The Guilt Trip (thanks to Derren Brown)

I know I’m a little behind the times, but I’ve just watched Derren Brown: The Guilt Trip on our Sky box. The whole premise of the show, for those who didn’t get a chance to see it, was to take one of the nicest young guys you could ever hope to meet and see whether over the course of a couple of days in a remote country house he could be manipulated into admitting to a murder he didn’t commit.

It’s easy to see how NLP has, in some circles, gained a reputation for being manipulative when you watch Derren in action, but in this case I think that might be to miss the point. What happened was billed as an experiment – admittedly with one of the country’s leading showman at the helm - and I believe it was a wonderful opportunity to observe the way in which our minds work and, without too much squinting, to be able to see how NLP can be used as the power behind successful and ethical personal change work.

It is important to remember that the individual concerned (Jodie) had applied to take part in one of Derren’s shows, so this wasn’t some manipulation of a random stranger – there was permission. Equally Derren, like all good stage hypnotists, is a master at finding the perfect subject – in this case someone highly suggestible and prone to the rumination associated with shame and guilt (most probably a violet dog for our NLP Practitioner students) and still young enough to still be prone to drinking a few too many glasses of champagne and conveniently forgetting a few minor misdemeanours.

We normally say that all hypnosis is self-hypnosis, in as much as if I was to ask you (with rapport) to ‘stand up’ then there is a good chance you might comply, but if I was to request that you stand on your chair and bark like a dog then the chances are you would chose not to. Hypnosis is not some magical altered state (sorry to disappoint you); it’s more like an everyday trance – similar to when you zone out in your car and can’t remember driving the last few miles. Don’t get me wrong, it can be very powerful (either self or guided) as it bypasses the critical faculty (that part of us which chooses to distinguish between fantasy and reality) and communicates directly with our unconscious mind. But it is import to remember that you (as the person being hypnotised) are always aware of what is happening and in control – if the imbedded commands you are given conflict with your map you will not comply. Of course that doesn’t make for such good TV so luckily for Derren some people are more suggestible than others – they find it easier to bypass the critical faculty and their bodily reactions are more sensitive to external commands – and Derren is a master at picking out exactly the right subjects for his experiments.

Derren started the show by setting up his frame for guilt – “We all fall prey to unnecessary Guilt. Guilt has been used as a tool to manipulate us throughout history; the church has encouraged all manner of damaging guilt around the notion of sex and feelings of guilt and shame are the primary modern causes of depression. To break free from it we need to first see how it can take us in its grip. To do so tonight we need an innocent person, a really nice guy...” Frames are really useful NLPl linguistic tool. In this case Derren uses the first words of the show to suggest to us the audience (our own mini bit of hypnosis) that we can let go of any ethical concerns because this is ‘an experiment’ to ‘break free’ of ‘damaging guilt’, maybe even the first step to overcoming the ‘causes of depression’ and stopping it taking us in ‘it’s grip’. Masterfully done Derren, we’re now on the same page and ready to cheer you on – we’re now looking for the experiment to work and many of us will be less critical (looking for the strings) than we might have been before.

Ever the showman, Derren set up his ruse in the guise of the board game Cluedo. Too obvious you might think, but you’d be amazed at the information the human brain will delete, distort and generalise when it’s not looking for it. If you don’t believe me have a look at this.


What I thought was really wonderful about The Guilt Trip is that pretty much all the techniques that Derren was employing would be familiar to practitioner level NLP students (or at least they could understand why they might work). Obviously I would be greatly saddened if our students were using these tools to manipulate someone into feeling guilty outside of the TV studio (and certainly not to mess with anyone’s construction of reality – remember NLP just codifies the way in which the brain works it is the practitioner that brings the moral framework, much like a knife really, in the hands of the surgeon it brings life, in other hands, well...), but again that might be to miss the point here. The show provides a really clean demonstration of how NLP can be used to change the way someone feels – their state in NLP terms – and how strongly this change in state can be linked to their physiology. If rather than thinking about guilt you were to substitute the opposite – moving from guilt into peace, or from depression into joyful living – then you start to have an idea of the power of NLP when used for the good side of the force.

Derren set up the experiment by declaring that there are three things that he needed to do “in order to get Jodie to confess to that most horrible of crimes, a murder, and one that he didn’t commit”. The first was some triggers that Derren could use to make Jodie feel guilt whenever he wanted him to. In NLP terms he was creating anchors – an auditory one (the sound of a chime) and a kinaesthetic one (a hand on the shoulder); just like Pavlov’s dogs, he was setting up Jodie to have a stimulus response reaction to a bell – only instead of salivating Jodie felt guilt.

In order for the triggers to work Derren needed to set up some situations where he could induce Jodie to feel guilty (including bringing in Jodie’s comedy hero Tim Minchin; shame on you Tim he was such a nice kid, and you made him cry and me cringe with embarrassment – but it did make such good TV). Whenever our poor victim was at the peak of that guilt the actors would touch him on the shoulder or Derren would fire the bell (literally anchoring in those feelings so that when later in the show Jodie was touched on the same place or hear the bell he would involuntarily feel the same emotions (it is so much nicer to watch when this technique is used with positive emotions I assure you). It works in much the same way as when you hear a song on the radio and find yourself with a very vivid memory from the past, or smell something cooking and are transported back to granny’s kitchen.

The second phase of Derren’s master plan was to get Jodie to doubt his own memory so that later in the show he was more likely to be confused as to whether or not he could have committed the murder. This was achieved “by creating a series of inexplicable changes around him beginning with Dr Black’s red tie” which changed colour during a presentation with (of course) no one seemingly noticing other than poor old Jodie. The important point here if you’re on the good side of the force (not suggesting that Derren isn’t) is that our memories are not reliable. We construct our memory of events using only a small amount of the information available which has been deleted, distorted and generalised based on a wide range of factors. This is why three people can be involved in an incident and have such different descriptions of what happened. By messing around with furniture and clothing Derren was forcing Jodie to doubt himself. He thought he knew what he had seen and remembered, but he couldn’t be certain. Please, please, please don’t try this at home kids.

The third phase of Derren’s evil plan was to give him a motive. This of course can be pretty well explained without the need for an NLP filter so I don’t want to talk too much about it in case you haven’t seen the show yet and still want a few surprises. And similarly I don’t want to spoil the ending of the show; did Jodie confess to the murder of Dr Black? Did he do it in the library with the candle stick? Well that’s for you to find out. I don’t think I’ve taken away too much of the mystery of Derren’s showmanship, but hopefully I’ve whetted you appetite to know more about how NLP could be used to help people move forward positively and to overcome anything that holds them back from being extraordinary.

If you haven’t seen the show I’m sure it will be on Dave soon, and personally i think it’s well worth a look – just make sure you have a cushion to cringe behind and keep telling yourself that Jodie was a willing participant (even if not consciously aware) and that Derren has high ethics around deconstructing any of the negative anchors installed (and I’m told adding a few positive ones at the same time). I hope this has been useful. Have an amazing week; see you soon.

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