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The Heist: Programmed Criminals


Analysis > The Heist: Programmed Ciminals


I recently watched an amazing and alarming TV show where Derren Brown, a UK illusionist and mentalist who is very adept at deep psychological influencing methods, programmed several respectable people to individually commit armed robbery, holding up a security guard at gunpoint and stealing 100,000 pounds.

Normally, even hypnotism will not persuade a person to do something that is against their values, but through a veritable battery of subtle suggestion and triggering, Brown got three out of four to commit the crime.

Setting up

The four people were selected as the most suggestible out of a group of about twenty middle managers who had booked onto a 'motivational seminar' that was 'being filmed for television'.

From the moment that they walked in the door, the programming started. A security guard was unnecessarily unpleasant to them, setting up a dislike and depersonalizing of security guards more generally. Not by coincidence, he was wearing a green outfit that was the same color as the security van that was eventually to be robbed. He even wore a badge with the same logo as on the van.

The color green continued to be used as a trigger into an aggressive state where the theme of an empowered 'just do it' state of mind was extended. Covert criminal language was used. 'What are you going to take?', 'It's yours now!', 'You have to steel [='steal'] yourself'. States of inflated ego power were constantly being built and anchored to special triggers. Even 'normal' framed pictures on the wall were designed to add subtle influence.

Getting criminal

After an exhausting and exhaustive day, as a symbol of their new and totally empowered state, they were given a lifelike toy gun, which they were told to keep as a reminder that they can do literally anything they want.

Before going out for an evening meal together, they were challenged to steal from a local convenience store as proof of their newly-empowered state -- and most did. The store owner knew, but the assistants did not. It became almost comical as they realized that a whole stream of people in suits were coming in and pinching chocolate bars and the like.

Obedience and breaking values

After this stage, a selected subset were asked to help with an additional experiment, which turned out to be a duplication of the classic Milgram experiment. In this, the person is asked to help with a study of learning in which they are cast as 'educator' and another person as 'learner'. They then ask questions and administer increasing electric shocks when the learner gets it wrong. As in the original experiment, around half went all the way up to 450 volts, despite screams of pain from the learner.

Critically, they are supervised by a man in a white coat who replies to all questions and requests to stop with a quiet command that they must continue. Of course, all other people are actors and nobody is really being electrocuted.

This allowed selection of the final four who proved most suggestible and able to break social taboos. After further training of these four, still ostensibly about empowerment, they were deemed ready for the real event.

The final event: the heist for real

The scenario was repeated four times, one for each person, as follows.

Each person is individually asked to a meeting, and to bring the toy gun. They walk down a street, where there is a large advertising billboard containing the empowerment slogan that had been drummed into them, 'just do it'. A van drives past, loudly playing the trigger music. The effect on the person is visible as they become more animated. There is a security van and a guard, about to put in two containers of real money. Three of the four final people, without any verbal instructions beforehand, pulled out their gun, ordered the guard to the floor, grabbed the money and fled. Only one resisted the temptation.

Later, they were fully deprogrammed and spoke of the whole episode with awe, about how much they had learned and how easy and exciting the robbery was.


There are perhaps some questionable ethics in the covert encouragement of criminality, but the larger lesson is more shocking. People can be deliberately programmed such that they individually choose and commit acts well outside their normal values.

Perhaps this is not so surprising in this age of global terrorism, where ordinary people are turned in a short period from loved school teachers into suicide bombers.

Whilst we cannot change the world, this program offered a salutary lesson: that others may seek to destructively change us or those around us. For this, we can be now be vigilant.

See also

Conversion techniques

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