How Derren Brown Used Attention To Predict The Future

Derren Brown is an illusionist and entertainer with a number of successful TV series and touring shows. He stirs many reactions – from a conjurer of evil to being likened to the Devil. Brown himself has reportedly openly claimed to hold no supernatural powers and many psychology students recognise the techniques he uses.

In one particularly impressive episode, Brown accurately predicts the concept and key elements for an advert that 2 designers will create, before they create it. The illusion is a powerful demonstration of how peoples attention and behavioural biases can be manipulated without their realisation. These same techniques can and are used by companies and brands to influence consumer behaviours.

So how is Brown able to do this so effectively and is he really the Devil or just a very clever consumer psychologist?


First, in case you haven’t seen it, take 5 minutes to watch the summary video:

Brown predicts that the designers will come up with an ad for a pet cemetery featuring a zoo, gates, a harp and a bear

For the first part of the illusion, Brown must draw the designers attention to a series of images without them realising.

Attention occurs when we select some information provided by our senses for further processing. We boost attention for relevant stimuli and inhibit processing of irrelevant stimuli. Importantly, our attention can become overwhelmed. For example research on people driving whilst on the phone showed that they were more likely to miss red traffic lights and had reduced reaction times (Strayer & Johnston, 2001).

To ensure the designers attention is focused where he wants it, Brown arranges a long taxi journey for them.


In the controlled environment of the taxi, the most stimulating flow of information reaching the designers is what they see outside the taxi on their route. By limiting information from the other sources, Brown makes it more likely that the designers attention is focussed on processing the visual information coming from outside the taxi, where he wants it.

Would the Devil arrange a taxi for someone? I think not: Devil 0, Consumer Psychologist, 1

Next he needs to get the designers to focus on specific images. Where attention is focused can be consciously (top down) or unconsciously (bottom up) selected. Consciously selected occurs when you select where your attention should be focused however unconsciously selected means it is involuntary – effectively it selects you. It is involuntary as it is related to our primary needs, for example to alert us to potential threats or food. To increase the likelihood of success, Brown cannot rely on the designers consciously selecting these objects. Instead he uses tactics likely to trigger unconscious (bottom up) processing. For example the large, fierce bear is likely to prompt bottom up evaluation as a potential threat.


Would a Consumer Psychologist use scary tactics like dangerous bears? I think not: Devil: 1, Consumer Psychologist 1.

Next, we look at Visual Salience – a significant factor determining where attention is focused. A salient visual object is easy to see. One factor that makes something visually salient is if a location is sufficiently different from its surrounds to be worthy of attention (, Itti). London Zoo is an iconic location that looks very different from its surroundings and as such it is likely to get the designers attention.


Would the devil arrange for a visit to London Zoo? I think not: Devil: 1, Consumer Psychologist: 2

Other factors that increase salience include colours, motions or shapes that stands out from their local surroundings (Yantis S, 1999). Brown uses these factors to increase the likelihood of gaining the designers attention. The group of young people on the level crossing all wear blue in contrast with the local area and their tee shirts repeats the Harp shape.


Interestingly, the level crossing has possible associations with danger. A figure in red also runs across the crossing, dressed in red and in the opposite direction to the group of young people in blue. This contrasting movement and the perception of danger are both likely to draw the designers attention towards Browns desired image – the harp shape featured on the groups clothes.


Would a Consumer Psychologist exploit young people and place them in danger? I think not. Devil: 2 votes, Consumer Psychologist: 2 votes

In the window display, the different shape and colour of the harp compared with the surrounding blue vases again uses visual salience to increase the likelihood of gaining attention.  


So once Brown has exposed the designers to these images, how can he know that they are likely to use them in their design? The Availability Heuristic (Tversky A et al, 1973) is a mental short cut that places more emphasis on examples that come most readily to mind. Hence by repeatedly exposing the designers to images immediately before setting their task, Brown influences the designers choices without them being aware.

Although this is an example taken from the world of entertainment, Brown himself acknowledges at the start of the video that many of these techniques are used in the world of advertising and media to influence behaviour. This real world powerful example provides a powerful, easily accessible demonstration of how brands and advertising can influence us, even when we believe we are engaged in a creative process.

And the final score for Devil vs Consumer Psychologist? Would a consumer psychologist ruin a perfectly good window display with a badly positioned harp? I think not, Devil: 3, consumer Psychologist: 2.

Devil it is….



Itti,, [accessed 29 November 2016]

Strayer, D. L., & Johnston, W. A. (2001). Driven to distraction: Dual-task studies of simulated driving and conversing on a cellular telephone. Psychological science, 12(6), 462-466.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive psychology, 5(2), 207-232.

Yantis, S., & Egeth, H. E. (1999). On the distinction between visual salience and stimulus-driven attentional capture. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 25(3), 661.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive psychology, 5(2), 207-232.

Yantis, S., & Egeth, H. E. (1999). On the distinction between visual salience and stimulus-driven attentional capture. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 25(3), 661.


Why Adverts Are Scarier Than Spiders

Are you afraid of spiders? You’re not alone – it’s reported that in the US, 1 in 10 people has a phobia and of these, 40% are related to small animals such as spiders.


At this time of year, there seem to be loads around and they often seem to appear in the evening, heading out across the lounge floor (apparently, this is down to us switching up our heating, which makes the male spiders horny as they think its spring).

But as you settle down in front of the TV to watch your favourite show, at one with the world, instead of being afraid of the next spider, instead we should really be scared of the TV adverts that are issuing forth from the TV. Not convinced? Read on about to find out some of the ways TV ads get inside your mind to change your behaviours and understand why you should be more afraid of the ads than the spiders.


Our perceived needs are an important factor that influence how the TV ads we watch effect us.

According to Maslow and Drive theory (Maslow, 1943), we prioritise satisfying our primary (physiological) needs such as food and water. Then we move on to satisfy secondary (psychological) needs such as social belongingness, competence and problem solving. This forms the hierarchy of needs.

Maslow Hierarchy of Needs

Even if we have no perceived need for a product or service when we see it advertised, advertisers can manipulate this by inducing or reminding us of an unmet need. Once we perceive that a need is not met, drive theory predicts that people are motivated to reduce these drives. By introducing a product or service that can help satisfy this unmet need, the marketers increase the likelihood that we see the advertisement a means of reducing this drive and hence as being personally relevant and important. This leads to higher levels of involvement – a big factor in how much and to what extent we think about the advertisement.

Advertisers can remind us of a genuine need, however they can also use other more controversial techniques to create invoke these unmet needs and make ads more effective.

For example, in 2005, Marks & Spencer ran a TV advertisement featuring Chocolate pudding. Showing close up images of sweet, calorie laden food such as chocolate can produce an involuntary response of salivation. Salivation is normally associated with food and hunger, a physiological need that affects everyone. To the salivating viewer, the advertisement now has more personal relevance and importance to their (induced) hungry state, causing their involvement with it to increase.

Would a spider consciously manipulate your involuntary reactions in this way?

Level of Involvement plays a large role in how we process an advertisement which in turn also impacts the effect it has on us. The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion (Petty RE et al, 1986) considers 2 distinct methods that people use to process advertisements – Central and Peripheral.

Central processing occurs when involvement is high and our ability to think about the ad is high. Peripheral processing occurs when involvement or our ability to think about an ad is low.

Each method leads to different effects and once again marketers can use these to their advantage.

Central processing leads consumers to think carefully about the claims being made within an ad. Strong arguments and reasons are most persuasive in these circumstances and this tends to lead to the formation of strong attitudes that resist change and strongly influence other judgements and behaviour. However this type of processing is cognitively demanding.

Peripheral processing occurs when involvement or ability to think is low, for example due to time pressures or sheer complexity. This has the benefit that it requires little effort, however the the effect is weaker – attitudes can be changed relatively easily, don’t last long and only weakly influence attitudes.

From a consumer perspective peripheral processing can be risky. Because people don’t think too much about the ad, they are prone to use heuristics and biases to form opinions or make decisions – however these ‘mental shortcuts’ are not perfect and marketers can exploit these through their advertisements.

For example the Telegraph reported on ‘Over 50’s plans – financial products designed to leave a lump sum to relatives but which offer ‘appalling value for money’ according to consumer body Which. In certain ads, marketers chose celebrities such as Michael Parkinson and Gloria Hunniford to endorse these products in TV ads.

Faced with a complex financial investment decision, low ability to comprehend the options can lead to people moving to Peripheral processing.

Even though this is an important decision, potentially costing thousands of pounds, faced with low ability, people are prone to Correspondence Bias (Gilbert D.T. et al, 1995) where the person’s attitude towards the product is influenced by their attitude towards the endorser and whether the endorser likes the product.

Not many spiders could cause you to lose thousands of pounds.

Language can also exert an important influence on the effectiveness of advertisements. People are averse to losses (Kahneman, D et al, 1991) and this leads to a bias in which framing scenarios as a gain leads to different behaviours compared with framing the same outcome as a loss. Gain-framed messages most effective for prevention. In tests, research showed that 71% of people acted on a gain framed message compared with only 51% to a message framed as a loss (Rothman, A.J. et al, 1999).

An example is the wording used in Corsodyl’s ad for mouth wash. eg Corsodyl is clinically proven to help stop bleeding gums.

The choice of words is also important. An analysis of frequency of occurrence of words in advertisements ranked ‘New’ and ‘Free’ as the first and third most often used words. Both these words have been shown to influence people in specific ways.

Allocation of attention is influenced by voluntary and involuntary factors (Kahneman, D. 1973). Salient stimuli draw consumers attention involuntarily (Greenwald, A.G., 1984). Use of the word ‘new’ implies novelty and novelty is a salient stimulus. Hence using the word ‘new’ increases the likelihood of a consumer’s involuntary attention.


Research has also shown that the word ‘Free’ influences customer choice. By introducing a free option in tests involving choosing between different chocolates, Ariely caused consumers to change their behaviour and choose a product for which they had previously shown less preference (Shampanier al, 2007).

Would a spider cause you to choose a less preferable option?

In summary, these examples demonstrate how marketers use adverts to manipulate consumers without their knowledge. From causing involuntary reactions that predispose consumers to take interest in their adverts through exploiting known biases to influence consumer decisions. From framing language to convince you to use a mouthwash to using words that can influence your attention and alter your choices. Marketers use tactics that consumers have difficulty defending themselves against.

By contrast, spiders simply wander across the lounge, looking for a mate.

Which should we really be more scared about?


Buddle, C, 20 May, 2015, Why are we so afraid of spiders? Retrieved from [accessed 20 November, 2016]

Gilbert, D. T., & Malone, P. S. (1995). The correspondence bias. Psychological bulletin, 117(1), 21.

Greenwald, A. G., & Leavitt, C. (1984). Audience involvement in advertising: Four levels. Journal of Consumer research, 11(1), 581-592. Buddle (20 May, 2015) [accessed 2- November 2016), Jules Howard, 24 September, 2014, [Accessed 20 November 2016]

Kahneman, D., Knetsch, J. L., & Thaler, R. H. (1991). Anomalies: The endowment effect, loss aversion, and status quo bias. The journal of economic perspectives, 5(1), 193-206.

Kahneman, D. (1973). Attention and effort (p. 246). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological review, 50(4), 370.

Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. In Communication and persuasion (pp. 1-24). Springer New York.

Rothman, A. J., Martino, S. C., Bedell, B. T., Detweiler, J. B., & Salovey, P. (1999). The systematic influence of gain-and loss-framed messages on interest in and use of different types of health behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(11), 1355-1369.

Shampanier, K., Mazar, N., & Ariely, D. (2007). Zero as a special price: The true value of free products. Marketing science, 26(6), 742-757. Emma Scott 14 December, 2011 [accessed 20 November 2016]

Donald Trump and the Attentional Blink

Two things happened this week that got me thinking…

Firstly there was the US Election result (blimey!) and secondly was learning more about a effect known as the Attentional Blink. It got me thinking could these be linked?

The Attentional Blink (Raymond et al, 1992) describes a phenomenon that occurs when the conscious mind is occupied with a task such as spotting a white letter in a sequence of briefly shown black letters. This occupation causes a blindspot for the conscious mind lasting typically 200 – 500ms immediately following display of the target letter.

But before delving further into the Attentional Blink, a short diversion into the World of

Love them or hate them, it’s hard to ignore them.



So what is a brand?

The simple answer: it’s complicated. In describing a brand, Paul Feldwick uses phrases such as “offers reassurance” and “creates good feelings of security and anticipation”.

Bangor Consumer Psychology Guru Professor James Intriligator talks of a “complex, abstract representation” encompassing “functional, sensory/perceptual and emotional qualities

Why are brands so important? From a consumer point of view, brands aid identification, reduce uncertainty and they can add value over a generic product. Lois Geller likens a brand to a promise.

Brands are also important for companies. Brands are valuable, saleable assets. In April, 2016, brewer AB InBev sold the Peroni and Grolsch brands. Although the exact figue was not released, the buyer had already offered £1.8bn ( As assets, brands play an important role in the value of a company and hence factors such as how easy the company can raise additional finance. In addition, brand strength can help a company’s resilience. For example in 2015, Marketing Week reported that the strength of the BBC brand would help the organisation weather the challenges it faced (

It’s also useful to identify how a brand is performing versus competitor brands – to give early warning of opportunities and threats.

measurementGiven the importance of a brand, measuring a brand objectively is vital, but how can this be done? Taking the earlier description, some factors are relatively easy to measure, such as functional qualities. For example, Google can measure how quickly it returns a search result or the proportion of users who click one result but then click a second result.

However sensory/perceptual and emotional qualities are more challenging to quantify.

Some work to assess these was done by Thomson et al in 2005. They took the approach of asking people to report on how they felt about a brand when they thought about it and their relationship with it.

These measures were taken as multi-item Likert scales, ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) wherein respondents rated the extent of their agreement concerning how a particular brand makes them feel.

However, this approach relies on responses made by the conscious system 2 thinking when attempting to measure system 1 qualities such as perceptions and emotions.

Could there be a better way of measuring brand strength?

Research (Awh E et al, 2004) found that faces were not subject to (or ‘survived’) the Attentional Blink. Further work (Landau et al, 2008) tested a variety of objects, confirming this and proposing that perceptual salience of the faces was what enabled them to survive the Attentional Blink.

Professor James Intriligator extended this and hypothesised that the more familiar an object, the more likely it was to survive and tested this using a section of brand names. This research confirmed a correlation between the ability of a set of brands to survive the attentional blink and their sales figures. The Attentional Blink provided a possible means of assessing brand strength without involving a conscious rating method.

So what does this have to do with Donald Trump? The US election result came as a surprise compared with predictions from pollsters. Even as late as the eve of the election, the BBC reported that pollsters placed Clinton in a 4 point lead (

So why could the polls have got it wrong?

Research by Shiv et al (1999) suggest that if processing resources are limited, people tend to be influenced more by their emotions than more thought through choices. For undecided voters, faced with time pressures and difficult choices, these perceptual and emotional factors may form a more important part of the decision on who to vote for than rationalised processes.

If the polls are based on voters rational responses to questions about these political ‘brands’, rather than a measure of how strongly the voters see the candidates from an emotional and sensory/perceptual perspective then they may be missing an important influence on the voters decision – emotions and sensory/perceptual factors.

donald-trumpIf we consider Trump and Clinton as brands (nothing new, a more accurate poll method may have been to use the Attentional Blink method. By occupying the conscious decision processes, this method could be used to provide a more accurate measure of the relative strength of the 2 candidates/brands in voters minds. In addition, by applying this test to undecided voters on the run up to the election, accurate trends could be predicted and useful feedback gained.

This raises some ethical questions, as more accurate polls could themselves begin to influence the outcome.

Edit: The BBC have an interesting article published here discussing the ability of social media in prediction.


Raymond, J. E., Shapiro, K. L., & Arnell, K. M. (1992). Temporary suppression of visual processing in an RSVP task: An attentional blink?. Journal of experimental psychology: Human perception and performance, 18(3), 849.

Landau, A. N., & Bentin, S. (2008). Attentional and perceptual factors affecting the attentional blink for faces and objects. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 34(4), 818.

Awh, E., Serences, J., Laurey, P., Dhaliwal, H., van der Jagt, T., & Dassonville, P. (2004). Evidence against a central bottleneck during the attentional blink: Multiple channels for configural and featural processing. Cognitive Psychology, 48(1), 95-126. [Accessed 11/11/16]

Exploding the Message Myth. (24/12/2013.). Retrieved November 12, 2016, from

Shiv, B., & Fedorikhin, A. (1999). Heart and mind in conflict: The interplay of affect and cognition in consumer decision making. Journal of consumer Research, 26(3), 278-292.