John Walker's Electronic House

Far Too Many Words On Derren Brown & The Lottery

by on Sep.12, 2009, under Television

I know, I know, I witter on about Derren Brown far too much. And I’m going to repeat myself here. But I feel as though I’m circling around the plughole into which I’ll finally plop down with exactly what I want to say about the man.

I’ve gone on before (but a long time ago) about the difference between a magician tricking you, and lying to you. But to quickly reiterate: Magicians aren’t telling the truth, clearly. If I tell you I’ve written a prediction in an envelope, or that I’m producing a ball from your ear, I’m tricking you. It’s not true. But you know that. You know that I’m not psychic, hopefully you don’t believe that anyone is psychic. In fact, the very worst outcome imaginable would be for my trick to legitimise the conmen and charlatans who will steal your money. So instead we enter into this contract. You know I’m not going to tell you the truth, and you’re going to be okay with that. However, this opens an interesting door. How big a lie can I tell?

Say my trick is to know the word someone in the audience is thinking of. If I tell you that I’m not using a stooge in the audience, and I’m using a stooge in the audience, is that okay? The effect is very impressive if I can appear to somehow know the word an unwitting audience member is thinking of. It’s rather extraordinarily less impressive if I can know the word my friend and I agreed on before the show. So we seem to have a rule in this contract that says that while I’ll deceive you, trick you, I won’t openly lie to you about the conditions of the trick.

Now, clearly magicians do. Lazy, tedious magicians do this all the time. But I think most people agree that if they learn this is how a magician achieves his effects – says he doesn’t use camera tricks but does use camera tricks – they lose all interest in them. So we have this muddled set of rules. They’re impossible to pin down, but crudely it’s, 1) the audience agrees to be deceived, and 2) the magician agrees to not tell specific sorts of lies.

Derren Brown has made his career out of exploiting the ambiguity of this. He spins these patters about influencing people’s minds, conditioning, and suggestion. It’s all patter to disguise doing what I think is a perfectly ordinary magic trick. Which is fine, whatever, who cares? It’s a neat way of achieving a great effect.

But is it? I think he’s doing something worse. By using explanations (and he sells these as explanations, the purported method by which he achieves his effects) it seems to me he reinforces uncritical and dangerous thinking. By saying he can make someone choose a card with silliness like “the power of suggestion” or whatever else, and then going on to “show you how I did this” with montages of these claimed suggestions, he gives people enormous reasons to believe in the paranormal, or the grossly and demonstrably unscientific. Derren Brown, through his act, in my opinion reinforces the very people he keeps claiming to wish to expose, the mediums and the psychics who rob from the grieving and the frightened.

So the last time I went through all this I concluded with my despair that after spending most of a programme demonstrating how easily people can be tricked by simple statistics, he couldn’t resist pretending to have genuine powers at the very end, undoing all his work.

The lottery predicting “explanation” show made this look like nothing. He appears to have fully entered this position of neo-medium. It’s devastating.

On Wednesday Derren Brown achieved the remarkable by saying the lottery numbers after the lottery numbers had been announced. He had his prediction made on some ping pong balls, he assures us, but after a meeting with Camelot he was told he could not reveal them before the draw because the BBC has the rights to be the first place to show the winning numbers. If that doesn’t make you laugh out loud, you need to read it again. He asks that we believe it would be against the rules to show any six numbers he chooses, in case they’re the winning numbers on that night’s draw. Er, no. In fact, the closest you could get to breaking the rule of the BBC’s right to broadcast the results first would be to stream that live feed on another channel, which is exactly what he did. He has, of course, every right to show whichever numbers on ping pong balls he desires at any time he chooses. So there’s your first rather enormous problem.

But fine, whatever, if you’re doing a sealed envelope trick you tell the audience that you’ve placed your prediction in a sealed envelope. The reason you do this is obvious – you don’t already know what word/picture/number is going to be picked. Because you aren’t psychic. Brown, and any number of other mentalists, of course attempt to get around this by swapping “psychic” for “able to influence”. It’s the same thing, neither is possible, and by swapping a word you’re of course still doing the same trick. If you weren’t you’d have no reason to hide the prediction in the envelope. And Brown, of course, had no reason to hide the winning numbers before they fell from the lottery machine. He didn’t know them. Because it’s impossible to know the random numbers that emerge from a machine, and your chance of guessing them is 1 in 13,983,816. To put this in perspective, that means if you were able to play the lottery once an hour every hour, all day every day, you’d have to do this for over 1,596 years before you’d match these odds. He didn’t guess the lottery results.

Which means what he did on Wednesday was a very clever trick that gave the impression he did.

What he did on Friday was a horrible exercise in preying on people’s ignorance and poor understanding of maths and science to trick them into believing in things that aren’t true.

It begins with his pooh-poohing the LUDICROUS suggestions people have put forward, scoffing at the madness that he might have the technology to imprint ping pong balls remotely, or use LED projection, or many other methods that would clearly work very easily. You think THAT! You idiot! No no, it’s none of those boring ordinary and practical ways that I, a mere television magician, couldn’t possibly know how to do! (It’s a small wonder he didn’t reinforce this scoffing by explaining that he can’t even set the VCR.) It’s by this far more believable method he’s going to tell us over the next hour.

This begins with a claim that by causing people to be in a state of fear he can increase their suggestibility. Which might be true if you’re frightening someone into agreeing with you, but it doesn’t in any way allow someone to cause you to choose box 4 instead of 3. Again, I’m not interested in spoiling tricks. But there’s a very simple way of having the mouse card be in front of the last empty box which doesn’t involve controlling her decisions in a meaningless way.

This is then repeated with a pre-taped sequence in which he does a familiar trick on a larger scale. He has a man stamp on cups, one of which is supposed to conceal a knife. It’s an old trick done in a new way. It doesn’t rely on inducing fear or any other nonsense. Brown does it very well, blends it with another prediction trick, and then has a nice reveal at the end with a mouse. It’s great stuff.

Then we come back to the studio and we’re told that this works on humans, but can it work on a machine? Well, no. It can’t. Because, firstly, it doesn’t work on humans. And even if it did, machines don’t have emotional responses. So why did we go through all that? For no reason at all. He moves on.

It becomes about coin tossing. He tricks a room of gullible people into believing that a crowd supporting a coin toss can change the result. But aha! He was tricking them and us, it’s not really true! It is, instead, “deep maths”. (Google this term and you’ll get a lot of results about Derren Brown, and not a lot else.) But he can’t explain it now, there’s no time, far better to simply scare the audience with a technical term after muddling them about coins who enjoying cheering. So of course this must have something to do with how he, and we, can predict the lottery? Except, um, no. The lottery isn’t decided by two people’s independent choices, one mathematically supposed to outdo the other. It’s a machine randomly spitting out ping pong balls. We’re moving on again.

And finally, over half way through, we’re onto the explanation he’s going to stick with. He keeps implying the earlier tricks are relevant, but never saying how. But it’s now about “the wisdom of crowds”. This, states Brown, is the genuine real proven definitely true thing where the shared opinion of a crowd is more likely to be correct than that of a single expert. (Oh no, please no, please don’t be attempting to reinforce the death of the expert!) So ignoring anything that appears to be in James Surowiecki’s book (I’ve not read it, but this extract appears to entirely contradict what followed), he gathered together 24 people and had them guess at the lottery results.

This process is then drawn out multiple times, with the group taking part in exercises like “automatic writing”. Brown again plays his clever card here. Rather than using this in the traditional way mediums and psychics do – claiming it’s a spirit controlling what you write – he tells a half-truth about the way it ‘works’, and then claims that it has access to some special magical part of people’s subconscious, or whatever rubbish it was, that leads them to make better… what? Guesses of numbers they clearly can’t know? This angle on automatic writing is nothing novel – despite there being not a shred of evidence that it has therapeutic value or gains access to people’s inner thoughts, many use it in this faux-legitimate way for supposedly reputable reasons. Read about that here. By using this method his group manages to guess four of the six numbers, which is proof! Proof that a pre-recorded videotape of footage can show people appear to do this. Maybe they even did! They had roughly 1 in a 1000 chance. It’s not improbable. It’s unlikely, of course. So armed with this, and this crowd whose averaged predictions can’t possibly fail, he repeats it and rushes to his live studio to show their predictions match the lottery results.

Although for some mysterious reason Brown was unable to tell them what their predictions were! He had to write them in secret and conceal them immediately. And since he’d got a group of 24 people to guess six random numbers each and then taken an average of their results, they could have no way of knowing what they were themselves.

So we’re back to where we started. He hid the balls from the viewer, and indeed he hid them from those he claims predicted them. Why? Because it’s impossible to predict the lottery, and “the wisdom of crowds” doesn’t apply when there’s no wisdom involved in their selection. The wisdom of crowds, should it be true at all, depends on people being able to make informed guesses. Not pick random numbers out the air. Because you cannot be informed on which balls will win the lottery, because it’s random. We already know this, but we had to sit through an hour of a man lying about ways in which it might be possible. A man using the half-truths, the slivers of science we think we know, and those gut feelings we wish were true (we all believed it together, so it happened!), to reinforce people in their non-rational, non-scientific thinking. He endorsed the things he has purported he wishes to expose. He has previously made claims about wanting to reveal the evils of those who prey on the grieving and vulnerable, and then made an hour of TV that reinforces the lies they use to achieve this. He seems to be becoming one of them. In fact, it’s worse than becoming one of them. He’s one of them pretending to be one of us.

He then delivers his routine about how he could have fixed the national lottery, which begins well enough but then descends into mad absurdity as he says so matter-of-factly that he’d have to “hypnotise the security guards” as if that’s the thing that of course one can do. But it’s funny, and he’s a scamp. And then he says the first true thing of the whole hour. “Or maybe it’s just a trick.” And the programme ends.

And of course it’s just a trick. BECAUSE YOU CAN’T PREDICT THE LOTTERY. You can’t predict it by inducing fear, or cheering it on, or taking the average of guesses from people closing their eyes when they write numbers down. And why not? Because it’s random. It’s random. It’s random.

Derren Brown went to grotesque lengths to make people more stupid tonight. He celebrated the vulnerability of his audience, revelling in the ambiguous zone in which his work exists. He reinforced beliefs in things that are demonstrably untrue.


52 Comments for this entry

  • Chrisie

    I enjoyed reading your post. I’m a huge Derren fan and I don’t mind how he did this trick. I know it’s a trick and that his explanation was a load of bull – but really it doesn’t matter. Magician’s are supposed to be liars and deceivers and we, the audience are supposed to be left wondering “how did he do that”. It’s the way that it works.

  • John Walker

    But there’s such an important difference. A magician saying he’s chopping a lady in half, and then creating the illusion that the lady is chopped in half, is not trying to trick his audience into believing he has power over life and death. He is not claiming to have found a method to sever a human in two, and then bind them back together again, which he’ll back up with allusions to biological terms.

    Brown is not doing a cool trick and leaving us wondering how it’s done. If he were, the trick would have ended on Wednesday night. There he would have been our lady-chopping magician – he made a spurious claim and then created the illusion that he had achieved it, and did it very well.

    But Friday’s programme was something other. It was his attempt to deceive people into believing stupid and dangerous ideas that open up and reinforce opportunities for con artists to exploit. The very thing he has so often claimed to wish to prevent. It needs to be condemned. He is no different than Uri Geller.

  • Robert Morgan

    “if you were able to play the lottery once an hour every hour, all day every day, you’d have to do this for over 1,596 years before you had a statistical guarantee of winning.”

    A statistical guarantee of winning? That’s nonsense, sorry. You don’t mean that do you?

  • Chrisie

    I can see your point but I don’t agree with its intensity. Tonight, Derren was just continuing his trick AND showing us more tricks into the bargain. He starts each show by saying right out that he does not do anything psychic and that it’s all illusion, misdirection and trickery.

    I think anyone who walks away tonight thinking he is some supernatural mega-god is truly out of their mind and probably should be locked up for their own good.

    Derren is an illusionist and leaving it at Wednesday would have had people going mental wondering how he did it. I think it was cool that he gave us a little bit extra today without doing a proper reveal. The real way he did is probably quite boring – probably the split screen. His explanations are classic misdirection and I’ve watched his DVDs over and over to the point where I can now tell when he’s prattling a cover story – there was a lot of that tonight.

    Casual watchers will just see what they want or expect to see. His explanations give people a reason to feel “magical” and that’s quite a nice feeling. Vulnerable people will always be open to abuse but I don’t think Derren is directing his magic towards them. Also, I don’t think he should tone down his show just in case some vulnerable person is exploited by someone else in the future.

    Personally I’m wondering how he got his 24 people to come up with 4 correct numbers. If I could get hold of 24 patient friends, I’d be tempted to try and recreate it. But alas, I don’t know that many people.

  • John Walker

    Robert – no, I don’t. It’s a bit 3am for me to word it properly.

  • Chrisie

    I just had a thought – maybe he *had* to do something tonight because those 24 people would have leaked their version to the press anyway.

    Same way that he had to explain how his betting trick worked last year because too many members of the public were part of it. That was an awesome trick that lost it’s magic once explained.

  • Andy

    “I think anyone who walks away tonight thinking he is some supernatural mega-god is truly out of their mind and probably should be locked up for their own good.”

    Chrisie, going off my friends on Facebook and a lot of twitter comments, you’re going to have to lock up a LOT of people. Derren’s going to have convince a large number of people that he’s actually fixed/predicted the lottery through the show last night.

    “_ruairidh @morwoo I think its far more likely he fixed the machine, its the most rational explanation.”

  • Octaeder

    But he didn’t *have* to do something, because those 24 people had no need to be there. Unlike the horse-betting one, in which multiple people were needed to guarantee, statistically, that there would be one winner, any solicitation by a group of people for this trick was just misdirection.

    I’m with John on this one, especially since my flatmate turned to me after it was over and said “maybe that’s worth a shot.”

    Greed plus psuedo-scientific mysticism breeds stupidity.

  • Al King

    Deep Maths is what happens to number theory when Cthulu is an axiom.
    If you don’t worry about it being unethically hypocritical there’s something nicely circular about the idea of manipulating people with faff about manipulating people.

  • Maxamillian

    Mr Walker, you’ve pretty much nailed everything that made me upset with his show last night. The only thing I disagree with is your conclusion. I don’t want him to go away – I want him to stay, but be better.

  • TJ

    I think this is quite an unfairly judgemental article. As Chrisie has said before me, Derren has been quoted as using a mix of “suggestion, misdirection, psychology and showmanship”. There is no doubt that at the very least, Derren has an extremely good understanding of the workings of the human mind. There is overwhelming evidence on both sides of the argument, however I believe in this quite biased argument you’ve presented, you’ve failed to take into account any evidence that suggests Derren’s trick could’ve been legitimate.

  • Blissett

    Sorry John, but I can’t agree with you on this.

    As you yourself say, “he has previously made claims about wanting to reveal the evils of those who prey on the grieving and vulnerable.” I’d go further than that – this is the essence of everything he does. The lottery prediction show is the logical extension of that.

    The real “trick” that Derren has performed and is exposing is not how to predict the lottery. It’s how you would go about convincing people that it was possible to predict the lottery. In that respect, a quick trawl of the internet reveals that he has been very successful indeed. The number of people trying to replicate the “wisdom of crowds” test on Twitter alone is proof of that.

    Pointing out that the basic trick is relatively mundane, that the cup/knife/foot piece and coin toss segment were irrelevant and the group prediction of 6 balls has a very obvious method is all true but besides the point. As with most of Derren’s work, rational thinking allow you to see through the showmanship (e.g. the group didn’t get lucky and correctly pick 4 balls, there was a stooge who “found the automatic writing impossible”, was asked to collate the results instead and could therefore fake it).

    The whole point of these stunts, I believe, is to expose how easy it is to make people believe the impossible with some basic maths, a couple of fun tricks that on their own wouldn’t be THAT impressive, all tied together with a story just plausible enough to convince those who want to believe.

    Now, you could reasonably argue that he will only have “exposed” the real trick if he explicitly states that this is what he’s doing and if he doesn’t do so he will have exploited those who haven’t seen through it. I still think there is a chance he might do that at some point. Maybe there will be a theme running through the series that will be tied up at the end. If not, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that he knows full well that his “wisdom of crowds” solution will be torn apart in the press (it’s not like he won’t realise that the flaws are obvious) and he’ll rely on others to make his point for him.

    Either way, getting angry at him for putting on a wonderful show and stimulating debate and critical thinking amongst an enormous number of people seems a bit mean-spirited. DB has always been honest about the fact that he is a trickster and that supernatural powers in all their forms don’t exist. He’s doing an important job in showing us how those who aren’t as honest work.

  • Patrick

    I ran some numbers and some sims on the coin tossing game, then finally arrived at the “1 = 1” answer. Derren himself points the way to the solution on his channel 4 site, to a mathematician in the 60’s who put together this counterintuitive result:'s_game

    the TL;DR is that the run of coin tosses is reset when someone wins, so you can pre-empt someone elses sequence and have a 2:1 advantage in the worst case. The best-case is the scenario the hapless opponent on TV last night picked, which is a straight run of coins. He can only win with 3 Heads straight off the bat (1 in 8) otherwise any winning combo for him will be preceeded by at least 1 Tails, scoring a point for Derren.

    But yeah, he’s crossed a line. Derren’s always had at least a veneer of pretense that it’s been a mind game and that he’d give it away at the end.

  • Anton Vowl

    It was a ruddy magic trick. Of course there’s some hokum involved, that’s TV magic. He’s not trying to exploit anyone, what a truly condescending point of view. Oh thank goodness for the clever people like you seeing through the charade, otherwise we’d all be living in caves banging flints together. Jesus! It was a magic trick!

  • Sarah Ditum

    This post catches pretty much what I found unsatisfying about Brown’s misdirection in the show: I enjoy being made to feel outsmarted, but this show treated me like an easy mark. All the same, I think “dangerous” is probably overstating it. People have stupid and limited ideas about science and maths, but if there’s an ethical dimension to Brown exploiting that, it could be positive – in that he turns ignorance into part of the performance contract between magician and audience, rather than an acceptable part of real life.

  • John Walker

    Chrisie – he didn’t need to do anything for that reason, because the 24 people weren’t involved in the trick. They were entirely part of the misdirection. He did The System for the best possible reasons: because he wanted to expose how statistics can be used to create impossible-seeming effects very simply, so the reveal was the purpose of the show. The trick itself is very old, and can be found in many books on having fun with maths and the like. I had previously read the trick in a great book called Coincidences, Chaos, and All That Math Jazz by Burger & Starbird. It’s a great book.

    TJ – could you provide an example of the peer reviewed double-blind evidence that you say exists. I’m fairly sure there isn’t any, and as such, yes, my argument is extremely biased in favour of things that are real.

    Blissett – I don’t believe that a man reinforcing uncritical thinking and supporting the tools used by mediums and psychics makes for a wonderful show. He certainly wasn’t honest about always being a trickster last night, and he hasn’t been on many occasions before. It makes me sad.

    Anton – so soon as homeopathy isn’t available as a course at universities, and the police don’t use psychics, and some of the most popular TV shows aren’t about investigating ghosts and mediums talking to the dead, and the prevalent worldview in the West isn’t “my truth is true for me but your truth is true for you”, I’ll be on board with your argument. Until then I’m going to be concerned about people legitimising the snake oil salesmen.

    Maxamillian – Perhaps you’re right. I fear that he’s gone too far in this direction now, however. I’ll change the final line anyway.

    Oh, and I should say, I wouldn’t write this much about it if I didn’t think Derren Brown was brilliant. That’s why this upsets me so much. He’s a stunning magician, and watching him perform sleight of hand is a real pleasure. He takes classic tricks and spins them in interesting new ways. The use of Spike, mixing it with some nice false predictions, and the eventual reveal of the mouse – that was a great, imaginative trick. And on top of all this, he is an angry sceptic, who has previously done great work to expose frauds. And yet despite all this, he seems unable to resist becoming everything he seeks to destroy. He comes so close to being brilliant, and then collapses into being awful. And it pains me greatly.

  • JamesOf83

    I used to like Derren Brown. But not after last night. For one, what the hell was up with all the jokey bollocks? I hope he didn’t write that stuff himself it was awful and he can’t pull it off. I liked the less chatty, more mysterious style he did. Having the studio audience was just naff. Then he does all these tricks that are not connected in any way to his ‘explanation’.

    Those people that predicted the numbers are either actors or incredibly stupid. Why did none of them question why they couldn’t see the numbers? There was no logical reason. If it was, as someone has said, in case they leaked it to the press, search them for phones beforehand. Of course they could have questioned it and then it was all edited out.

    But overall he just came across as a liar and the show was nowhere near as intelligent/convincing as his previous shows.

  • John Walker

    Sorry to everyone whose comments are getting held up. My spam blocker requires that I clear everyone’s first comment, and I can only check so often. Once one’s got through, the rest should appear immediately.

  • Steve

    John I really enjoyed reading this post. I will pass on the link to my friends who still seem to be caught up in this “Derren Brown is superhuman” belief.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like the man, he is great at what he does and especially live, has a great presence about him. He puts an exciting twist on old tricks which I really enjoy.

    When the “lie” gets this big though, he just kicks himself right in the groin – because regardless of explanation, everyone knows it’s an impossible feat.

    Oh and Chrisie,

    “Personally I’m wondering how he got his 24 people to come up with 4 correct numbers. If I could get hold of 24 patient friends, I’d be tempted to try and recreate it. But alas, I don’t know that many people”.

    ..Remember what’s really happening – he takes the average of 24 peoples random guesses, to give just as random results. The fact they achieved 4 isn’t through the method! It’s a trick (pre recorded)or very lucky! I’d encourage you to try taking your own averages for tonight’s lottery and let us know how you get on!


  • Pentadact

    Chrisie – but unless he actually did average 24 people’s random guesses to accurately predict the lottery, he wouldn’t need to get 24 people to guess unless we wanted to make a show out of it.

    It’s significant that he only showed his prediction in numerical order on Wednesday: if he didn’t claim to have rearranged them, anyone who’d picked something over 40 for the ball that came up 2 could have disproved him. In the earlier rounds, that didn’t matter because he could afford to admit a few numbers were wrong.

    The “deep maths” thing made me laugh, since the explanation takes 17 words of plain english and has nothing to do with mathematics. “Unless we get all heads, any time his three come up, mine must have come up first.”

    On screen, there are too many ways to deceive for a trick to be impressive. Explanations still can be, even false ones, but if Brown’s lies are going to be this miserably flimsy throughout, there’s not much point in continuing to watch.

  • Pentadact

    Heh, I guess I hadn’t refreshed this page in a while when I started writing – sorry to needlessly pile it on, Chrisie.

  • Nathan Ditum

    I share a love of Brown’s sceptical, anti-mystic shows. I don’t see this as any different, just on a bigger scale to what he’s done before.

    The television trails for the events clearly stated he was delivering ‘misdirection.’ I can’t think of a more complete example of being misdirected than writing a several hundred word blog post about being tricked by a trickster. The explanations delivered last night were so far from believable it’s nuts to interrogate them.

    It seems logical he’ll reveal what was actually going on at the end of the four events, pulling out relevant bits from this week’s setup and putting them together with others from the next few shows. That’s what his successful track record would have me believe.

    But even if he doesn’t, and he’s just delivered an unsatisfying show, then that’s all he’s done. Trying to take a moral high ground against a man who’s stated intention is to deceive you is crazy. I didn’t see him claiming to be supernatural or mystic last night, just showmanship. It’s just this time the tantalising hold over the audience’s disbelief is being sustained a bit longer than in previous reveals.

  • John Walker

    If this proves to be an elaborate setup for a pseudo-science-busting mega-finale, I’ll gladly eat my words. Although from the comments above and others on Twitter, it seems that the damage is done already – I shudder to think how many people are picking their lottery numbers for tonight by ‘automatic writing’.

    I think there’s an important moral high ground to take here. It’s about the conditions by which we agree to be deceived, as I clumsily try to describe at the start of the post. He violates these so severely, and that’s my issue.

  • Sarah Ditum

    I’m not spotting any believers in the comments up there, John. I think the damage hypothesis might be flawed, on that evidence at least…

  • John Walker

    I think TJ is a believer. But no you’re right, it’s mostly the comments on Twitter – people saying they’re sending the article to their friends who believed it, etc.

    I think the dangerous hypothesis is correct. It would be lovely to believe that the vast majority of people watching would roll their eyes at his passionate presentation of pseudoscience. However, I can’t see evidence that this is the case, and alternative therapies and their woo-woo brethren are on the massive rise. There’s a reason Goldacre, Singh, Randi et all are desperately fighting against this. Brown doing a show like this is like Goldacre fronting an advert for a toxin-releasing footspa, or Randi offering reiki classes.

    However, I would love to be convinced that I’m wrong, and that everyone watching would have laughed at it. I don’t think I am.

  • Tim E

    I liked the bit where he made the guy value his own foot. Amazing.

  • trioptimum

    Excellent piece John. I’ve been forwarding it to people all morning.

    The show irritated me on two fronts.

    For the hyped piece of television it was, it was surprising how little surprise, information or entertainment was manufactured in the whole hour. The cups and knife thing, I’ll give you, was pretty good (though I think I saw a 2008 date on the cheque he wrote out, so this may even have been something left on the cutting room floor from a previous project) but the rest was pure filler, and far below the standard of any previous Derren Brown TV I’ve seen. (The bit with the mouse-free boxes was like something out of a low-budget reality gameshow on an obscure cable channel. Pure rubbish.) Going in, I had a good idea that he wasn’t going to reveal the method behind his effect, but the one thing I didn’t expect to see was bad television.

    But more infuriating was that he had a chance to teach a genuinely beneficial lesson — ‘you can’t predict the lottery so don’t waste time or money trying’ — to five million people. That’s a big opportunity to do a genuinely worthwhile thing, but he did the opposite. (You’d almost wonder if he was in league with Camelot.) God help us when the first lottery syndicate wins the jackpot and credits their success to Derren’s method — this ludicrous idea might become unstoppable.

    You’ve written about the contract between magician and audience being that they will deceive you, but not openly tell a lie. I’m not sure I agree, I think lying is often part of the effect (‘my hands are empty’, saying a trick is very dangerous, etc). I’d draw the line as follows: it’s cool to lie about the nature of the trick. It’s not cool to lie about the nature of reality.

  • Lawrie

    I found this post remarkably similar to all of your problems with Derren Brown; “I don’t know exactly what he was talking about and I don’t have time to explain it, but it’s obviously not true.”

    It was an illusionist on telly! Who *cares* that it wasn’t a show of technical diagrams showing the horrifically boring method by which the trick was achieved? It wasn’t Big Brother, and that’s all we as a nation can be thankful for.

  • John Walker

    I care. To answer your question.

  • Pod

    You’re forgetting that he wrote “1. Fake the lottery ticket” on the board. That’s a bit of a wink and nudge to all of those people that aren’t stupid enough to think that humans subconsciously predict patterns in chaos or that Darren Brown rigged the lottery. (Although that last one is at least plausable. Infact it’s my favourite one, just because it’d probably make a good crime film). Point 1. is exactly what he did. I don’t know how he did that on Wednesday, but I’d like to find out.

    I kinda replied to your twitter on this, but I didn’t have enough chars:
    The “deep maths” thing made me laugh, since the explanation takes 17 words of plain english and has nothing to do with mathematics. “Unless we get all heads, any time his three come up, mine must have come up first.”

    I watched the later repeat on c4+1 (so at 1am-2am), and I might be wrong about this, but in the show he seems to paint the impression that red gets 3 flips, then blue gets 3 flips, etc. Perhaps I was the only one to mistakenly read the game that way? As soon as he gave the explaination of that trick I realised my initial grasp of the game’s rules were incorrect, but I imagine a lot of non-scientific believe the willpower worked. :(

  • jamestwofive

    i’m surprised people still give a shit about brown. the last thing i watched was that russian roulette awfulness he did a few years ago and that was enough for me.

    i understand his schtick. it was nice for a while, like david blane was. but it’s over now.

    ignore him and he’ll go away.

    unless he fights paul daniels in a caged death match for the rights to ali bongo’s soul.

  • Chrisie

    Thanks Pentadact – you weren’t piling it on. I appreciated your explanation.

    Steve, I’m going to take you up on it and average my own random guesses… and some auto writing too :-) lol

    John, thanks for the book recommendation. I am going to look it up. Are you mingling your feelings about Derren with your dislike of NLP? It might be a modern pseudo-science but technically, the principles have been used since the beginning of time practically. (e.g. Napolean Hill, Gandhi, Socrates all demonstrate elements of it). They just weren’t labelled NLP.

    I wish some of you guys would spill what you know about how the knife and mouse tricks are done! :-)

  • mrrobsa

    John, you’re right to be firm on this issue and to worry about it’s effects on more gullible people. My housemate called me a cynic for scoffing right the way through Derren’s laughable ‘reveal’ and said I should open my mind a bit more. Whats worse is he’s always seemed so rational previously :S

  • Ben

    I rather like Derren Brown, but I am very irritated by those fake explanations (though I also think that they may be the cleverest part of his act).

    Nonetheless, the whole lottery prediction thing annoyed me enough that I actually set up a blog to explain how he did it, and to expose the fallacies in his ‘explanations’. Have a look, if you like. It’s at .

    While many of his illusions are so heavily edited that it is impossible to figure out what he has done, the lottery trick was so obvious (a split screen) that most people would have discounted it out of hand. Maybe that was actually his greatest illusion last week – doing something so obvious nobody expected it!

    I totally agree with you about his becoming a fraud while trying to expose them. The thing is that there is very little hypnotism in his act; the vast majority of his feats are simply illusions. I suppose the same could have been said of Houdini – who wasn’t really an escape artist – but it feels somehow different. To a real degree Derren Brown is helping people to believe in magic, rather than science. And his pseudoscientific explanations are certainly no better than those of the medium who explains that there are psychic spirits moving the Ouija board.

  • Mask_and_Mirror

    I think you’re making a mistake. He didn’t commit to that explanation, and I think it’s clear that the point of it was to highlight the impossibility of prediction. Only those unable to grasp the subtleties would take that as his actual explanation. The show was a subtle cautionary tale about why we shouldn’t waste our money on such a tiny chance.

  • John Walker

    Mask – ask around, without biasing the question, and find out how many people understood the programme that way.

  • LiamK

    Does anyone know how many lottery tickets were sold on Saturday? Because unless the number has gone down then he has failed in his “attempt to highlight the foolishness of the lottery”.

    I do think that Chrisie unintentionally highlighted the bad that Brown is doing in.

    “Tonight, Derren was just continuing his trick AND showing us more tricks into the bargain. He starts each show by saying right out that he does not do anything psychic and that it’s all illusion, misdirection and trickery.

    I think anyone who walks away tonight thinking he is some supernatural mega-god is truly out of their mind and probably should be locked up for their own good.”

    So, you’re saying that it’s all clearly a fake and that anyone who believed it is a silly person. Fair enough, but then you say:

    “Personally I’m wondering how he got his 24 people to come up with 4 correct numbers. If I could get hold of 24 patient friends, I’d be tempted to try and recreate it.”

    Sooooo anyone who believes he could get people to predict the lottery results it a fool and should be locked up, but you want to get 24 people together to… try and predict the lottery results.

    I’m not sure, but I think this might be some form of irony.

  • James T

    I must admit that I initially found the fixing-the-machine explanation strangely mundane and plausible, probably due to the comparison with the drivel that preceded it. I briefly entertained the romantic notion that he might have risked everything for his art, relying on sheer audacity to make it all work. Sadly, on sober reflection, it dawned on me that some simple camera trickery may have been a rather safer way to achieve the same outcome!

    Anyway, for me by far the most interesting part of the show was the weirdly irrelevant coin tossing game. “Deep Maths” is something of an exaggeration, but I certainly wouldn’t say it’s simple to demonstrate that the ‘flip the middle one and stick it at the beginning’ strategy is always the best. It kept me entertained for a few hours anyway!

  • mister k

    I get your anger at the show, and I found it a little tiresome that he was using his show to present new tricks. The whole wisdom of crowds thing was utterly boring to me, because it was obviously impossible, so a waste of my time. I enjoyed the coin flip trick, although I knew it already (I also agree that it was explained really badly- the trick only works if one person is flipping a coin and you see who’s pattern comes up first)

  • Jake J

    Agree with your blog post entirely. Was pretty annoyed by the show. I was already a bit put off Derren Brown after seeing him live and realising just how much of his TV stuff must rely on stooges and camera tricks and how un-extraordinary and boring his live stage show was, but hey, I still think he is imaginative and interesting on TV.

    The lottery prediction was a good trick, it had me guessing for a while, and had he not announced he was going to state how he did it, and thereby generated all the speculation around the Internet, I probably would have left it at that and come up with my own (wrong) theories and kept my respect for Derren.

    However, because of the hype, and because he already said he was going to state how he did it, I couldn’t resist doing some research afterwards to see what people were saying and what other peoples theories were. When I discovered the obvious method (nice demo Ben) I found it amusing and technically interesting, but clearly he wasn’t going to do an hours show based on “I did a camera trick”.

    What he did do though was, as you say, greatly annoying. I don’t know what I would have wanted or expected him to do, but this certainly wasn’t it. He basically tried to Con people and it didn’t feel right to me.

    Incidentally, did anyone notice how one of the 24 “wasn’t responding to the autowriting” so was conveniently selected to add up the numbers (was anyone else adding up the numbers)…Hmmm, so in fact it only needed one person to add up in a certain way to make that work, not 24.

    I love the book Wisdom of Crowds, I find it a fascinating idea which I think has some real basis for real world use and research (as well as relevance to the Open Source programming model), and I didn’t like it being used in this way.

    Good article.


  • Joe

    Completely agreed, John. This trick annoyed me so much. Thanks for writing about it. Derren’s usually a consummate skeptic so it was disheartening to see him push the “wisdom of crowds” nonsense as if it were remotely sensible.

    The frustrating thing is that his other tricks display considerable skill – whether in suggestion, sleight of hand, or subtle deception. This one was just a layer of pseudo math bullshit smeared on an uninteresting gimmick.

    The only way he can redeem this trick is by backtracking at a later point in the series. Even then, mocking people for believing him in the first place would not be very, erm, charitable.

  • cullnean

    Why would one of the poster’s above bring up NLP, brown dicredits this in his own book, it was a fun show, i take it as entertainment and i was entertained by the guilbiity of the internet/press in general as well as the show.

    friday nights show was even more fun, constant reminders of” i will not use subliminal messages” then showing a subliminal video was great and you could spot the ruse in his little build up.

    stating if your not creative or stupid this wont work, so in an effort by people to be these thing’s they claim it worked and they were stuck.

    is this a case for suggestability?

  • SuperNashwan

    “I think there’s an important moral high ground to take here. It’s about the conditions by which we agree to be deceived, as I clumsily try to describe at the start of the post. He violates these so severely, and that’s my issue.”

    I think that’s where I have to differ with you John. We all know Derren is a magician (if you don’t you really haven’t been paying attention). If we know he’s a magician then we know he will lie (and he admits it explicitly at the start of every show), so there’s nothing violated in this performance contract; I don’t buy into there being some point in time where we all agreed a magician could lie but not about how he did the trick.
    The reveal show was terrible yes, but only because it was devoid of spectacle and Derren’s usual knack for weaving tricks into a fresh, engaging narrative.

  • Diogo Ribeiro

    First Dan Brown, now Darren Brown, can you sense the con men pattern? :O

  • Skree

    Agree with a lot of the stuff already said, just a slight addition to Pentadact’s point on one person predicting a 40 ruling out the 2.

    Someone else said that averaging a load of people’s random guesses produces something as random. It doesn’t, it produces something less random. A mode average would be random, sure, but he even specified he ‘used’ a mean average, which would simply create a lot of guesses near 25. If you took his logic that the larger the group the better, and averaged 100000 people’s guesses, every ball would be guessed as 25 exactly with overwhelming likelihood. Even with 24 people, the chance of a 2 being predicted is very very low indeed.

    For the stats/maths types amongst you, he’s used a mean on discrete data. It’s just complete nonsense. Argh. As a mathematician, that some people are believing and even trying out this explanation is extremely infuriating :P

  • Mr Pink

    @Skree: Bang on the money brother. I’m surprised no-one else has pointed this out, it was an immediate and obvious problem with his “method”.

    It was hilarious watching him using the “wisdom of crowds” idea on the lottery. Sure, with his given example of guessing the weight of a cow I can believe that the average of a series of guesses would produce a reasonable outcome. But clearly the difference between that and the lottery is that you have some information on which to base your guess. Any talk of looking for “patterns” in a series of (uniformly distributed) random numbers is clearly ludicrous.

    What a tool.

  • deathcakes

    Having not seen the alleged prediction, nor the programme documenting how he allegedly did it I can’t really comment on the meat of your post, other than to say that superficially I agree with what you’re saying – it is flat out impossible to ‘predict’ the lottery, and crowds of people only produce optimal results if optimal means worst.

    Having said that, I take issue with the your conviction that people cannot be manipulated into thinking things, or taking actions, against their will. Normally, I’d cite a bunch of studies and things, but I’m a bit hungover and can’t be arsed to trawl the nets for them, so feel free to ignore/belittle my opinion. Having said this, I remember one specific test in which a group of participants were shown different texts in advance of a moral choice type test. The texts were the ten commandments, a chapter of an Ayn Rand novel (if I remember correctly) and a childrens story book. I think. I may be misremembering. The ten commandments were definitely in there though, and are relevant because the people who read them made more conscientious choices on the test, whether they were religious or not. Which struck me as odd. Another test, I think it was a basic aptitude/IQ affair, was printed on different coloured paper. Red caused people to do worse. Statistically, sports teams who wear red are more likely to win than those that wear blue.

    What I’m saying is that there is a host of evidence (which admittedly I haven’t provided), that people can be influenced by things that they are not conciously aware of, and I don’t think it too great a stretch to assume that Derren Brown has some way of using this to his advantage.

    A nice example is one I was shown in a pub, so it comes on high authority – get someone to write down the number 6 for a while, saying it out loud and stuff and then ask them to name a vegetable. Odds are they’ll say carrot, and if you’ve written this down on a piece of paper previously then you’ll look like a magician too. I have no idea how this trick really works, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that carrot has 6 letters and the subjects brain has been primed to think about 6 letter words.

    Still, who knows? Neuroscience is a young discipline, and we may never get to the bottom of the brains gooey secrets.

  • John Walker

    Hey deathcakes. Could you cite any of your examples? As you’ll understand (and say) they’re all meaningless otherwise. It’d be interesting to read any studies that demonstrate such phenomena.

  • deathcakes

    This was the article I read regarding the red and blue thing and since my html skills are woefully under-par, here it is in its entirety:

    Admittedly yes, it is new scientist, but does contain references to actual science type papers, and since I’m not a neuroscientist I can’t speak to the level of acceptance of the theories presented.

    Also a nice video to watch, which you may have seen already,

    A quick google scholar search turns up this,
    Fairly dense, I admittedly phased in and out for most of it, although the bit starting on the second page about implicit memory was interesting, as was the section beginning page 6, regarding repetition priming effects, also illustrates the point I’m trying to make. The gist I got from it was that stimulus events considered to be too brief to consciously perceive are still processed at a fairly high level by the brain, to nearly directly quote the paper. Things you don’t notice at the time can still affect your perceptions and decisions. I’ll admit I swiftly lost the plot after that point, so I may be wrong in my opinion!

    Another article, which I sadly can’t find, but am convinced of having read was an analysis of how pickpockets and illusionists could manage to take peoples possessions so successfully. It turns out that the best ones had learned how to move their hands in arc shaped lines, as opposed to straight ones, as well as the art of total misdirection. The arc shapes were important as they didn’t register that well with the victims/audience members eyes, I think the reason was something to do with micro-saccades, the tiny movements the eye makes constantly. You may have to take that on faith though, unless I can track the paper down.

    Apologies for length, I got a little carried away researching it, and also managed to stumble onto an interesting article about Korsakoff’s syndrome and its effects on spatial memory, which is odd, as it was only this afternoon that I was reading the article on RPS about Korsakovia. Bizzare. Also, apologies for crap linkage.

  • deathcakes

    Yay, auto linkage!

  • Ergates


    You don’t need to do the 6 thing before asking them to name a vegetable. It’s just one of those strange things – ask people to name a vegetable and most people will say “Carrot”.

    Similarly, if you ask people to name a fruit, most people will say “Orange”, and if you ask people to pick a number between 1 and 10 most people will pick “7”.

    Try it. The majority of the time you’ll be able to “magically” predict their answers.

  • Melf_Himself

    This is a wonderfully well-put together argument, but I can’t imagine there are actual people who believe that this fellow predicted the lottery numbers. Or if there are, they are such utter tards that there is no point using any sort of logic to influence them.

    Maybe you should use more subtle powers of suggestion and other mysterious awesomeness to convince people that Derren brown is a charlatan.

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