Dear Mentalists: Psychological Forces

I was watching a Penguin Live lecture last winter. It was by a mentalist. I want to say it was Art Vanderlay, but I'm not 100% sure so don't hold me to that. Whoever it was, he said something really stupid. And not as a joke. He said, if you want to psychologically force someone to think of the word "Rudolph" you should ask them to "Name a famous reindeer." 

How, I wondered, would this play out in the real word.

Magician: Madam, please name a famous reindeer.

Spectator: Rudolph.

Magician: Please, check below your seat. You'll find an envelope, and inside is the name Rudolph. Thank you, very much.

Spectator: Whaaaaattttt??? NO! FUCK ME, HOW COULD YOU EVER POSSIBLY HAVE KNOWN THAT!!! ARE YOU READING MY DIARY? I'VE NEVER TOLD ANYONE WHAT "FAMOUS REINDEER" I WOULD NAME! AND YOU WERE JUST ABLE TO PULL THIS INFORMATION OUT OF THE BLUE?? NO. GET AWAY FROM ME. YOU'RE SCARING ME. Okay, Karen, gotta think this through... is there any rational explanation? Think. Think!! NO! You sick fuck. Have you been following me for years? Getting to know my tastes and habits so you could predict which reindeer I would choose? Oh, no, wait... I know what happened. You secretly hooked me up to an MRI machine while I was sleeping one night in order to see which parts of my brain lit up when you asked my subconscious mind to name a famous reindeer. That's the only explanation.

I hate to break it to you, but there is only one famous reindeer. So if you ask someone to name a famous one, it's not that hard to predict which one you're going to get. I mean, there's only nine reindeer altogether that even have names, so you've eliminated the millions of reindeer we haven't gotten around to identifying yet. Then eight of the nine available choices are all of equal levels of renown. They could all be considered the least famous reindeer. So only one is relatively "famous." And this isn't something that only magicians know. Laypeople have cracked an US Weekly. They know it's not chock full of famous reindeer doing shit. They understand their choices for famous reindeer are fairly limited. 

You may think I'm harping on this one dumb idea, but I'm using it to illustrate a grander point and that is this:

There is a difference between a psychological force and a question with an obvious answer.

Mentalists got their heads stuck in their buttholes again and got confused by this notion. They thought if they were able to predict someone's answer to a question, then that's a psychological force. It's not.

Q: Name a tall building in New York City? 

A: The Empire State Building

Is this a psychological force? No, it's a question with one obvious answer. Sure, you can try and play it off as if you you're plucking this one idea from many. "The Empire State Building? Hmmm... well... if you say so. Most people say 432 Park Avenue or the HSBC Bank Building. But you said... what was it again? The Entire State Building? Oh... Empire. Got it. I'm just going to take your word for it that that's a real thing." You can go that route, but you look like a tool.

I blame Banachek and Teller. In the first Psychological Subtleties book, Teller mentions a routine in the introduction where he asks a spectator to think of a flower, she says "Rose" and then he shows that he predicted it. This rose "force" is used in other places throughout the book as well. I'm sorry, but this is not a trick. That's not to say that everyone will say "rose." But everyone who does say rose will just assume that everyone says rose. 

Often mentalists will put a lot of these shitty psychological forces together. So they'll ask a bunch of obvious questions and then show that they predicted all the answers. They compound the obviousness of this technique by doing it over and over and over. They think this is good structure. It's not. 

There are, of course, some great psychological forces, and some good routines out there that are combinations of these forces. But you have to be careful, because if you mix good psychological forces with bad ones, then you taint the good ones, you don't elevate the bad ones.

Here's how to test if you have a good psychological force. It's not a one-step process. It's a two-step process. First you try it out on a bunch of people and see if the response rate is what you find acceptable. And that will differ from performer to performer. Let's say your acceptable hit-rate is 80%. You try out your force and you realize that it exceeds that percentage. Great. But now you have to go to step two of the testing procedure. You go to your friends and ask, for example, "If I asked 100 people to name a flower, what do you think the overwhelmingly most popular answer would be?" In this instance they will say, immediately, "Rose." That's because it's a bad psychological force. An immediate answer = bad psy force. If they have to think about it for a few moments, then it might be a good force. If they say, "I have no idea," then it's possibly a very good psy force.

Let me be clear. The second step of the testing is not to ask people the psychological force question again. It's to ask people how they think other people would answer the question. You're testing how obvious your hit answer is. Mentalists hate testing things like this. They hate it because they like to pretend they really know how people's minds work. But a lot of them don't. In fact they often seem to have the least insight into how a spectator's mind works than performers in any other branch of magic. Fortunately I'm here to help them out.

Along those lines, here are some other things that aren't psychological forces:

"Name a famous current President of the U.S."

"Name the first answer that comes to your mind when I say 9 + 3."

"Who's your favorite person occupying your physical space and wearing your clothes at this very moment?"