Suspicious Minds

In an older post on the $10 peek wallet, I wrote this:

 Last year I did some testing where the audience could register as they watched a performance when they thought something fishy was going on. They did this via swiping up and down on an iPhone to register their suspicion. Swiping up meant they were skeptical about what was going on, swiping down meant they were believing what they were seeing. It's like those dials they give people to watch the presidential debates and register if they agree or disagree with what the candidates are saying. What we had after this testing was a little seismograph of audience suspicion that we could play along with the performance and see exactly where they were calling bullshit in their minds as they watched the performance.

I have a number of posts I could write that came out of that testing that I may or may not get to, but there is a broad concept I want to discuss because it has helped me a lot in creating handlings that allay suspicion.

After we conducted that testing (it was me along with two other magicians, one professional, one amateur like myself), we had a ton of data to sift through. And as we looked at the data we saw all these moments during standard magic presentations where suspicion had peaked amongst the audience. So our goal was to find what those moments all had in common, to see if there was a universal trait in things that engender suspicion. I think, as magicians, we have a hard time discerning what's questionable. It's hard for us not to see the "big picture" and we end up justifying things by their value in their secret function in a routine. 

For example, one thing that always raised suspicion in our testing was an in-the-hands faro shuffle. I think intuitively we understand this is an unnatural looking move (in the U.S., at least) but there are a lot of tricks that require it so we say, "Well, fuck it, I'm just going to go ahead and do it." 

So what was the commonality we found in all events that raised suspicion? It's probably not what you think. It wasn't like, "Oh, the magician turned his back, I bet he's doing something sneaky." And it wasn't suspicion that was brought on by poor technique. Here's what we found...

Suspicion is brought on by an unnecessary expenditure of energy on the part of the magician.

I don't think this is just a magic definition. I think it probably holds true in many areas of life. 

Keep this simple example in mind: If you went to the fanciest neighborhood in Los Angeles carrying a plastic Dollar Tree bag with a human head inside it, I don't think anyone would think anything of it as long as the bag was held down at your side by a relaxed, slack arm.

On the other hand, if you walked around with the nicest bag filled with plans to build a soup kitchen for at-risk kittens, but held it up at shoulder level in a tight overhand grip, people would be like, "What's this dude's deal?" They'd be suspicious of why you were unnecessarily expending energy to hold a bag like that.

So let's bring it back to our example of the faro shuffle. Compared to a normal shuffle, it's a studied action that requires your attention (energy) and I think that's why it seemed questionable to a lay audience. They don't know what happened but the moment is questionable to them. And one of our goals should be to eliminate questionable moments because I think each one ends up reducing an audience's reaction by 5 or 10%. When we replaced the faro for a complete deck switch done in the performer's case (with some motivation), it did not trigger people's suspicion. That notion will make card technicians furious. The idea that it might be better to switch decks altogether -- out of view from the audience -- than just do a faro. It seems ridiculous. But I have no ego wrapped up in this, I'm only concerned with the audience's response to things. And if a well executed switch slides by unnoticed whereas an equally well executed faro shuffle raises an eyebrow, I'm going to go with the switch.

But this is not just a question of physical actions. In fact, it's more often a problem of trick structure or presentation. "I'm going to read your mind. Roll these three dice. Then open this book to the page number indicated by the dice and think of the first word on the page. Now I want you to jumble the letters in your head and think of an 'interesting' letter. Oh, and write it on this chalkboard." That's a large unnecessary expenditure of energy to read someone's mind. 

That's not to say tricks can't involve a large investment of time and energy by the performer. I just think you need to avoid the appearance of unnecessary energy. That's what will draw people's attention and erode their reactions.

This is why propless magic/mentalism so often fails. They substitute a quick action the requires little excess energy (choosing a card, writing down a word, etc) with a long process that is only excess energy.

This is a foundational idea for the style of magic I've found to be the most powerful. So get out your highlighters and scribble all over your screen. This is something we'll be coming back to.