“A social contract for disaster”

No, that’s not the latest dorky theme party put on by the Koch Fellows. It’s how British psychologist Richard Wiseman describes the relationship between magicians and their audiences.

You see, when I claimed a while ago that my powers were on loan from God, that was a bit of a fib. There are actually rational, logical explanations for how magic works and Professor Wiseman has been exploring this territory from a psychologist’s point of view. From the BBC:

As a former conjurer, he is uniquely qualified to understand the social dynamics between a magician and his audience and he argues that there is a lot more happening in a magic show than people realise.

“The really good performers,” he said, “the ones who know what they’re doing, have an incredible grasp of psychology”, and use it to convince you to see their version of events.

Most people are familiar with the term “misdirection,” the technique of getting an audience to look in one place while a secret action happens someplace else. The best magicians accomplish this in more subtle ways than simply pointing to the back of the room and saying, “Hey, look over there!”, such as by having things burst into flames unexpectedly on the side of the stage or employing scantily clad assistants. Or, if they’re really sneaky, they pull an O’Brien and slowly alter a person’s memory of events:

“For example,” said Professor Wiseman, “a magician might cut some cards and say ‘Right, they’re mixed up now’. Then he’ll do something else and then say ‘Now, remember I shuffled the cards at the start’.

“That word – ‘shuffled’ – has gone in, and people think ‘Yeah, that’s right, the cards were shuffled’. But they weren’t, he just cut them. It’s cut to mix to shuffle. Small steps. If you had gone from cut to shuffle, it’s too much and people notice.”

Inattentional blindness plays a role, too:

[Dr. Nillie] Lavie specialises in inattention blindness. “The skill of a good magician is to make a very interesting, dramatic act with complex actions and interesting verbal utterances,” she said.

“He loads your attention with all this information, but it’s irrelevant to the act that he presents. It is so you don’t notice the deception.”

However, humans being natural sceptics go to magic shows knowing they are going to be deceived so they pay special attention to everything. But being overly focused can also be turned to the illusionist’s advantage.

She’s right except for the part about the information being irrelevant. Presentation is often structured to distract, but it also plays a role in constituting an effect. Three playing cards switching places for no reason is meaningless; setting their transpositions in the context of a story about how the performer once lost a lot of money in a game of three card monte provides an emotional hook and a motivation for what’s happening. Audiences aren’t stupid. They can tell the difference between a magician who’s just babbling to misdirect them one who offers a cohesive performance to draw them in.

So what motivates people to let magicians mess with their minds. After all, there is a fundamental problem with this relationship. At the end of the day, you are paying someone, to deceive you; you are twice the sucker.

Professor Wiseman calls it a “social contract for disaster”.

“I show you a trick, you want to know how it’s done, I am not going to tell you. Conflict.”

… Magicians have to manage that. And to do that they use these psychological techniques, but they are also giving something back.

In a renowned essay, Paul Harris, one of David Blaine’s technical advisers, has argued it is “astonishment”. This, he claims, is our natural state of mind; analogous to a childlike awe, that is lost in adulthood. Good magic, Harris claims, returns people to that state.

I was surprised to see the Paul Harris essay mentioned in the article. It is an influential piece among magicians, but it’s a lot more New Age mumbo-jumbo than it is empirical science. That said, there’s a lot of truth to it. Paul is a fantastically creative magician who’s done more than just about anyone to challenge his fellow practicioners to become more than tricky guys in cheap tuxes. On that note:

Today, it is the edgier performers like Derren Brown and David Blaine that people want to see.

They are both charged with wresting magic back from the grip of the likes of David Copperfield, Paul Daniels and Lance Burton – the poster boys for high-camp family entertainment.

Yes, Blaine and Brown will astonish, but they will also unsettle; they take you on a journey to the parts of your childhood inhabited by the scary clown, not Peter Pan and the fairies.

I don’t know if I’d call David Copperfield’s recent penchant for innuendo and sapphic dancing “high-camp family entertainment,” but the article is correct in noting the trend toward edgier magic that gets visceral reactions from the audience.

Transporting modern cynical audiences back to a childlike state of wonder is a tall order even for these kings of cool. But Wiseman believes Derren Brown is doubly astute, using people’s natural scepticism and demand for answers to his advantage.

“If he passed himself off as having psychic abilities, he wouldn’t be half as successful,” Professor Wiseman insists.

Instead, Brown offers a rational explanation dressed up in science to explain the tricks he does. He presents himself as having amazing powers of memory and psychological manipulation and so offers the audience a “believable” solution, albeit often the wrong one.

“Derren’s trick is not the magic, it’s creating the illusion that he has these fantastic abilities and getting you to believe him.”

Derren Brown is a controversial figure among magician, mainly for the way he excoriates the vast majority of his peers for being utterly lame and unoriginal. He hasn’t had much exposure in the U.S. yet, but I was lucky to stumble upon a live show of his the one night I spent in London this summer. He’s a fantastic performer; some of the stunts from the second act of his show had even me feeling physically uncomfortable at times.

However, the downside to his style is that he really does trick the audience into believing that his abilities to manipulate them psychologically are far beyond their true limits. Normally I think it’s laudable when a psychic performer tells his audience that there are rational explanations for everything he does, but Derren leads his fans uncomfortably into the range of pseudoscience. It was fun, yet mildly disturbing, talking with the intelligent audience members around me and hearing that they really believed Derren could control their thoughts hours in advance by showing them certain pictures or saying certain phrases. Is encouraging belief in sketchy subjects like neurolinguistic programming any better than claiming to have ESP?

Perhaps not, or perhaps it’s best to just enjoy the joke he’s playing on a culture so proud of its rational skepticism that it will buy into such bald-faced lies. But it’s late and this entry is long enough as is. I’ll save that topic for a potential future post.

[Via MagiCentric.]