NLP & The Trouble with Derren Brown
Derren Brown is a skeptic; a friend of science and reason. As well as being a wonderful showman with a unique style, he is yet another magician to debunk the practices of psychics, such as ‘speaking to the dead’ using techniques like cold reading. However, I have a problem with one aspect of his performances, and that’s his apparent connection to the pseudo-scientific practice of neuro-linguistic programming, or NLP.
First, a bit about my own experience with NLP.
NLP and Sales Techniques
While I was a student in London I worked part-time for a major UK mobile phone network, selling mobile phone contracts in a shop. The job was quite fun at first, and the commission meant that I did pretty well financially (for a student at least). However, new bosses came in, bringing with them great ideas for how to move forward. The idea deemed most crucial to the corporation’s progression was taught to us on a special training week. Rather than learning about the products we sold, we were taught the art of selling in general. One such way is to insert words like “by now…” to make them want to ‘buy now’. Another is to get them in ‘yes mode’ by asking them questions they are likely to say “yes” to. You can find out what sort of person they are. Are they a ‘left brain’ person (meaning they value logic and reason over emotion) or are they ‘right brained’ (more feeling, emotional). If they look in a certain direction when they’re thinking, that can tell you that they’re ‘visual’, or ‘kinaesthetic’ and so on. Make sure you let kinaesthetic people touch the phone you’re trying to sell them!
Ok, it’s complete bollocks, and being the argumentative type (left brained, of course!) I tried to dispute what they were preaching to us. I was on my own – everyone else seemed to buy it (probably because they inserted “by now”…) They weren’t having any of it, and when I got back to work we were told that if we didn’t integrate NLP into our sales procedures, we’d get into trouble and they’d dock our commission (they tested us with ‘mystery shopping’).
Why this biographical stuff important? Well, at a conference where they were celebrating the ‘success’ of the new NLP-inspired techniques (they also lowered the prices considerably, which I feel might have had an effect), they played us a video:
Just look at the power of NLP, we were told! You can get someone to want something they don’t really want, simply by using certain words and phrases.
Skip forward a few years and I’m in York, still studying, and still working in a shop; only this time I’m working in a major UK camera retailer. New bosses have just come in, and we’re sent to train our sales techniques (this is sounding rather familiar). We are played the very same video – Derren Brown ‘causing’ Simon Pegg to want a red BMX. This makes me wonder how many other companies are training their sales staff to use NLP on customers, and using this video as evidence to support their claims. Surely I can’t have coincidentally chosen to work for the only two that did.
emBedded coMmands? not eXactly
If you haven’t watched the video, then let me briefly sum it up. Pegg has a written note in his pocket describing a present he really wants. Brown then grabs his arm and starts speaking to him, inserting words like “car like a BM or an X-box” and “…to handle bar none…”. Wheel/bike-shaped objects are around the room and on the wall. Pegg is then asked what present he wants, to which he answers “a red BMX”. To his surprise, Brown produces one, but in a final twist, reveals that Pegg’s written note says (in Pegg’s handwriting) ‘leather jacket’. Brown then apparently reveals how the trick was done – the spiel near the start caused Pegg to forget about the jacket and desire the red BMX in its place.
I don’t believe that explanation. I think it’s as weak as the explanation he gave for his lottery prediction trick. Perhaps you think I’m stating the obvious, but I find that most people I talk to about it believe Brown’s explanation, including skeptics and scientists. “It’s just suggestion!” they tell me, as if I’m stupidly just not ‘getting it’. So I’m going to try to debunk the trick, and while I can’t offer the correct solution, I can hopefully convince people that Brown didn’t do it the way he said he did.
So what do I believe happened? I think that Pegg wanted the red BMX all along, and Brown somehow obtained this information well before the show – enough time to get a red BMX ready to reveal during the trick. The NLP-spiel is just an extravagant misdirection. The real trick was getting Pegg to find a note in his own handwriting with ‘leather jacket’ written on. Here are my reasons for thinking this:
1) Pegg seems to have no recollection of ever wanting a leather jacket. Not only does he now want a red BMX, Brown’s NLP has deleted both Pegg’s desire for a leather jacket and his memory of such a desire. But Brown’s influence was apparently only supposed to make Pegg desire a bike, not to stop him desiring a jacket and forget that he ever wanted one! In fact, Pegg can’t think of any reason why he might want a leather jacket. That’s a little strange, if he really did want one before. What I’d expect, if Brown really did implant the desire for a BMX in his mind, is that Pegg would respond with something like “Oh! Yes! A leather jacket is what I want. What did I say? Red BMX? Not sure why I’d think that…”
2) Leather jackets are a rather boring gift for a fun fellow like Simon Pegg to ask for on a TV show. A red BMX is exactly the sort of thing he’d want – something he probably wouldn’t buy himself (in contrast to the jacket) but the sort of present perfect to ask for on TV, especially if it satisfies a ‘childhood dream’ of his.
3) Even if we grant that NLP works (which I’m not willing to do), surely it doesn’t work that well. It might suggest the idea of a BMX to Pegg, but surely not make him want one. Why is it that only Brown and other ‘mentalist’ magicians can do this kind of thing? Where are the ‘serious’ (i.e. non-performing) NLP experts, demonstrating that NLP is capable of this sort of psychological alteration?
4) If that’s how he did it, then Brown revealed how the trick was done. I’m not a magician, but I’m pretty sure that’s a bit of a no-no – and Brown is a trained magician. Why would he do that, rather than leave us guessing? It seems much more plausible to me that Brown was sticking to the ‘code’, and merely pretending to reveal how he did the trick, as a form of misdirection. Brown has a history of telling us falsehoods about how the tricks are done (see the lottery ‘prediction’, above). Why should this one be different?
5) Getting Pegg to pull out a note with ‘leather jacket’ in his own handwriting when he in fact wrote something completely different is hardly the most ground-breaking feat in the history of magic. I can’t tell you how Brown and his team might have pulled it off, since the best magic trick I can do involves putting a card back in the pack the wrong way up. Nevertheless, I doubt we’d postulate ‘real magic’ to explain something like that performed by another magician, so why are we more credulous when it comes to Brown?
So those are my reasons. I’ll update the post with more if I think of any, but please let me know if you disagree or have anything else to add. I could be wrong, but the possible world in which I’m wrong includes humans with the ability to say a few ‘magic’ words and make someone both forget what they want, and want something completely different. That”s implausible, at least to me.
I feel a bit bad asking this, since I like Derren Brown. But is there a touch of the ‘Uri Geller’ about him? One difference is obvious; Brown is an outspoken skeptic, and doesn’t really push the idea that he’s using NLP, except as part of the performance. Geller is adamant that he bends spoons solely with the power his mind. Still, it strikes me that since people genuinely are misled, then Brown has been rather careless, and is inadvertently lending support to pseudo-science. I don’t recall seeing Brown explicitly say that his apparent use of NLP is a ruse.
Having said that, I do see the other side. Brown’s performance is an ingenious piece of misdirection. While everyone is concentrating on his hypnotic techniques, the trick is already done, via some very simple and traditional method. To people who don’t buy his NLP stuff, the trick breathes new life into the ordinary magic show. However to people who do think he’s an NLP master, they end up believing weird things; if only they were as good at NLP as Brown, then they could heavily influence the minds of others.
It seems to me then that there’s a middle ground, but it’s difficult to know where to draw the line. If Brown says ‘by the way, I didn’t really use NLP’ then that will help stop those who’d use his performances as evidence that NLP is really powerful, but ruin the techniques of misdirection in his shows. However, if he carries on, his shows have the same force, but people like my retail bosses will keep using Brown as proof that their training methods are on the right track.
So I propose this: Brown carries on doing his shows in the way he does them already. They’re good shows. However, to counter the misguided notion that he’s demonstrating the power of NLP, he explicitly states somewhere that all of the NLP in his shows is misdirection, so that skeptical people can dig it out whenever we encounter someone who wants to use Derren Brown as proof that NLP is magic.
Someone helpfully pointed out this post by Brown:
3. I have never claimed to use NLP to achieve my ‘tricks’. On the contrary, I have written very critically about it in Tricks of the Mind. I reserve the same scepticism for subliminal messaging, as well as a lot of body-language reading and the like.
This is good to see, but has two problems. Firstly, I think it’s not entirely true. In the BMX trick he strongly suggests that NLP is how he did the trick. Perhaps he doesn’t explicitly claim that, in the way that Geller claims to bend spoons with his mind. Nevertheless, that’s what almost everybody will take away from that performance, and I think Brown’s responsible for that. Secondly, he isn’t saying here that he’s not using NLP. So the NLPer won’t see this (if they see it at all) as an obstacle to using Brown as evidence of NLP’s efficacy.
People do still believe it. Right now, the two top comments on the YouTube video of the BMX trick are claiming that Brown is using NLP. So there’s still a problem.
I stress again – Brown is a friend of skepticism, and I’m a fan of his. I just think that there’s a niggling problem with some of his methods.