If you’re a parent, been around kids, or played with children for any length of time you’ll learn one cardinal rule: The easiest way to get a small child to do something is to tell them NOT to do it. This is called “negative suggestion,” and it is a psychological mind trick that could explain why people engage in some of the worst, most unspeakable behavior.
Consider the following “true crime story,” Netflix’s “American Vandal.” Spoilers after the trailer if you’ve yet to see it.
In the end of the series, though Dylan, the character at the center of this show is proven innocent over the high school vandalism incident, he eventually commits the act himself against his Spanish teacher because people saw him as a vandal. The more people perceived Dylan to be a graffiti artist, the more it pushed him into actually performing that act.
Children are the most prone to negative suggestion because they’ve not developed the social habits or impulse control of adults. Telling a two year old child “Don’t talk with your mouth full at the dinner table” will produce drastically different results than telling a twenty-two year old. Two decades of age teach a person there are certain social behaviors that are unacceptable, and the mind forms a sort of block preventing one from engaging in those bad acts.
That doesn’t mean adults are immune to negative suggestion. In fact, negative suggestion could move a person in the right context to kill. Watch the following video, then I’ll attempt to explain how the poor kitten was doomed from the start.
Now that you’ve watched the video, consider the following breakdown:
By :35 in the video, Brown establishes credibility with the subject. A very realistic looking setup displays a kitten in a box with wires connecting to a button. The subject is told if the red button on the table is pressed, it will deliver a massive electrical shock to the box and kill the kitten.
By :51 the subject is told her mission is to not kill the kitten. If she succeeds in this she wins 500 pounds If she doesn’t, then she kills the kitten.
Note the slap of Brown’s hand on the table containing the button which theoretically kills the kitten. It does two things. First, it puts an image in the subject’s mind of pressing the button without actually pressing the button. It also punctuates what Brown ACTUALLY wants the young woman to do: “kill the kitten.”
By 1:01 Brown’s officially gotten his subject to believe no legal repercussions will occur if she kills the kitten. She’s told there’s a “legal loophole” and four kittens have been killed on live British television.
He then says “This will be the fifth.” It’s a devious phrase inserted into the script, because now Brown is telling his subject without telling her that she’s going to kill the kitten.
By 1:30, while the subject is playing with the kitten through the box, Brown begins the negative suggestion. He tells her to try and not think about it for a minute. When she responds with a question, he says “It’s best to take your mind off the kitten.” By telling her to try and take her mind off the kitten, Derren is implanting the suggestion that she needs to fixate on the kitten.
By 2:06 Brown begins regressing his subject to a more childlike demeanor. He fixes himself a cup of tea after offering it to the subject, then hands her Tang. Tang is typically a children’s drink. She notices this, and notices he has tea. He brushes this off with another slap of the table and the command to draw something for him.
At about 2:25, marvel at the fact Derren Brown knows his subject is going to draw a kitten. Why? Because he told her previously to NOT think about the kitten! As an added mental punch, he puts the paper and crayons next to the button and invites his subject to bring the Tang with her.
Three minutes into the video Brown slaps the table next to him again and asks about a toy the subject was to bring for a “psychological test.” Here’s a killer. She brought a childhood teddy bear named “Scriffy.”
“Names like that just take you to back when you were that age,” he says.
By 3:28 he’s got her hooked. Brown asks his subject to close her eyes and imagine a time when she was younger, and maybe a little bit naughty, and associate the teddy bear with that image.
Ten seconds later he’s asking his subject how the memory of her father making teddy bears talk made her feel. We’ve now hooked imagination and emotion into the suggestion. It’s a one-two punch at this point. She’s feeling happy. The image of her father making her teddy bears talk is funny.
The next question: “When were you most mischievous?” attempts to put the subject in a state where they’re preconditioned to do something bad. Her description is putting on her mother’s makeup. By 3:55 into the video he’s asking her again how being mischievous made her feel. Brown is hooking the act of doing something bad with a feeling.
“It’s exciting…a growing up thing…” she says.
Happiness and excitement are all she can think about now when it comes to this new juvenile state of mind. This kitten is toast at this point.
4:06: “Feels good, doesn’t it?” Derren Brown asks. All while he’s clicking the button on a red ball point pen. His subject’s eyes aren’t open but she hears the audible click of the button on the pen. She’s now begun to associate the action of pushing a button with feeling exciting and happy.
Around 4:18 comes one of the most striking points in the video. Brown asks his subject to draw another cat. This one is larger and more child like in comparison to the first. He even asks her to sign her name to the drawing, as children often do.
Brown now applauds Lauren with “That’s a really lovely pussycat.” Note the change in description of the animal. First it was a “kitten,” now a “pussycat.” The latter is a more juvenile term for the animal, and further cements the lock on Lauren’s brain for a childlike, suggestive state.
She’s going to push that button now whether she knows it or not.
By 5:03 Lauren sees Brown click the red button on the ballpoint pen a number of times. This is reinforcing a belief in her head that if she pushes a red button nothing bad will happen.
One more slap of the table and Brown announces two minutes are left. He produces a large digital two minute clock (with red numerals), and at 5:26 into the video Derren Brown delivers the final linguistic kill shot*: “Whatever you do, don’t press the button.” Anchoring that with a clicking sound associates Lauren’s mind with the clicking sound of the red ball point pen, which further pushes Lauren towards killing the kitten.
Six minutes into the video, Lauren is in a state of crisis. She sees how much time is left on the clock, she plays with the kitten, and she’s in turmoil. She wants at a base level for the kitten to live, but she’s resisting a massive impulse to push that button.
At 7:12, notice the facial expression on Lauren’s face. She can’t believe what she’s about to do.
With one second left, the kitten is toast.
Look at those times when negative suggestion impacts you and the interactions with others in your everyday life. Sometimes the more someone tells you to not do something, it’s the easiest way to get you to do just that.
And hopefully, by now you’ve figured out how pliable our minds truly are and how they can be influenced for better or worse with the right skill set.