The Freaks and Geeks Technique

I've mentioned before about the focus group testing I was involved with in regards to magic. A lot of the results of that testing are lost to time. The people I conducted the tests with and I weren't doing things with an eye towards the future. We were just curious about answering specific questions we had. "Are people really suspicious of a deck that's not a Bicycle deck?" No. "How many phases is ideal for the ambitious card?" Based on people rating their "enjoyment" of a routine on a scale of 1-10, the ideal number of phases for an Ambitious Card routine is either four or one (That is, do it once without repeating it. But this requires a lot of focus being placed on that one moment.)

I recently recovered a lot of our notes and participant questionnaires which were buried deep in my storage space and I've been reminded of a number of questions we tackled (and, to be honest, a lot of it is straight gibberish to me, I have no idea what our notes refer to).

This weekend I got an email asking me if I had a routine for the WOW gimmick. I do have such a routine, but it was developed with other people so I want to get their okay before I release it anywhere.

But that request reminded of one thing we tested that I think had interesting results and has informed a lot of my material in the years since. 

This was a year or so after WOW 2.0 came out (The original WOW gimmick came out over 10 years ago, guys). I was at a coffee shop with a friend and we were talking about how to justify the gimmick. Is it a luggage tag holder? Does it protect expensive baseball cards from UV rays? Do you keep a credit card in it so people can't scan it and steal your data while it's in your purse? A bunch of ideas that were about a 3 or 4 on a scale of 1-10. But seemingly better than just bringing out this weird sleeve and saying nothing about what it was. 

Then another friend joined us and asked what we were talking about. We clued him in and his response was that we were doing the exact opposite of what we should be doing. And he explained his theory, which I'll get to in a moment.

We decided to test both theories in front of people, to see which performance they enjoyed more and which engendered the least amount of suspicion towards the gimmick. (Via an app my friend had developed that I've mentioned on here before. It measured the position of someones finger on a phone screen over time. People would swipe up when something happened that drew their suspicion, then back down after the moment passed.)

In both versions we had the ungimmicked sleeve (which they sell) examined and switched for the gimmick before the trick starts.

In Version 1 the gimmick was introduced as a sleeve that is designed to protect valuable sports cards in some rounds, and as part of a luggage tag holder in other rounds. 

My other friend's theory was that we shouldn't be trying to normalize the gimmick. We should instead suggest that it's something incredible. So in Version 2 the gimmick was introduced as a prototype of a time-traveling device that could send "nearly" two-dimensional items back and forth through time. "Like a fax machine, but through time instead of space," is one of the lines I remember being used.

At that time I'm sure my money was on Version 1 getting the better reactions. "People like magic with ordinary objects," I had been told. So present it as an ordinary object, of course.

In actuality, the results of the testing showed something else. The people enjoyed Version 2 about 25% more than Version 1. And people registered their suspicion four times higher on Version 1 than on Version 2.

I was sure something was off about the results. How could people be four times more suspicious of a luggage tag holder then a "two dimensional time traveling machine"? Well, in part the answer is because it's NOT a luggage tag holder. It doesn't look like any luggage tag holder anyone has seen before. 

But that's not the total answer.

And I know it's not the total answer because later we tried the same test, except this time we used a trick that did use an actual luggage tag holder (a variation of John Guastaferro's Lost and Found). And they were still more suspicious of us referring to a luggage tag holder as what it was than referring to it is a mini fax-machine that sends items through time. The differences weren't as dramatic, but they were still there. 

Here's my theory about why this is. When you're performing as a magician, people are inclined to not believe what you say. If you introduce something as a common object, people will think, "That's not a common object. There's something more going on with that. I'm suspicious of it." But if you introduce something as some kind of fantastic object they think, "That's not some fantastic object, it's something much more mundane." This is jiu jitsu. You're using people's momentum against them. In this case, their natural distrust for what you're saying as the magician. You're using that to make them think the object is more ordinary rather than thinking there's something special about it.

If you pull out a luggage tag holder and call it a luggage tag holder, people will think, "Who's he kidding? There's no way that's a normal luggage tag holder." But if you pull out a luggage tag holder and call it a 2D time-traveling case, they think, "Who's he kidding? That's just a luggage tag holder."

In the first case they think your primary motivation to lie is to deceive them, so it makes them suspicious. In the second case they think your primary motivation to lie is to entertain them, so they essentially ignore it.

I'm not suggesting this is the right move in all situations. I'm saying it's the right move when dealing with props that are unusual or out of place ("unusual" and "out of place," like you in high school, that's why it's called the Freaks and Geeks Technique). In those situations you've already abandoned the notion that what you're doing is off the cuff or organic. So in that case you might as well use the cover of theatricality to justify the prop rather than being all like, "No, no, I swear. This is just a normal thing."

When something is out of place it's not a normal thing even if it's a normal thing. If you perform magic at a restaurant you can do effects with items on the table or with cards or coins (or other items strongly associated with a magician), or with your phone or keys or other items people carry regularly. That all works. That's all magic with "everyday objects." But if you pull out a Q-tip, then it's suspect because people don't bring Q-tips to restaurants. An object's everyday-ness is location specific.

This technique is similar to what I wrote about in the post "The Hidden Benefit of the Unbelievable Premise." When you give something a dramatic purpose it becomes less suspicious methodologically. And, as we saw in our testing, if you have something unusual or out of place, people are more interested in it if you give it a fantastic (unbelievable) story then if you go out of your way to justify it as normal.

Summary: Freaks and Geeks Technique - If you are using an unusual object, or an object that wouldn't normally be found in the environment, implying that it's some "ordinary" object will generate push-back and cause people to think there's something extraordinary about it. But if you imply there's something extraordinary about it, they will push back in the direction of assuming it's something common.