishing environment and most never get round to ever look at themselves with a existentialistic point of view. Remember half of everybody you meet by definition will be below the average, in other words 50% of the people you have contact with in your everyday life will have below average intelligence, below average education and below average social skills. This is not to say these people are deficient in anyway, it is just to say their environment may or may not have been conducive to developing a person who has a sentience idea of themselves, and if the show made even a small group of people wake up to the fact that most of the time they function on autopilot it’ll be worth broadcasting. Ironically its the same social compliance that causes people to queue in shopping malls and supermarkets that makes people react to authority with obedience, this non-isolated inclusion of social dissidents results in conformity and it is that conformity which can cause wars and violence

      • Yes, we think that’s absolutely right about how the moral mood might have changed if he had said only 51% voted for the bad, which indeed is also the point of the manipulation of TV, audiences, etc. But its also the point about how the show itself has to big itself up sometimes to engage its supposed power. Like the example of the Evangelist meeting, where the audience was much smaller than it seemed. That is the jeopardy of making TV progarammes, that have to be part of the great show too, to succeed and gain air-time. Brown just has to be careful he has to apply the most stringent standards, and the producers that they don’t let themselves down, and undermine the grater worth of what they do. Again that Robert Kennedy programme seemed to have real merit for us.

    • Joshua

      I have to say that i disagree with what you say phoenixark as to what Derren Brown is teaching in the Remote Control episode. As people, we never want to see the bad side in what we do or show this to people. We don’t want people to know (and please excuse what i say, I’m not saying it to offend) that in our heads when we see black people, we think nigger.
      In the Remote Control episode, Derren Brown is doing what playwright Steven Berkoff does by making us look at ourselves as not just individuals, but a society and the way we think or do things and how that is influenced by the surroundings we are in and the people we are with.
      Derren Brown isn’t teaching us what we already know about other people, but what we don’t know or what we want to hide about ourselves, and that is the true lesson.

      • Um, not to be too politically correct, but as Stephen Fry was saying about language, words take on taboos for particular reasons, like the N word. We understand your point but it is not true people automatically think n…xxer, but probably true many people will express sublimated hatred or tribalism if allowed. Yes, we know Brown is teaching that, and it is an important lesson, but many others in time, history and thought have done that. Again the question is whether that programme did it with any kind of astonishment or very well and the paradox is exactly what TV is doing all the time, itself manipulating. We’re on Derren Brown’s side, we just think his serious started with a bang, but rather went back to mere entertainment.

      • Joshua

        I’m sorry, again i didn’t mean to offend with my use of the N word. I said it to make more of an impact in what i was trying to say.
        I understand what you are saying about the series starting off brilliant, i enjoyed watching ‘The Assassin’ as for me it was very informative and frightening at the same time to see that people do have the power to do those sorts of things, but i really enjoyed the ‘Remote Control’ episode as well as i feel, yeah, it was very entertaining, but it opened the studio audiences eyes and my eyes to the power of De-Individuation. For me, it really scared me to think that if we can become part of a large group like that, we have the power to destroy a man’s life in a night. Granted, it was a safe environment in which the show was set, but it still shows what people are really capable of when they fall into the crowd.

        • Josh, you didn’t offend us at all. Phoenix Ark are not frightened by words, just suggesting both meaning and shock comes in context. So its more common now to see black actors using nigger and getting away with it. On the other hand, we don’t like the politically correct, that pretends far worse isn’t said, felt or done in reality. We also quite agree with your being so impressed by ‘The Assassin’, so were we. Particularly because it was linked directly to a real case, like Robert Kennedy’s assassination. What happened to the Kennedy’s is still an unsolved tragedy. Though when we suggested an article last year about something linked back to the CIA, an editor on the Independent or The Times, can’t remeber which, said ‘who cares anymore?’. See how time roles on and what some think important, others roll over for glop like big brother. We think much of what Derren Brown says is very important though.

  8. Scott

    unfortunately you seemed to have missed the point of the show completely. The very premise of the show that builds in mob mentality or group dynamics will have integrally built into its design a degree of vulgarity,if you had no vulgarity then there would be no premise for the show and there would be no existence of mob mentality. The whole point was to play with people’s dark side, a side that most people in polite conversation would never admit to having, but as we all know, everybody has a side that can be destructive, rude, insolent, and deceptive. I thought the show played in a very modernist way with the idea of peer pressure and reflected the current trend of abusive television shows such as Jeremy Kyle, and Big Brother.

    Some of the subjects Darren Brown covered in the show were subtle but expertly executed, if anyone would like to read about the complexities it took to create the environment where the audience are willing to have a man kidnapped, bundled into a car, and driven to a warehouse, may I suggest a few reading subjects, try reading about group dynamics, hypnosis, group hypnosis, word weaving, subliminal messaging, neurolinguistic programming, the art of mentalism, memory devices such as the linking system, loco system, Dominic system, the journey method, the PEG system,and memory palaces. Misdirection, body language, and micro movements.
    I’m not saying that Darren Brown used all of these methods in the last show but many of them were deployed with precision.

    The same precision as when people are manipulated by the media in general, or politicians and their spin doctors. But I think more appropriately it was the active psychology within the show, the idea of abdicating responsibility to the point that the audience believed there was no consequence to their actions

    I thought the show as a whole was excellent, the only thing I would have liked Darren Brown to do was at the end, I wish he would have compared the actions of the audience with the riots of a few months ago, and show how group mentality can cause otherwise rational people, to break the law and harm others,I know that some people may not like the cold hard facts that violence can incite violence in itself but nevertheless all of the scientific data and studies have shown the exacerbation group mentality can play on any individual if they are not educated in the dynamics involved, which is why personally I believe the people who rioted should be given the same sentence as if they didn’t riot and just committed the crime in a different context. As we know that this phenomenon of de-individualisation can in itself have an effect. And if anybody disagrees with this and thinks they should be more harshly punished for the actions they have done then I suggest that all of the media outlets that reported the events should also be arrested and charged for inciting mob rule,

    I think Darren brown is one of the few people worth watched on television these days, and you can see from the facial tic he has developed, when in the more challenging parts of the show, gives you a insight into the type of effort he puts into every performance

  9. emma

    It was totally all faked! The guy was a pretty convincing actor but he really didn’t do much, but the woman who played his ‘colleague’ was clearly an actor. How do we even know that the majority voted in favour of the nasty outcomes – what proof? I thought that a lot of the maniacal laughter from the audience was canned and those that shouted out urging the presenter to ‘sniff the sheets’, ‘check the wardrobe’ were clearly there to try and enliven the crowd but to not much affect. I think this was a very poor ‘experiment’ and i’m disappointed because Derren really used to push things to the edge and provide really shocking TV, not anymore!

    • Hi Emma, we don’t believe it was all totally faked, and we think Brown has skill and integrity, we just don’t think he did himself many favours in that programme. It was lax, sloppy and rather unpleasant.

      • But to add, of course Emma, in all programming so much is about how it is done and how the viewer can inevitably be manipulated. Perhaps always is manipulated. Even witth programmes we have praised too, like Fake or Fortune, you wonder how much is set up to create the narrative. A producer friend, for instance, told me how he wanted to do a programme on the discovery of ruins and an early civilisation in South America, and was trying to sell it to Discovery. The commissioning editors, in their search for profile and ratings, immediately urged him to suggest he had found The Garden of Eden! The shlock we are peddled constantly even on main stream TV is much about grabbing headlines, and old stories are repeddled time and time again and it can be deeply corrosive. Producers always look for Jeopardy, and know that programmes can fall flat on their faces, in the rat race themselves, so how do you sell a programme on how, no, actually we are half fakes ourselves and never found the Holy grail?!

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