Thursday, April 5, 2018

Magic, Mentalism, & Hypnosis: John Mohl Guest Blogger

Today we have a guest blogger, Dr. John Mohl, AP Psychology teacher and experimental psychologist from Pennsylvania. He brings us an insightful examination into mentalism and magic.

Derren Brown, a talented mentalist and magician, has been well known in the UK for over a decade, but many Americans are getting their first exposure to him through his first Netflix show The Push. [NOTE: Spoiler alert…if you are planning to watch it, stop reading until you’ve had the chance to see it]. Based on the premise that humans are vulnerable to manipulative persuasion, the show presents four people who had previously applied to be on a Derren Brown program but were told that they were not selected, and were unaware that their experiences were being filmed. Each person was individually placed in a staged setting in which other people (who were all actors) used persuasion techniques aimed to get the participants to do increasing deviant behavior, with the climax of being pressured to push an antagonizing character off the roof of a building avoid potential legal trouble stemming from earlier actions in the show (that person was surreptitiously harnessed, so no harm was done if the person was pushed). Three of the four participants ended up doing the push.

 The perceived implications are clear: we are susceptible to influence that can bring us perform even the worst of actions, for which we must be weary and prepared to resist. However, if everything presented in the program is accepted at face value, there is reason to doubt the validity of the results. While participants were likely not “in on the act” on an explicit level, they likely were on an implicit one. To understand this idea, we need to examine an often-overlooked issue in human behavioral research.

When people enter a psychological study, they have certain assumptions. The first is that the study is done in the name of science. They know that they are there to help investigators test a hypothesis. The second assumption is that no one will be harmed in the course of the study (barring any acknowledged risk learned during the informed consent process). They know that their actions will not have any lasting aversive impact on themselves or others involved. Finally, anything that happens to them, including any deceptions, only does so with their acknowledgement and consent. Coupled with these assumptions is the fact that participants, who volunteer themselves freely, desire to be good subjects. They hope to give the experimenter whatever he or she desires in order for the experiment to be successful, and will perform in whatever way they think is desired. The participant is always thinking, observing, and making judgments about the study, and can perceive the slightest of nuances embedded within the study, the people involved, and the procedures being used. All of these could, albeit unintentionally, potentially communicate the point of the study. As such, the participant will try to conform to what is expected of him or her. These nuances are what Martin Orne called demand characteristics.

 Though many psychology students (and teachers) are unfamiliar with them, demand characteristics are present in every psychological study. They are unavoidable and, unless a proper design is used, their potential confounding effects in studies are unknown. Participants act on demand characteristics implicitly and not as deliberate attempt to ruin a study, but their doing so can threaten the validity of its findings. In an ingenious experimental design used to determine whether hypnosis can make one do anti-social acts, Orne and his colleagues used two groups. The first was composed of highly hypnotizable people who were instructed to experience hypnosis like they normally would. The other was made up of people who were not responsive to hypnosis in spite of repeated attempts. These participants were told to fake their responses in order to dupe the hypnotist, who was blind to who was simulating and who was real. In doing so, the hypnotist (who, based on previous research, does no better than chance in guessing who was actually malingering) would treat both groups the same way. This way, the demand characteristics can be parsed out from the true effects of hypnosis: whatever the hypnotized participants do, and not the simulators, would truly be the result of the hypnotic process.


Participants were told in hypnosis to do a variety of anti-social acts, such as dipping their hand into fuming nitric acid, throwing the acid into the face of the experimenter, and reaching out to pick up a poisonous snake. However, unknown to the participants, the experiment was set up in such a way that no actual harm was being done to anyone (the participant, for example, was actually placed behind an invisible glass barrier that would prevent the experimenter from being hit with the acid). Five out of the six truly hypnotized participants completed all of the acts, but all six simulators did the acts as well, indicating that their acquiesce was the product of the demand characteristics to which they were complying, and not hypnotic suggestion.

Derren Brown’s The Push portrays a setting that is vastly different than the experimental setting. Still, demand characteristics and participants’ accompanying set of assumptions still apply. Presumably, participants had previously signed consent forms that acknowledged potential (and unwitting) participation in a future event. The actors in the show who interacted with the subjects may have communicated the demand characteristics of the situation in the same fashion that experimental confederates might do. Brown’s previous specials have portrayed people in staged settings in which they “robbed a bank” and “assassinated” a known celebrity without anyone actually being harmed. Participants knew, then, that their potential participation, while potentially distressing, would not include anything dangerous. These variables could have factored into the participants’ decision to do the final act.

 The strong and compelling emotions exhibited by the show’s participants could serve as evidence that they accepted the reality of the situation (i.e., they are really pushing someone). However, these can also manifest in simulating conditions. A dissertation study conducted by Charles Holland replicated Stanley Milgram’s procedure in his famous Obedience Experiment, but it had two additional quasi-control conditions. One had participants believing that the shocks were really only one-tenth of what was portrayed on the machine, while the other had participants informed that they were in the control group and were instructed to pretend that they were na├»ve subjects. In all three conditions, participants exhibited many of the same behaviors. Blind observers did no better than chance in guessing the condition to which participants were assigned. Thus, if simulating participants can produce sweating, fidgeting, and signs of distress in a psychological study, they could also in a TV show that they hope might be successful. The general message that Derren Brown promotes, that psychological principles, applied in a certain fashion can influence how we think and make decisions, should not be overlooked. The Foot-in-the Door Technique, which he referenced in the show, can lead people to acquiesce to large requests after agreeing to smaller ones. Forms of coercive persuasion (“brainwashing”) have been shown to work in a variety of settings, ranging from POWs returning from the Korean War to people who have been persuaded to join cults. A number of psychological factors employed in the special could have had a genuine effect. However, the degree to which demand characteristics played a role in getting the participants to commit the seemingly murderous act simply cannot be ascertained. While Brown referred to the episode as an experiment, the lack of a proper control group undermines his claim of how vulnerable we are to persuasion. If a simulating control group, similar to what was used in Orne’s or Holland’s research, were uniformly to refuse to commit the final act, then The Push would be much more convincing. However, until such is done, we must pull back on making overarching judgments.


posted by Chuck Schallhorn, written by Dr. John Mohl

No comments: