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Secrets behind a Test of Astrology by illusionist Derren Brown
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In a recent dialogue a man told me he became disillusioned with astrology largely as a result of a 'test' by illusionist Derren Brown. Brown presented a group of young individuals with the same horoscope. They all claimed it was accurate and personal. Though this appeared to be very damning for astrology, it was no more than a clever trick designed to create an illusion. I trust that I am not breaking any magician's secrets by revealing the techniques.

It was no 'scientific experiment' when James Randi or Derren Brown persuaded a group to identify with the same horoscope. It is a performance by a conjuror and an illusionist to reinforce their personal bias. You may wonder why no one has been able to replicate this trick under scientific conditions. Here is in the inside track on Derren Brown's version, which is the most recent, and most slick:
  1. Cherry Picked participants:

    In an interview with the New Scientist, Brown admits that his participants are carefully selected based on their suggestibility and responsiveness. (As is common practice in stage hypnosis.)[1] In any statistical study, pre-screening of trial participants leads to selection bias and misleading conclusions. [2]
    1. Selection by gullibility? Were the 13 young women and 3 young men initially self-selected from an ad offering self-knowledge or money or both? Was the final selection of the most gullible cherry-picked by 'mind-reader' DB from say 100 or more applicants?
    2. Why such young people? The participants were mostly in their early 20s and some were evidently teenagers. Why? Youngsters who have not been married, had kids, owned property, lost parents or held down a job, know very little about themselves compared to the realism of a 40 year old.

  2. High Pressure to Comply whitewashes the results:

    1. Brown's Skills at Mind Control: Derren Brown is a mentalist and extremely persuasive. He gets desired results using his self-confessed expertise in psychological manipulation and his hypnotic manner.
    2. Encouraged by TV glamour: Brown conceded, (in his interview in the New Scientist) that he believes that the presence of a television camera also increases responsiveness.[1] Everyone who participates in a Derren Brown experiment wants to make it work. No one wants to be a spoilsport on TV .
    3. Goodwill prevents criticism: Any astrologer will confirm that a client who has paid money is far more demanding than the polite gratitude of someone who has been given a free reading especially if the studio is also offering hospitality or expenses or even payment.
    4. Confirmation Bias and Denial Bias: While any random group of people will be persuaded by confirmation bias, there will always be a few non-conformists who will go to any lengths not to be 'labelled'. Many psychological tests such as the Eysenck Personality Inventory (EPI) include the EPQ Lie Scale[3] to counteract this. As this trait did not show in any of the 16 subjects, it begs the question whether these type of individuals were weeded out in the selection process or this type of reaction edited out.

  3. Unlimited Scope for Editing and Experimentation:

    1. This was not live TV. There is no live audience, no clocks and no windows. There is continual cutting between 3 locations, which enables an appearance of continuity. Why, because a huge amount of footage can be drastically edited to show only the most favourable shots in 8 minutes.
    2. Why go to the cost of filming overseas? The filming in the UK, USA and Spain was meant to show this trick worked in different countries. However, it gave scope to experiment with trial and error in many different countries outside the UK where DB was not as well-known.

  4. Pseudo-Horoscope:

    The fake horoscope comprised of a series of complimentary or Barnum/Forer Statements. These cleverly crafted plaudits, named after the showman, hoaxer and scam artist, P.T.Barnum, are highly deceptive. While appearing to be personal, they are in fact widely applicable. Examples are "you hate mediocrity" or "your emotions go up and down". The convincing 'accuracy' of these fake analyses is such that in an experiment, 59% of students who had completed a standardised Personality Test (MMPI) rated the fake profile as being more accurate than their individual personality sketches. These individual profiles had been compiled by two psychologists who had interpreted the student's own responses to the MMPI test![4] These results suggest that young humans do not have a clear self-image and can benefit from objective evaluation to enable them to make key life decisions such as selecting a career path. To question that value of psychological testing or any other type of objective analysis on the back of this experiment would be an association fallacy[5] It would be like claiming that because counterfeit notes can be passed off as real, all currency is counterfeit. This is most evident with personal astrological analyses. No matter how woolly you may have found astrology, this is not how astrologers write personal charts. For example, look at any astrology text book and a square aspect (which most people have) is rarely framed in a way that a client wants to hear. Try looking for Barnum (or Forer) Statements under the listing for Moon Square Pluto!
Disclaimer: If Derren Brown is as "honest about his dishonesty" as he claims,[6] he would have included the following disclaimer:
The 'pseudo horoscope' used in this trick contains selected universally applicable statements and bears no relation to the content of a genuine horoscope cast by a professional astrologer. The participants have been carefully selected and primed and bear no relation to a typical client of an astrologer. This trick is for entertainment purposes only. Any resemblance with the practice of astrology is purely superficial.

Is Brown a mind reader manipulating people with genuine psychological techniques?

There is more I could add. When I last checked the original video appears to have been taken down 'for copyright reasons'. I suspect that people began to see through the scam masquerading as some brilliant revelation. We have to remember that not long ago, Derren Brown claimed to be a mind reader and that some effects that he attributed to genuine psychological manipulation: such as subliminal suggestion, hypnosis and body language reading turned out to be no more than standard tricks or technology .... but applied in an original and dramatic way.

Was Brown "risking his life" with Russian Roulette? [Spoiler Alert!]

In 2003, three million people tuned in Channel 4 (UK) to watch Derren "risk his life" with Russian Roulette. Under public pressure, Jersey police later confirmed that no live ammunition was used. For many, being captivated by this illusion was sensational entertainment. When a magician appears to play a dangerous game of Russian Roulette, what you see is not what you get. Despite appearances and false claims, Derren Brown sets his hidden rules. Only an extremely gullible person would assume that it is safe to play around with guns.

The Scientific method should not be impersonated for entertainment or deception

Outside of astrology, Brown is harsh about people who claim to have psychic experiences - calling psychic readers dishonest. I am no psychic, but until you walk in someone else's shoes, you are in no position to judge their experience. Knowing what it is like to be exposed and unfairly judged in the public eye, Derren should know better than to go around denying or ridiculing other people's experience.

There's something rather desperate about a magician resorting to tricks to try to prove a point that scientists have been unable to do. This whole episode apes a scientific test without the integrity or rigour of the scientific method. In mocking science, it insults our intelligence. Clearly, Derren Brown has some kind of agenda, but his deceptive methods actually undermine healthy scepticism. He lacks the credentials to be a credible authority. Maybe he should stick to his day job as an entertaining and clever magician.

Illusion is for entertainment not illumination. Only a fool would judge astrology on an illusionist's trick!


  1. Clare Wilson (2005) "Deception Special: The great pretender." New Scientist. London: 30 July - 5 August 2005. Vol. 187, Iss. 2510; p. 36, 2 pages
  2. Malcolm Coxall (2013) Human Manipulation - A Handbook Cornelio Books, Spain "Pre-Screening: Another hybrid of self-selection is pre-screening, where the organisers of a poll or study deliberately or accidentally screen parts of the sample population in order to maniupulate the likely outcome of the poll or study."
  3. Sybil B. G. Eysenck, Hans Jürgen Eysenck & Paul Barrett (1985). "A revised version of the psychoticism scale". Personality and Individual Differences 6 (1): 21-29. doi:10.1016/0191-8869(85)90026-1.
  4. Sundberg, N.D. (1955) The acceptablity of "fake" versus "bona fide" personality test interpretations. Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology. vol.50. pp.145-147. 44 students took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a standardized test used by psychologists to evaluate an individual's personality. Two experienced psychologists interpreted the results and wrote personality sketches - what the students received, however, was the real sketch and a fake one. When asked to pick the more accurate and more correct sketch, 26 of the 44 students picked the fake one.
    [Note: The MMPI is used as a personality test in connection with top secret security clearance by US federal agencies such as the CIA, Federal Aviation Authority and the Deparment of Defense.]
  5. An association fallacy is also known as guilt by association fallacy - a classic example of flawed logic. An example is Derren Brown is a magician. Brown is a materialist. Therefore, all magicians are materialist.
  6. " I am often dishonest in my techniques, but always honest about my dishonesty. As I say in each show, 'I mix magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship'. I happily admit cheating, as it's all part of the game." Brown, Derren (2006). Tricks of the Mind. London: Channel 4.

Robert Currey

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