The Times Law Supplement, 2005

Imagine a QC with the power to boggle minds – Garry Slapper

Once described as “the prince of psychological persuaders”, the illusionist Derren Brown is especially fascinating for those interested in the drama of the courtroom. Lawyers and judges have wondered just how devastatingly effective he would be addressing a jury or judge, or examining a witness.

Law is not a field unknown to Brown. After Whitgift School in Croydon, South London, he read Law and German at Bristol University, graduating with a very good degree. “I found myself,” he says, “developing an analytical mind set, able to spot the loopholes in anyone’s argument very quickly.” He was aiming, perhaps surprisingly to anyone who has witness his eloquence and commanding presentational style, to become a solicitor rather than a barrister.

His TV audiences have sat slack-jawed as Brown, using a combination of mind control, illusion, hypnosis and psychological persuasion, has performed mind-reading feats such as identifying the computer passwords of strangers. And his exposure of fraudulent practices by spiritualists and New Age gurus has provoked much public debate.

He is unassuming about his work. In fact, the way he explores the bases of belief systems, and the nature of credence, make him more of a performance philosopher than an illusionist. Does he think, knowing what he does about psychology and perception, that lawyers are able to shape and colour the story of an event by the way they examine and cross-examine witnesses? “Yes, I think it does go on, but ultimately it evens out because the lawyers on the other side are doing the same thing from another point of interest, so it can be a good way to get to the truth.”

In his work, are lawyers harder to manipulate than other people? “I don’t know,” he smiles, “as I have never knowingly manipulated a lawyer.” He says, though, that scientists are often more susceptible than others to tricks. If someone is attentively looking for logical connections and patterns they can easily be fed “a false logical narrative” in a sequence such as the four or five steps that make up a card trick. “Scientists are more likely to miss any little off-beats from that narrative.” On reflection he has more faith for lawyers. “I think they might be more liekly to spot irregularities, loopholes and lacunae.”