The Power of a Little Emotional Doubt

Book number two is finished and will be sent to the publisher next week. Barring something unforeseen, I should get it in time for delivery around the New Year. I’m pretty psyched about it. It’s 340ish pages, 28 tricks (16 of which have never appeared anywhere before), 50+ hand painted illustrations, three small additional props, and what I consider to be some of the only practical advice on how to turn tricks into memorable experiences for people.

I ended up asking over 100 friends and family about what were the effects they’ve seen me perform that left the most indelible impression in their memory. Some of these people have seen me perform magic for almost 30 years. From their responses I attempted to reverse-engineer the elements that make tricks strong and resonant, and the book is really a discussion of those elements and a look at them in practice.

For fans of this site, I think you’re going to love the book. It’s got the best tricks I’ve come up with over the past 18 months and the clearest distillation of some of the things I ramble about here.

I’m not trying to sell anyone on it. If you like this site, then you’ve probably already bought it. I’m just getting you hyped for it. I’m really happy with how it turned out.

One of my friends who did some proofreading on the book suggested I post an excerpt from it here because he felt it helped explain something that I sometimes struggle to make clear on this site.

Here is that excerpt, slightly redacted to remove the details of the trick it appears in. It’s enough to know that the trick involves engaging in an activity that leads to a series of coincidences with the spectator.

This is one of my favorite tricks to perform. It’s almost excessively casual. We’re hanging around on the couch or sitting on the floor, listening to music and talking. The hanging out is part of the presentation.  But at the same time we’re [REDACTED]. And surely this is all bullshit, right? That’s what my friends think, at least. They think that right up until coincidence #2 when [REDACTED]. Then I begin to sense the doubt. Oh sure, intellectually they know this must be a trick. They’re 90% sure. Hell, 95% sure, even. But then there’s that five percent that says maybe this is something else. It feels like something else. And you might say, “Five percent is not enough. I want them to really believe in the power of what I’m doing.”

You don’t need that. I’ll prove it to you. If intellectually you were very sure your spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend was faithful to you, but you were 5% unsure. And if that 5% percent was based on your emotions, not your intellect, that 5% would eat at you. Emotion trumps intellect. And 5% of something that feels real to you in the moment is more powerful than 95% of something you know intellectually.

I want to pursue this a little more because I think it clarifies something some people have found sort of contradictory. That being that I recommend putting a lot of effort into presentation, but I don’t recommend trying to get your audience to actually believe in the reality of your presentation.

Traditionally, I think amateur magicians have fallen into one of two group. The first group says, “Well, this is just meant to be a bit of fun. It’s entertainment. We’re all adults here. We know there’s no such thing as magic. Yes, having a good presentation is great, but I’m not going to put too much emphasis on something I don’t expect them to believe in.”

The second group says, “I want people to see me perform and to really believe they are seeing someone with some sort of genuine power. Therefore, I want my presentations to be impossible and amazing, but also believable to a certain extent.”

Both of those groups will look at this site and see a trick where I’m suggesting immersive presentations about traveling back in time, or hopping through dimensions, or dealing with an invisible dog, or interacting with your evil twin, and they both have the same response:

Why are you putting energy into a presentation they’re not going to believe anyway?

By that, group number one means: “Why are you making people seriously engage in an interaction that we all know is fantasy? Sure, go ahead and say you’re going to restore the card by traveling back in time. But just say you do that by snapping your fingers or something. You don’t actually have to go through some extended process to ‘time travel’ given that nobody is dumb enough to believe that’s what’s actually happening.”

Why are you putting energy into a presentation they’re not going to believe anyway?

And by this, group number two means, “If our goal is to be believed, why would we undermine that with a presentation no one is ever going to think is ‘real’?”

Most magicians fall into one of those two camps, and that’s why this site isn’t popular with most magicians.

But I think the answer to why it’s worth putting effort into an unbelievable presentation is in that excerpt above. You can still affect people with something unbelievable. You don’t need 100% intellectual belief, you just need a little emotion-based doubt.

Let’s say you and I were walking on the far outskirts of town, late at night. We come across a covered bridge that we need to cross.


We stop before going in and I tell you a story about how there was this crazy inbred family nearby who used to get their kicks by hiding in the shadows and up in the rafters of the covered bridge and they would jump out and terrorize people passing through. At first it just seemed like it was some kind of sick game to them, but then people who set out in the direction of this bridge started going missing.

And I take 5 minutes and weave a story and when I’m done talking about the sick shit that happened on this bridge, there are two things that are true:

  1. You know I’m just making this all up. There is no inbred family killing the people who go through a covered bridge. That would have been on the news.

  2. You don’t want to cross that fucking bridge.

It doesn’t matter if you know it’s not true, you can still feel the fear.

Why do we tell scary stories around a campfire? Not to get people to intellectually believe them. Not to have them say, “Let’s go talk to the mayor and have him assign a special investigative unit to catch this guy with a hook for a hand!” We take the time to build up the story in order to put them in a mindset where an irrational fear can take hold despite what they know to be “real.”

Presenting magic in the immersive style is a similar concept, just coming from a more benevolent place. If we put in the energy to do so, we can take advantage of the fact that emotion trumps logic and use that to put people in a situation where they’re compelled to engage with the irrational. But instead of doing so in a way that makes people feel like they’re in a scary scenario, we do it in a way that makes them feel like they’re in a wondrous, mysterious, or enchanting one.