A Small Equivoque Realization

I have a new trick I’ve been workshopping over the past couple months and in the course of that I’ve come to a realization about equivoque that I haven’t thought of before. (Although it’s certainly possible others have come to this conclusion as well.)

In the trick, I use some fairly standard “second wave” equivoque over the course of forcing one of 25 items. For the sake of this post, we’ll say they’re coins. They weren’t coins in reality, but it’s easier to just say that than give the full explanation for what I was using.

So I performed the trick and then broke it down with a couple magician friends and a half-dozen non-magician friends to get their feedback: how did it feel? did anything ring false to you? etc.

After some initial positive feedback, I wanted to test it out with another half dozen or so more non-magicians, but I made a change to how I was presenting it. The interesting part of what I was testing was what I was doing after the selection was made. So I decided that instead of starting off with 25 coins, I’d just start off with four, and cut a couple steps off my selection procedure.

But something (mildly) interesting happened. When I broke down the trick with these people after performing it for them (individually), four out of the six of them questioned the fairness of the selection.

So, to be clear, in the first group of performances I tested the trick with a large number of coins. During the selection process, that large number was trimmed down to four coins and from there I did a standard equivoque. In the second group of performances I just started off with four coins and went with the equivoque procedure from the beginning.

Now, I was fully prepared for the second round of performances to be less impressive, given that I was just starting with a choice of one in four coins. But I wasn’t prepared for them to question the procedure any more the second time around than they did the first, given that the second selection procedure was just a truncated version of the first.

But when I asked them what they found suspicious about the selection procedure they all responded similarly. And their responses have led me to this conclusion:

Equivoque doesn’t work well with 3-6 items.

You see, when I asked people about why their selection aroused suspicion they all said something like, “It’s just a weird way to pick an item.”

That didn’t really surprise me. I’ve been involved with some larger scale testing of equivoque in the focus groups and a certain percentage will always say that. The interesting thing is that the people who saw the longer selection procedure didn’t have the same critique even though they too eventually saw the standard 4-item equivoque.

I think I know why this was. (You might say, “Well, it was just a handful of people in each set of performances, so you can’t really draw a conclusion based on that.” Fair enough. Reasonable minds may differ, but I think the theory seems viable.)

I’ve done a little research online and it seems like the maximum number of items most human brains can perceive as distinct objects is somewhere between 4 and 6. Beyond that we just kind of see a “group” and can focus on a few items within that group but not the whole thing.

So making a selection of one item from four (for example) should be a simple process you can fully conceptualize. I’m asking you to make a choice of one distinct item from four distinct items in your brain. That should be a straightforward procedure where you just choose one of the objects. To complicate that with things like, “Pick up two,” “Slide one towards me,” “Hand me either one,” is going to instinctually feel needlessly complicated and therefore suspicious.

But, once you get to a certain number—I believe around 7 or more—then it is somewhat reasonable to use a bit of procedure to narrow down your selection because you, as the participant, don’t have a full grasp on all the choices as distinct objects. So I think going in with an attitude of, “Let’s narrow down these choices,”while not the most direct way of making a selection—is somewhat justified with a larger number of objects. And then, once you do get down to a smaller number, you can continue the equivoque selection procedure because at that point you’re just continuing a pattern you’ve established (rather than introducing it out-of-the-blue with a small number of items at the start).

That’s my theory, at least. I’ll explore it more and see if it pans out.

It may be confirmation bias, but since coming to this conclusion, any routine I see that involves equivoque with a small number of objects definitely jumps out at me as being sort of odd. I can see why a non-magician might instinctively feel that way about it. Whenever possible I’m going to try and avoid it.

Avoid it how? Well, one way would be to use something like multiple outs instead of equivoque. The other way would be to add a bunch more options at the beginning of the selection process so that going the route of “gradually narrowing” the number of choices makes more sense.


I was listening to a podcast about the Black Dahlia Murder, and they were talking about the guy who likely committed it. And it turns out he was a real maniac who raped his daughter and pimped her out to his friends, and she, in turn, did the same thing with her kids. What does this have to do with equivoque? Well, in that family, they lived with this sort of dysfunction for so long that it just seemed normal. I think that happens with magic techniques a lot too. We get so used to them that we can forget how inappropriate they really are. Look, I’m not conflating the two things! I’m just saying if you saw two guys and one of them was selling nights with his teenage daughter to the highest bidder and the other was offering you a selection of four items by saying, “Pick up any two. Now set them aside. Take one of the remaining items. Hand it to me. The one that’s left is your selection,” then you should walk away thinking, Damn, I just met two psychopaths.


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