Man of mind magic David Meade is investigating how to control crowds for a new documentary that talks to former cult members and shows how dramatically praise can affect performance. JOANNE SAVAGE finds out more
David Meade is a mentalist. This means that he is well versed in techniques of mind manipulation and suggestion and can do all manner of spookily ‘magic’ things like tell people their pin numbers, mother-in-law’s surname or date of birth.
He is now well known in Northern Ireland for such mind-bending feats and once appeared suspended many feet above ground in Victoria Square Shopping Centre in Belfast; how he managed this remains a mystery to those of us outside the golden circle of mentalists (even though I pleaded and pleaded with him to reveal to the News Letter just how exactly the stunt was perfected; “But that would ruin all the fun,” he rightly protested).
Now magic-man Meade is exploring crowds for a new BBC Northern Ireland documentary, all, no doubt, so that he can better manipulate and trick his audiences during his hugely popular live and TV shows. He does a sort of mwahaha evil-tongue-in-cheek laugh as he divulges this (I jest here, but it would be cool if he played up his powers of manipulation like some quite dastardly Derren Brown virtuoso). Perhaps, in fact, and more seriously, they should have brought him to the table of the Haass talks and he could have wizarded a better outcome.
For his new in-depth documentary Crowd Control David researched crowd theory, spoke with academics, tried to keep awry crowds at Belfast Culture Night in order while wearing an awful fluorescent jacket, and used techniques of approval and dismissal with groups - in this case a basketball team - to measure how this affected their performance.
“When I do my shows people are always saying that I control people’s minds rather than read them and, that’s right, that’s what I try to do,” he explains. “So I thought I would explore the idea of crowd control in more depth to see what we could uncover about crowd behaviour and the ways crowds can subtly be led to behave in certain ways.
“This looks at different contexts in which people are controlled from politics to cults; we even go into shopping centres and look at how their design is arranged to make the consumer follow a certain route through the shops that encourages them to buy.”
What is most astonishing about Crowd Control is how the programme reveals that affirmation can really motivate a team to do well. One of Meade’s experiments here is compelling: he separates a basketball team into two groups, lyingly telling one they have a special physiological advantage that means they will be brilliant and score highly; he tells the other team they haven’t really got what it takes. The highly-praised team more than doubled the score of the second team in their test game. “That’s what affirmation can do,” says David. “And actually a lot of my work now involves explaining to companies the techniques they can use to get more out of their employees.”
Meade himself is an endlessly charming type, hyper-articulate, ever-alert. You wonder when you meet him if he does in fact have a magic touch sent from above, but in the past he has assured me that all his tricks and stunts are learned behaviour - there are books you can buy online, he insists, that will explain how to do exactly what he does (but I’m not altogether sure I believe him, looking behind his glasses to find blue eyes that could well hold secrets of wizard-like power).
David was surprised by the research which revealed how shopping centres can be designed to control consumer behaviour and also at how cults can result in the absence of intellectual independence.
“One of my favourite places to shop is Victoria Square, but look at the way it is laid out. There are benches outside shops - those benches aren’t just there to allow you to rest your feet but also to put you in a position where you are looking into that shop and are therefore more likely to go in and buy. There are so many clever psychological tricks used here; even the blue tiles snaking along the floor lead you along a row of shops to encourage more purchases.”
And when it comes to crowd control, cults are perhaps one of the most extreme examples of it, obedience of a group to bizarre ideas taken to an extreme: “We interviewed a man who had been a member of a cult in Toronto and he told us about all the ways he had been made to believe in completely irrational ideas; hypnosis, sleep deprivation, diet control, others agreeing repeatedly with a fixed idea so that you are made to feel wrong if you don’t concur.”
Is Meade himself tempted to form a cult now that he has completed all this research in crowd control? He laughs uproariously at this. “No, no, no! What would I call them? Meadites? No that would be a terrible thing to do!” And I believe him - he’s far too nice a guy to use his powers of mind manipulation for anything other than entertainment. Crowd Control is on BBC One NI, January 15 at 10.35pm.