How to make people believe you have psychic powers

Following yesterday’s post about whether all mentalists are frauds, two commenters Acolyte of Sagan and RationalismRules recommended that I watch Derren Brown’s 2004 45-minute TV special Messiah and I did so last night. It was quite fascinating. I had not heard of Brown before but his Wikipedia page says that he is a British performer who uses “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship” to achieve his effects that convince his audiences that he has psychic and other supernatural powers though he himself explicitly denies that he has. The page also says that he uses “traditional magic/conjuring techniques, memory techniques, hypnosis, body language reading, cognitive psychology, cold reading and psychological, subliminal (specifically the use of PWA – “perception without awareness”) and ideomotor suggestion.”

In this special, Brown travels to the US because he was unknown here and using various pseudonyms in different locations shows his skill at converting atheists to Christianity, diagnosing people’s health issues (a gift that he tells people he got after being abducted by aliens), persuading people that he has a Dream Machine that can capture their dreams and replay them to him but really consists of just a box with a switch and a bulb on the outside and a battery inside that lights the bulb, that he can communicate with the dead, and that he has clairvoyant powers. The twist is that in each case he did this with an audience that included people who are ‘experts’ in the field, i.e., who do this for a living: evangelists, alien abduction investigators, New Age gurus, psychics, and the head of a school that trains people to become clairvoyants.

You can see the video here or by clicking on the blue button below.

Derren Brown Messiah from Tristram giff / Naturalbornfilms on Vimeo.

The segment that intrigued me the most is where he almost instantaneously converts atheists into becoming religious believers. I suspect that hypnosis was used in that case, because that is also one of his stated techniques.

While the whole thing is entertaining, the last segment where he supposedly channels those who have died to talk to the people they have left behind is somewhat disturbing because it has members of the audience getting very emotional because they think they are being contacted by loved ones. They are told afterwards that he was not actually able to contact the dead, a process known as ‘dumbing them down’, but you can imagine what a let down it must have been for them. Every one in every segment was similarly dumbed down following the session.

One thing I noticed is that almost all the people who attend these sessions are women. All the ‘experts’ are also women except for the evangelist. Ian Rowland in his book The Full Facts About Cold Reading also says that almost all the psychics and the people who seek their services are women. In their book Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief & Experience (2014), authors Christopher C. French and Anna Stone report similar findings, that “[T]here is substantial evidence that women believe more strongly than men in spiritualism and life after death, psi abilities, witchcraft, precognition, astrology, psychic healing, reincarnation, and is superstitions and omens of luck.” While there are various speculations as to why this might be, each of the suggestions seem to have small effects and no single hypothesis stands out as the dominant factor, defying any attempt at isolating a single cause

Another thing that is significant is that each of the observing experts was impressed enough to offer to give Brown an endorsement of his powers to their respective audiences and not a single one asked him if he was using trickery. The fact that none of them challenged him intrigued me. If they themselves were aware that they were merely using various techniques and did not have supernatural powers, why would they not suspect that he too was doing so? Does this mean that they have deceived themselves and really believe they have psychic powers? It is possible that they know how he did it but that there is a kind of professional courtesy among practitioners to support each other and not expose their rivals by revealing to outsiders how the trick is done, since that would also undermine their own claims to have special powers. This would be similar to the code among magicians to not reveal to outsiders how they perform their tricks.

Anyway, thanks again to Acolyte of Sagan and RationalismRules for the video suggestion. I enjoyed watching the show!


  1. Acolyte of Sagan says

    So glad you enjoyed it.
    Fun fact; he’s banned from most casinos in Britain because his incredible card-counting skills and understanding of odds and statistical possibilities give him an ‘unfair’ advantage over the poor casino owners.
    In other words, he wins, and they don’t like that!

  2. says

    I’ve done some experiments with hypnosis. It’s … weird. I am not convinced it’s more than applied peer pressure. The “trick” is to find people who are susceptible -- which is a personality cue-reading exercise for the performer.

    The NLP angle Brown plays on is fascinating. NLP appears to be bullshit. But what if you use hypnosis techniques and NLP as triggers? He seems to rely on a mix of things -- it’s hard to see how he gets his effects even if you’re an experienced hypnotist.

    Brown is really good at what he does.

  3. RationalismRules says

    Really glad you followed him up. I encourage you to watch some of his other specials -- they are very different, the connecting thread is his extraordinary skill at manipulating people. The Seance is a good one to watch, as is Hero at 30,000 Feet.

    One point to your article: the participants in the evangelistic conversion were more male than female -- 6m / 4f -- although he does begin with a female.

  4. Mano Singham says


    Yes, but that particular audience was chosen to consist of skeptics and atheists and so is consistent with the fact that women seem to be more drawn to psychic and supernatural phenomena than men.

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