[This post is pretty long and sloppy. That's okay, you've got a few days before the next post. I didn't edit out some of the asides I normally would. I'm still attempting to formulate some of these ideas and there isn't really a common magic vocabulary I can use to do so, so I'm laying a lot of groundwork and rambling. Let me summarize the post up top. That may make it more understandable as you work your way through it.
The main ideas are these:
1. Magic inherently produces cognitive dissonance that isn't pleasant for people.
2. To allay this dissonance, often people will say, "It's just a trick." And that will be their explanation for what just happened, and their way to dismiss the experience. You: "I made your dime change to a penny." Them: "Yeah, well, it's just a trick." They abandon a feeling of wonder because that feeling is dissonant with their knowledge that magic doesn't exist. So they revert to "It's just a trick."
3. We can nudge them back towards a feeling of amazement by making the explanation "It's just a trick" itself feel dissonant to them. But we can't achieve that with more impossible tricks. We can only do it by hinting at more incredible methods.
As I said, these ideas are just coming together, but I thought I'd put them out there now so we can see how they evolve.]
I've been finding the introduction and manipulation of cognitive dissonance to be one of the more useful tools in creating affecting magic. (Hell, it's one of the more useful tools in life, for that matter. But that's a subject for another time.)
First, a definition. I know that cognitive dissonance is pretty well understood, but I also know I have a lot of readers for whom English isn't their first language and they translate this page and who know what Google will translate it into. Probably, "Thinking Cacophony" or some other garbage.
[Bonjour à mes amis sur virtualmagie.com. Je n'ai aucune idée comment vous pouvez lire ce site et obtenir quelque chose hors de lui étant donné comment anglais-centrique il est. Même les anglophones natifs ont du mal à suivre les plaisanteries, le sarcasme, les références à la vie de banlieue des États-Unis en 1980 et la folie générale qui se passe ici. C'est le meilleur compliment que vous avez même peine à travailler à travers si l'anglais ne vient pas naturellement à vous.]
So, cognitive dissonance is when you hold two (or more) conflicting ideas at the same time. Trying to hold conflicting ideas creates a feeling of discomfort so you will then modify one of the ideas in order to reduce that discomfort and restore a sense of balance. The idea that people will stick with is the one that is the simplest, or strongest, or makes them happiest. And they'll modify or dismiss the other idea. Knowing this, you can introduce cognitive dissonance into certain situations to nudge people in the direction you want them to go .
Magic is one big source of cognitive dissonance. Especially magic as it has been traditionally performed. And that dissonance is this:
Spectator thinks: "That looked like real magic!"
Spectator also thinks: "Real magic doesn't exist."
How do they reconcile these conflicting ideas? I'll get to that.
Magicians, clowns, and ventriloquists. Look at the representations of practitioners of these art forms (if you can call them that) in pop culture. At best you're a loser weirdo, but more likely you're an axe-murderer. Why? But more importantly, why not jugglers? Why do they get a break?
I think it's because the juggler causes the least amount of dissonance for the audience. The others are all trying to be someone they're not. They're acting, but not in a play or in a movie. They're acting in a real interaction with people. It's weird. It's something a loser or an axe-murderer might do.
Dissonance can be a barrier. And if you walk around suggesting you're an all-powerful wizard and the audience is thinking, "But you're an assistant manager at Dunkin Donuts," or you say you're a mind-reader and the audience is thinking, "You wouldn't possibly dress like that if you could tell what people were thinking," or you say you're a world class gambling cheat and the audience is thinking, "You consistently lose when we play Uno," then you are just going to increase that dissonance. So perhaps the answer is to take the focus off yourself and your supposed abilities.
Yes, intelligent readers will notice I've already solved this issue. I'm solving all magic's problems here but no one will listen to me! Why won't you listen? Please... somebody! You have to hear what I'm saying. To Serve Man... it's a cookbook!"
Where was I... okay, let's take a step back before we move forward. There's a statement that you'll see on magic message boards often, where someone will say something like, "Would a real magician ever do this?" "Counting cards into a pile... is that something a real magician would do." This is a moronic question because there is literally nothing in the history of magic that a real magician would do in the way we do it.
Hey, they might transport people around the world, like Copperfield does when he sends that guy to Hawaii. Yeah, but not with little curtain booths and not on a stage in Vegas.
They would definitely change $1s into $100s. No they wouldn't. They'd just make 100s materialize and keep the ones for themselves. Actually they'd probably just manifest whatever they wanted to buy with that money in the first place.
That's not to say we shouldn't do magic that taps into people real wants and desires whenever possible, but there is plenty of great magic that doesn't.
"Would a real magician do this?" This is a fruitless question. Whatever you do is always going to be dissonant from what a "real" magician would be doing. The answer to the question isn't to do what a real magician would do (they would do none of this). The answer is to not pretend to be a real magician. Problem solved.
This has the benefit of eliminating one source of dissonance for the amateur's audience. And that is this:
Spectator thinks: "This person must have some otherworldly abilities!"
Spectator also thinks: "This is my brother Pete. He's an idiot."
Instead you're just Pete the idiot, but you happen to collect mysterious objects, or procedures, or situations which you roll out for the amusement of your friends and family.
I think taking steps to address the dissonance between, "This guy claims to be a magician," and "I don't believe in magic," goes a long way towards easing people's discomfort around magicians, and making you seem like a normal human.
But can we use cognitive dissonance to push people towards a greater sense of mystery? I think so.
Let's go back... how do spectator's reconcile this dissonance?
Spectator thinks: "What I just saw looked like real magic."
Spectator also thinks: "Real magic doesn't exist."
I've found they do so in a profoundly unsatisfying way. Essentially they say something to themselves like, "Well, it was a trick. There must be a way to do what he did that I don't know of." It's a complete non-explanation, of course—in fact, we'll call it the Non-Explanation—but it's often what they'll say to dismiss the effect and move on with their lives.
Well, so what? What do you care? You're the one who's saying you don't want them to think it's real, so who cares if they say, "I guess it's a trick," and move on?
Well, I care because bailing on the "magic" feeling diminishes their experience and their enjoyment. And they're bailing because of dissonance.
Did you know there are over 43 quintillion ways to arrange a Rubik's Cube? If you've ever seen anyone perform a Rubik's cube effect you know that because everyone always says it.
Perform a 1 in 4 multiple out and gauge the reaction you get.
Now perform one of the Rubik's Cube matching tricks and gauge the reaction you get.
Is it one quintillion times stronger? Is it even twenty times stronger? Maybe, but I don't think so. The Rubik's Cube trick is certainly not an order of magnitude stronger than a 1 in 52 card matching effect.
You can try as hard as you can to make your magic more impossible, but we've already done that. There is a 1 in 43 quintillion effect that we have many methods to perform. What do you think the answer is? Oh... a 1 in 44 quintillion effect will REALLY have the effect I'm looking for.
No. More impossible magic won't make it more affecting because that will just get them to that dissonance level sooner, causing them to bail into the Non-Explanation. This is the unfortunate reality of living in the 21st century when you can't get an intelligent adult to believe in "real magic."
That doesn't mean we can't perform stronger magic. But to do so, we need to strive for something beyond shear impossibility.
I have the answer!
Try this test. Go buy yourself a Raven. (The trick, not the bird. I mean... go ahead and buy the bird too, but that's not what I'm getting at.)
Now go vanish a coin off someone's hand. They'll say, "Cool." It's a visually impossible effect that will quickly push them into the Non-Explanation.
Now try this. Take out a quarter and ask your spectator, "Want to see something cool?" Place the coin on her hand and wave your hand over it slowly. Nothing happens. Do it again. Still nothing. Adjust their hand a little and try again. Still nothing. Say, "Shit. Give me a minute."
Go sit in a chair somewhere out of the way while your spectator continues on with whatever they were doing. Pull out your copy of The Jerx, Volume One. Furrow your brow. Read for a few minutes. Eventually close up the book and start waving your right hand slowly over your left hand. Back and forth. Look at it from every angle. After a few more minutes say, "Ahhhhhhh!! Okayyyyyyy...."
"Let's try this again," you say. You place the coin on the back of your spectator's hand. Slowly wave your hand over her's and the coin disappears.
Then tell me what captures your spectator's imagination more. Which they're more likely to ask about or talk about later on.
You don't have to. I've already done the same thing in a round of focus-group testing back in 2013. People were much more taken with the second way. (The actual data on this is lost to time, but it wasn't close.)
As I proposed on Wednesday, when your magic comes off as easy, planned, and within your control, it also feels like a trick to people.
"This is amazing."
"But it's clearly some kind of a trick."
"So I guess he must have some way of doing what he just did that I don't know about."
However, if you can make your magic seem difficult, unplanned and out of your control, you can affect people more significantly with the same trick.
In the Raven example we create dissonance in two ways in order to nudge them away from the "it's clearly just a trick" explanation. The first is by adding elements that don't seem like they would exist if it was "just a trick." Mentalists have been doing this for ages by getting things slightly wrong. "If it was a trick... if he just somehow read the number I wrote down... why would he be off by two?" This is a good idea, but also a fairly rudimentary and uninspired use of this technique.
We're also creating dissonance by suggesting a method that is itself compelling and mysterious. The Non-Explanation is a way to run from the mystery. So the idea here is to ruin the safe zone they've erected for themselves by infusing their explanation ("it's a trick") with the same sort of mystery and uncertainty they're trying to avoid.
"This is amazing."
"But it must be some kind of trick."
"But wait... what difference would it make how he waved his hand over mine? What could be the process going on there?"
"It was definitely a trick, though. He was reading up on it in a magic book."
"But seriously, what on earth could that book have possibly said about the way in which he waves his hand over mine? What are the mechanics of how that could work? Could the way he waved his hand really make a difference somehow?"
It's like farting in the living room with your family and they all run to the kitchen to get away from it only to find you farted in the kitchen just a couple minutes ago.
Here's a very overt example of poisoning the "it's just a trick" explanation.
Let's say you work in a hospital. In one of the rooms is someone who has been in a coma for 7 years.
You offer to show one of your fellow nurse's a trick while in that room. You tell her you're going to leave the room. While you're gone you want her to think of any word, write it down on a pad so you can verify it later, remove that sheet and fold it up and put it in her pocket, then whisper her word into the room.
She does this and you come back a few moments later. Now you tell her to leave the room and come back in 20 seconds. You will be able to pick up on the faint echo of her whispered word and tell her what word she chose.
When she leaves you flip open the impression pad and figure out what word she wrote down. When she comes back she finds you leaning over the comatose patient with your ear to his lips. "Oh, hey," you say, "Uhm... okay. So I've been able to hear your word in the ever fading echo. It was 'pony," right?"
This is just a straight up misdirect, method-wise. You're subtly suggesting something that happened (that the comatose patient relayed the word to you) that is as unbelievable as the trick itself (that you heard the echo of a whispered word long after it had been whispered).
That's a very blatant example of suggesting a completely separate, "accidentally exposed" false explanation. But it doesn't have to be like that. All you need to do is make the effect seem difficult, unplanned or out of your control and that alone implies a method that is somehow richer and more mysterious than the plain, dull method they had contemplated.
What other ways are there to make your magic seem difficult, unplanned and out of your control? Well, read this site. That's essentially what I've spent two years writing about.
The purpose of all this is not to get them to believe in magic. As I said, that's not a reasonable goal with a modern audience. But what we can do is blur the edges of what is real and what is not. Leaving them in a position where they have to live with the mystery a bit. Instead of having a trick that is easily dismissed as being separate from reality, give them an experience that bleeds into reality and doesn't offer any clean lines or easy answers. Create dissonance and make them live in uncertainty for a little bit.