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.


4 thoughts on “How Derren Brown Used Attention To Predict The Future

  1. To get the level of attention required can be tricky. Attention is required for a brand to form strong relationships with their consumers, but sometimes levels of attention created by advertising can also be a weakness. Heath, Brand & Nairn, (2006) conducted research into levels of attention and the impact attention can have on the emotional content the advertisements wishes to show their consumers. However high levels of attention can weaken the emotional content of the advertisement, indicating low levels attention would be better for the emotional contents’ effectiveness.

  2. I thought this was such a clever article, and was a great way to demonstrate the way our attention works, and how it is possible for brands to exploit this knowledge and uses our own faculties against us. As advertising agencies understand, attention is the selection of information for further processing, it is necessary for survival as it is part of a suite of abilities we have that make us distinctly human. Attention uses a top-down as well as bottom-up processes in a distributed network of activity. (Bowman, 2016) The stimuli gets processed in a task-dependent way – this means that the most important thing gets prioritised first, I think your article clearly demonstrates how this fact can really be used against us in our day to day lives. An area that I am very interested in researching a little more based on your blog post is how our attention is distracted by app alerts on our phone, you made the point in your piece how the colour red was used effectively albeit subliminally to attract the attention of the two advertising execs, and when I think of it, every messaging alert that I use (messages, whatsap, facebook, skype) uses a red circle to attract my attention, which for me results in many (many!) hours wasted checking and answering unimportant and anodyne matters – the devil certainly is in the detail!

  3. It’s terrifying to see how easily we create perceived original thought that’s influenced so much by advertising! I’ve often thought that i’m relatively good at ignoring the siren calls of advertising but this makes me question myself. I wonder if this could be recreated in more rural environment as there are much less adverts relative to a city.

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