The Importance of Combining Methods

I'm a big believer in testing magic methods, techniques, and concepts, as I've mentioned since the beginning of this site, and most recently in this post. When I bring this up to people they will often object. They'll suggest that it is, in some way, like deconstructing and quantifying poetry or something like that. But, while magic is an art, it also has a lot of practical and testable elements to it as well and I think it has suffered because of our fear of rigorously examining those things. We think, "I don't need to test anything. I know when a trick fools them and when it doesn't." But no. No you don't. It's almost impossible to remove yourself from your role as the magician and look at things objectively. And unless you present things plainly and ask your audience pointed questions, you have no idea what they're thinking. "But they laughed and clapped after my trick. Clearly they enjoyed it, so it must have fooled them." Maybe. Or maybe they're just being nice people who were watching a magic performance.

Most people are nice like that. They're not hypercritical and they don't question every unusual action. And we take advantage of that by presenting magic that relies on their charitable view of the proceedings. In fact, if someone does approach our performance with a hard-line, critical assessment, we think he's an asshole. "Lighten up, buddy, it's just a magic show." But, with testing, you can create material that does fool the harshest critics. And you know it will because you've paid people to take the most unforgiving look at your methods and effects. You can't get this feedback from an audience that paid to see you. You can't get it from other magicians. (I would submit that they're the least equipped to tell you what will fool an audience.) Your best hope is a smart, layman friend. But after testing enough tricks with him/her they're not really laymen anymore.

That's why I like recruiting people, focus group style, and having them come off the street knowing their job that day is to find the weaknesses in the effects we're presenting them. It's a hassle and it's expensive but I would split the cost with other magician friends and it wasn't too bad. You could bring in 12 people for 90 minutes and pay $240 total. Split a few ways it was just 60 or 80 dollars every few months. I just considered it an entertainment expense. To me it was fascinating to see what things flew by people and what things they immediately busted.

And what you end up with if you really work this process is magic that is bulletproof and doesn't require a spectator to drop their critical faculties. I find that this alone is a fairly wild feeling for a spectator -- to not have to be forgiving in any way when they had intended to be. It's like going to lift what you think is a heavy bag and it turns out to be filled with styrofoam. Or if you were going out on a blind date and you approached the door thinking, "Well, no matter how she appears, I'll let her know how pretty she looks. That's the kind thing to do." And then she opens the door and she's truly the most jawdropping woman you've ever seen. It's a great feeling to not have to compensate for something when you thought you would.

A great trick is more than just a fooling trick, of course, my only point in stressing the testing of method is because it's something you can test and improve on without sacrificing anything you bring to the artistic side of the effect. 

If you like this notion of testing magic in a more formal setting, I suggest you keep an eye out for an article by Joshua Jay in an upcoming MAGIC magazine. He worked with a university research group to gather some data about people's opinions and thoughts about magic and magicians and it's pretty interesting stuff. It's a little different than the focus-group style I conducted, but it came to many similar conclusions.

I told him I wouldn't spoil any of the results, but I will say if you're someone who does a lot of straightforward card routines with a normal deck, you'll probably not be enthused when you learn the results of how forgettable these types of tricks are to people. 

As I wrote to Josh:

We also did something similar to your study where we invited people back a week or two later and asked them for details about three card tricks we had shown them at their previous visit [Performed live and via video by legends in magic]. Less than 20% (and it may have been closer to 10) could tell us anything other than in the broadest of terms ("Cards changed" or "It was a poker trick"). Anyone who tells you their card tricks are truly memorable are (with rare exceptions) lying to you or themselves. Other than a few transcendent card tricks, most are forgettable. And I don't think that means they're not worth performing, but don't kid yourself and think you're creating some memorable moment. I've made the comparison on my site to these types of card tricks being like action movies. Or maybe a massage. Or an average hand-job. It's fun in the moment and maybe you think about it later that evening, but it's not something that stays with you long term. And I'm perfectly fine with that. I like to do really big, memorable things, but I'm also cool with people just remembering they had a fun time.

Today I want to talk about one of the results of the testing I helped conduct that deals with something that is not unintuitive, but is, I think, undervalued. And that is the idea of combining methods.

Before I go further I want to admit I don't have the exact results of this testing in front of me (it's all in storage at the moment) but my numbers are correct within a couple percentage points.

Here's what we did.

First we would have someone slide a card out of a face-down spread, peek at it, and the magician would guess what it was. When pressed for an explanation, 78% said maybe the cards were marked in some way.

Then, for a different group, we did a trick where someone slid a card out from a face-up spread and the magician, who was blindfolded, was able to tell them the card. 86% said he could probably see through or around the blindfold somehow. 

Then, for another group, we performed the trick with the deck face down and with the magician in a blindfold. So we just combined two somewhat transparent methodologies. But when we did, only like 8% suggested the method was a see-thru blindfold AND a marked deck.

I was amazed at how strong a method could arise from combining two weak methods. I would have thought, "Well, 86% understand you might be able to see through a blindfold, and three-quarters are familiar with marked decks. So... at the very least we're looking at like 60% who get both concepts. And I would expect most of them to be able to put the two together." But that's not how it happened. And we repeated this test and similar ones often enough to show that it was consistent.

Why does it work like that? I can't say for sure. It's tempting to think you'd be more likely to get busted when you use two methods that aren't that strong. But that's not how it works out at all. I suppose it's just a matter of people looking for the (singular) solution and their mind is not set to parse a trick in order to look at its component parts. If you walk them through it, they can figure it out, but I don't think looking at the pieces of an effect comes naturally to non-magicians. 

Perhaps it's like being a perfumer and being capable of pulling out all the notes that comprise a particular fragrance. But a perfume layperson, like myself, would just say, "Oh, this is summery," or, "This is earthy." I honestly don't even know enough about perfume to know if that's an apt analogy.

All I know is that it works. I am 100% on board with the power of combining methods. To the extent that I almost believe if Bernie Madoff was not just running a Ponzi scheme, but was also counterfeiting money as well, he might not have been caught. Like maybe each action might have covered for the other. 

In my mind I think of methods as horses, and if you just have one it will run free. But if you tie that horse's tail to another horse's tail they will pull at each other to get free and not make much, if any, forward progress. In the forthcoming book, the last effect is about a camera that takes pictures of the future. You do it with any cellphone camera, no apps. It takes something like 40 steps to describe because it layers so many methods on top of one another. In my head I see a dozen horses all tied at the tail. 

In magic there is the saying, which I generally agree with, that a trick that can be described in one sentence is probably a good trick. But I think a corollary to that is that a method that can be described in one sentence is probably a bad method.

That's why you should always be combining methods to make your mysteries impenetrable. It's like that movie says: ABCM.

And finally, I'll hide a pro-tip for the mentalists here at the bottom of this post.

A traditional center-tear involves a few different deceptions. First, the manner of folding and ripping to preserve the information. Second, the stealing out of the target piece. Third, some type of peek of the information you stole out after a time delay. It's a very solid, deceptive method.

But many mentalists have taken a giant step backwards by performing a center tear where they peek the information while they tear it. This is only more deceptive to magicians/mentalists. For the rest of the universe it is exactly what they would think you're doing. It's a perfect straight line method. 

Perform a center tear for people with a real-time peek in it. Or have people watch a video of it being performed by whoever you think does it best (as long as the video includes their entire upper body so the person will experience it similar to what they'd see in real life). When it's over ask them, "If you had to guess how it's done, what would be your guess?" An overwhelming majority will say something like, "Maybe he looked at the word as he tore the paper?" I know this to be true because I've done just this for people.

No, they won't understand the intricate details of the folding and the ripping. They will just know they saw you glance at the paper while you were tearing it up (which, when you're tearing to destroy something, there is no justification for). That's all they need to know. But you don't understand, Andy, I barely glance at the pieces as I tear them up. It doesn't matter. It is not possible to look at the torn pieces so quickly that people won't catch you. (Ask any woman who has worn a low-cut top if even the quickest glance can go unnoticed.) And, in fact, the quicker your glance, the sketchier it is. You may get lucky and the person may not be looking at your eyes when you get your peek, but then you are relying on luck. If they see or sense your eyes going to that paper—or even just imagine it's a possibility—then you're sunk. 

I realize I won't get many mentalists who agree with me. That's fine. Mentalists, even more than traditional magicians, hate the idea of testing effects in front of real people. That's why they're fans of so many awful methods. Which is just as well. Even shitty mentalism can have a strong effect on people. When you proactively take steps to make your mentalism irreproachable you end up with something more powerful than I trust most of those goofballs with.