Equating Derren Brown: Sacrifice with What Would You Do? with a well written lesson plan

Updated: May 2

Overview: what you’re about to watch in the show, or shall I say, thesis?

At the end of the day, a big man will burst into tears while his wife hugs him. But don’t get me wrong. This show is definitely not a provocative piece designed only to ignite compassion and tears. It is both intellectually and affectionately fulfilling: you will witness basic principles in psychology being put into full use in “manipulating” the mind of an American man and how they bring substantial change to his thinking. Behind his tears is his victory of abandoning his condescending bias towards the minorities as well as his demonstration of the brightest side of humanity.

The magical effect: is it really a magic show?

People who love magic might be expecting sleight-of-hand tricks from Derren Brown, a renowned British illusionist who has been performing on television and tours for the last 20+ years. Allow me to point out that one of the major effects in magic is metamorphosis, which Harry Houdini was famous for performing in the last two centuries. Derren did exactly the best version of that to the inner self of Phil, the participant, by transforming him into a better version of himself.

The secret: before you start googling…

For a glimpse of the methods used in the hour of magical journey, you don’t have to google them, neither do I need to explain them to you here because Derren, within the whole process, explained to us his methodology and how exactly he accomplished his goals step by step. Even so, it doesn’t mean that you could duplicate the whole show at your own home without the help of professional builders, actors, special effect artists, etc. The virtual devices used in his pedagogy, though, could be learnt by reading psychological theories. Each device, namely placebo effect, classical conditioning, a conversation in which Phil's DNA test result was revealed as well as Phil's going through an experiment for developing empathy for strangers, was used to nurture each of the abilities necessary to pass the final test - the most extreme version a What-Would-You-Do? scenario could possibly be.

Objective: what does the fake chip virtually imply?

As technology advances, we hold a strong expectation that technology will dictate our future. Robots and computers will be able to read our mind and project thoughts into us. Teller, a master magician who has worked with leading neuroscientists, addressed that magicians have done tons of control experiments over the centuries to come up with theories of how we link different concepts in our thinking process as well as what our weaknesses are. Thus, it is clearly unnecessary for the academic field to start the study of our thinking process from square one. Technological advancements are new and rapidly upgrading but the values in our mind are intrinsic and invaluable. So, is the planting of a chip still a crucial step in the presentation? Soul or no soul, it is not the chip injected into Phil that would bring the change but the value that shaped his ideology. Having stated that, I still believe the injection is necessary.

The injection of the fake chip into Phil is a symbol for the injection of heroism and kindness into his philosophy. (Notice that if Phil isn't a stooge, he has the perfect name to be such a symbol.) Derren, in his equation, defined heroism as an awakening followed by the combination of bravery to overcome obstacles & the ability to develop empathy for our fellow human beings. The injection of those traits was, in fact, carried out and was done through Phil's five senses instead of a needle.

Derren’s spiritual background:

Derren Brown has been known for his explicit atheistic statements illustrated by his psychic demonstrations. His skeptic and ex-Christian identities made him a philosopher, a writer and a playwright who constantly come up with unconventional ideas. As an ex-Christian, his works have been biblical in many ways: the designs of his setups often end up glorifying humanity; his unshakable belief that the serendipitous nature of life should be perceived as a miracle, etc.

When Phil stood on the platform at the cliff, he described two opposite forces telling him two very different things, whether to take the leap of faith or to be pulled back. To be or not to be - that is the question. The experience is certainly neither the struggle between angels and demons in his spirit nor the chip that was supposedly providing the invisible tension but the result of the internal conflicting tendencies & values embedded in his belief system that canceled out each other. Derren had stopped believing in spirits and yet held that the clash within one's mind is real, very real.

In the end, it wasn’t guilt or submissiveness towards imperatives from any god which motivated the sacrifice. Derren subtly illustrated that atheism promotes morality better than Christianity because with a lack of fear (towards the awe of God and the torture that comes with his eternal abandoning), someone could still become a good Samarian, when empathy, with an adequate amount of adrenaline, was boosted.

What Sacrifice means to you:

Start telling yourself a different story about yourself from now on. Experience the change! It’s definitely not about picturing yourself getting richer in wealth or willing people to do your work for you but allowing something inside you to manifest - a real hero who doesn't need to build a fence around them.


since 2018 by Calvin Sze