Critical Conditions

A few years ago, we had the ability to quantify “suspicion” in the magic focus group testing we did. I’ve mentioned this before, but the way it would work is the people watching the performance would rest their thumb on the screen of an iphone and they would raise their thumb on the screen to indicate a moment when they thought something suspicious was happening and lower it back down when they were no longer suspicious. See the post Suspicious Minds for more details on this.

The app would record the position of the person’s thumb on the screen over time, so we would get a little seismograph type read out when we were done. We could then watch that graph alongside a recording of the performance and see the areas where suspicion was generated.

It was super helpful to be able to capture this information and it was also a gigantic fucking pain in the ass. We had to jailbreak our own phones to load the app on them. Then we had to give our phones to the respondents who would manhandle them with their grubby hands. And we could only perform for a few people at a time because we only had a few phones to go around. Then we would have to go through everyone’s feedback individually. It was a lot of work.

In an ideal world we would have had an app that anyone could download and that would aggregate all the feedback from each performance into one average “line of suspicion.”

I think we’ve now identified an app that will allow this to happen and we will likely be using it next year in our testing.

For today I want to give you the results of something we tested a few years ago which is related to Monday’s subject.

Before I started this site, most of the testing we did was to settle disagreements.

“People understand when something’s ‘floating’ it’s really just dangling from something they can’t see.”

“No they don’t.”

“Okay, let’s test it.”

“Many people know that when you borrow a bill and make a gag about keeping it and put it in your pocket, you probably switched it.”

“No they don’t.”

“Okay, let’s test it.”

So, one time, two of my friends had a disagreement about a business card peek they were using. The peek was essentially this: The spectator writes something on a business card, the performer buries it in the stack of business cards. Then, after he goes through whatever his process is, the magician turns over the top card and writes the word or picture he “received” on that card.

The method is essentially a tilt and a neck-tied double turnover and an adjustment of the cards. I’m not going to go into too many details. I assume this method is ancient, but if not I don’t want to completely give away someone else’s idea. There are enough details there for you to figure out what I’m talking about.

Anyway, the debate was this… Magician A would take the card back and just put it back in the “middle” of the pile without saying anything really. Magician B would take it back and say, “I’m going to keep it here, right in the middle of this packet of cards. So there’s no way I could see what you wrote on it.”

Magician A’s contention was that people could see what you were doing and they would make their own rationalization for it. “Oh, he’s putting it in the middle of the packet to hide it away.” And because they were telling themselves this, that it was much stronger than you giving them the rationale. If you say you’re going to put it in the middle of the packet, then you give them something to be suspicious of. “Did he really do what he just said?”

Magician B felt his way clarified the conditions and that people wouldn’t be any more suspicious whether you said something or didn’t.

So we had a third person, Magician C, perform the effect for 30 people in ten groups of three. For 15 people he performed it as Magician A would, for 15 he performed it as Magician B would.

The results? Magician A was right. When you say, “I’m going to place this card back in the middle of this stack of cards,” there is much more suspicion generated than when you just go ahead and do it.

But, that’s not the complete story.

Because while there was more suspicion on the replacement of the card when the magician explained what he was doing, when the magician didn’t explicitly state he was placing the card in the middle of the stack, there was more suspicion later on when he later turned over the top card to write down the word he received.

And, in the end, Magician A’s version (no narration of the replacement) scored lower when the tricks were rated on how strong/”amazing” they were. Why? My assumption is because the magician never stressed the conditions that made what was about to happen impossible.

Because people’s memories are imperfect and they don’t know what’s about to happen, they don’t always concentrate and absorb what you think is obvious. In this case they didn’t really take in the fact the card was placed in the “middle” under (supposedly) many cards. So when the magician went back to the stack later on, they may have thought their card was near the top and therefore in a position to be looked at.

Whereas the other group thought, “He says he’s going to place my card in the middle… is he really doing that? [Suspicion goes up.]… Okay, it seems he is.” So later when you turn over the top card they have a more concrete memory that their card is in the middle of the stack.

One of my favorite examples of how audiences fail to notice things happened when we tested the cups and balls. At the end we asked them where they thought the final loads came from. Going into the testing, I was convinced people noticed or at least intuitively understood they were being loaded in from the pockets. And it’s true, a lot of people did say that. But you know what people said the most? Almost 40% of the time they replied something like, “I assume the fruit was in there the whole time.”

Of course, the cups were shown empty throughout the routine, and they were often stacked inside one another so the fruit couldn’t have been in there. But the spectators didn’t know that was going to be important so they never truly absorbed the information of the cup being empty or having another cup inside of it.

Yes, people almost always react to the fruit, but frequently that reaction is, “I can’t believe he had that lemon in there this whole time.”

With that in mind, here is my process when creating a “script” for an effect where the conditions don’t get lost. (I don’t really sit down and write a “script” per se, but I do have an idea of what kind of beats I want to hit during the presentation.)

Step 1. I create a version of the script that just explicitly states all the conditions that will make what they’re about to see impossible. “These cards all have red backs. They’re going to remain in your hands and I’m not going to touch them. You’re going to have a free choice of a number. Blah, blah, blah.”

Step 2. I determine at what point in the presentation the audience knows what the effect is and I leave in all the explicitly stated conditions up until that point (at least).

For example, one thing you often hear is, “Don’t say, ‘My hand is empty,’ just show it empty.” But that’s only true in certain circumstances.

Let’s say the effect is Card to Pocket. You’re my spectator. If I say, “Your card will travel to my pocket,” you now know what the effect is. So now I can just flash my empty hand before I reach in my pocket and you’ll know that that’s important.

But let’s say you don’t know it’s card to pocket. I’m just in the middle of a card trick. I flash my hand, I reach into my pocket, I pull out a card, I turn it over and it’s your card. But you see… you didn’t know that was going to be your card, you didn’t know I had a card in my pocket, you didn’t even know I was going to put my hand in my pocket, so you don’t necessarily know to register the moment I show my hand empty. Your memory is likely to be that you think my empty hand pulled out a card, but you’re not sure because you didn’t know to take note of it. So in that instance it would make sense for me to call attention to my empty hand.

We often treat spectators like they’re cyborgs with cameras for eyes, noting everything that happens. But at least 80% of the time, I’m guessing, that’s not the case.

So I leave in all the explicitly stated conditions until the point where the spectator would know what the effect to come is. If that effect is meant to be a surprise, then I need to leave the clearly stated conditions in the whole way through.

But won’t that blow the surprise of the trick?

In some tricks it will. So I now go on to Step 3 to attempt to alleviate that.

Step 3. I go through and try and rewrite any of these overt statements in a subtler way, or create processes that emphasize the same points in a way that is clear and memorable. For example, in the John Carey trick from Monday. I could say, “I have eight cards and they all have red backs,” and that would establish the conditions in a straightforward way. But you might feel that spoils the color change at the end.

If that’s the case, I need to say or do something that achieves the same purpose in a subtler way. I could ask someone to remove eight cards from a red-backed deck (and then switch in the other four). There would then be no doubt how many cards are involved and what color the backs are. I wouldn’t need to state it.

But if I can’t replace the overt statement with something more subtle that will still get the job done, then I don’t. I just leave it in there. I can’t just assume the audience will recognize and remember some gesture on my part that establishes one of the conditions of the effect.

Step 4 (optional). I will add in some lines that may misdirect people’s suspicion. “Don’t run when you’re not being chased” would tell us that we should never say, “I have here an ordinary deck of cards.” Okay, but what if you do really have an ordinary deck of cards? If so, you might be able to direct someone’s suspicion towards the deck and away from some other area where you’re being a sneaky bitch. At the end of the trick they may say, “Wait, let me see that deck,” because you’ve aroused their suspicions. But if that’s the case you should be fine because you’ve “run” away from the solution.

When I have a trick that’s not hitting with my audience like I would expect it to, before worrying too much about the presentation, I first make sure the conditions are clear to the spectator. Because if those aren’t clear, it won’t matter what the presentation is. Magic is ultimately the defiance of the conditions we know to be true. The more definitive the conditions are, the stronger the magic is.