Justification in Social Magic

[UPDATE TO FRIDAY’S POST: Apparently what people were waiting for was for me to offer some imperfect copies of AATKT. The Aw Crud! The Print Shop Guy is Drunk Edition of that book is now sold out. They will be shipped out later this week. But don't worry, I've heard your cries, in the future I will bend the covers on all of my releases.]


Last month I wrote about the Hoy book test and some of the different ways that I use it. After that post I received an email asking how I justify using the second book to pick a page number.

I’ll get into that, but first I want you to close your eyes and imagine the following situation. Oh… wait… you’re reading. Don’t close your eyes then. Just picture the following scenario.

You and I have been dating for two years. The relationship is really strong. We get along great and have a lot of fun together. We’ve been living together for a few months and even that hasn’t tested our bond in any real way.

One night you’re watching TV in the living room and I come to you and say, “Hey, I have something I want to give you. It’s a surprise.” I take your hand and bring you upstairs. I sit you in a chair in our bedroom. I go to the closet and pull out a box that’s about eight inches squares. “Here, open it,” I say.

“What is this?” you ask, a little smile on your face. “It’s not my birthday.”

You open the box and inside you find… garbage.

You furrow your brow. “I don’t get it,” you say. I tell you to take a closer look.

You start poking through the bits of trash in the box and you begin to realize that it’s not what you initially thought. Yes, the box is full of stuff that is technically “garbage,” but all of it has some meaning. There are ticket stubs to every movie we ever attended. Receipts from restaurants we visited. The condom wrapper from our first time together. The peanut bag from our first date at the baseball game. Pieces of wrapping paper from our first Christmas together. And on and on.

At the bottom of the box you find a couple bottle caps. “Are these from that weird Ukrainian bar on the Lower East Side? From your office party? The night we met?” I nod yes.

“But…,” you say, “that was six months before we got together. We were both still in other relationships. Why would you keep these?”

“I just knew,” I say. “I knew it the moment I met you that there was something special about you and that one day we’d be together. I’ve kept all this stuff so I can remember all those little moments leading to this big moment.”

I take the condom wrapper and reach inside and pull out an engagement ring. “Will you marry me?” I ask.

What do you say?

Well, maybe you say yes, maybe you say no. But you know what you definitely don’t say?

You don’t say, “Why did you bring me upstairs?”

Why did I? Why didn’t I just bring the box down to you in the living room?

The reason you don’t question it is because at the time you didn’t know what was about to happen, and at the end of the interaction, it’s some insignificant barely memorable thing that is overshadowed by what just occurred.


This is my preferred method of “justification” when it comes to magic. The justification is no justification, but instead, pacing the interaction in such a way that a justification is probably not needed.

Actions need to be justified when they don’t match up with expectations. If people don’t know whats about to happen, then they don’t have expectations, and your actions don’t need to be justified (at least not initially, if at all.) If all you know is I want to show you “something interesting,” or “something strange,” or “this thing I’m working on,” then you don’t know to question a specific action, because you don’t have expectations yet.

(Now, this again is more of a social/amateur technique. It wouldn’t work as well in a professional situation. I’ll explain why near the end of this post.)


Let’s imagine this in action, around a table with a group of people.

“I’m going to read your mind. Here, write down a word on this business card. Now let’s put it in my wallet.” In this case, I do need justification, because their expectation is I’m going to read their mind. So why do I need to have something written down? Why do I have to put it in a wallet? That’s not how they imagine mind reading works. That’s not to say they’ll immediately call me out on it, but they may make a mental note of it.

But if I say, “Hey, I want to try something. Let me see… here, take this business card and write something down on it. Don’t let me see it. I’ll keep it here in my wallet for later.” Same exact handling. But only now do I introduce mind reading. “Okay. Now you’re committed to a word that I don’t know and no one else at this table knows. That word is locked in your mind. I want you to sit up straight and breathe deep and I’m going to try and read your mind, [blah, blah, blah].”

Okay, so now they know what to expect so you have to go back and justify the writing and the wallet, right?

No. We’re on the train now and the train is moving. Their focus is now on what’s about to happen. Not what has already happened. It’s the same thing as me bringing you upstairs to give you a gift. Your focus is on what’s in the box, not why I brought you upstairs rather than bringing the box downstairs.

Alright, that makes sense. They might not be seeking a justification in the moment. But at the end of the effect surely they’re going to question why you had them write something down, or why you used one book to select a page in the other.

Yes, this will occasionally happen—and you should have a justification you can pull out when it does—but I’ve found it to happen significantly less frequently when you introduce questionable elements before the audience knows they’re questionable.


Of course, some things require a justification. A center tear is one of those things. Writing something down only to immediately tear it up is an inherently nonsensical act. So, in that case, whether they know where it’s going or not, you need to preface that with some rationale.


Going back to the Hoy book test, my attitude is, “Let’s try something. Here, I’ll flip through the pages, just say stop at any point as I do. Okay, page 193.” They don’t know where this is leading. So while these actions might be out of the norm, they don’t defy expectations so they don’t really stick out that much. In fact, in preparation for writing this post, I asked a couple of friends who have seen some version I’ve done of the Hoy book test to describe what they remember. Both of them just remembered flipping to a random page in their book. They didn’t remember another book in play. I have a feeling that would be true for a lot of people—if not most of the people—who have seen me perform that trick.

But I suspect they’d be much less likely to forget that moment if I justified it beforehand. “We’re going to use my book to choose a random page in your book. This is the fairest way to do it, because there’s no way I could know where you will say stop. Sometimes books have a little break in the spine so they open to the same page over and over, and I don’t want you to think I knew what page or area of the book you’d end up at. So by using a second book we eliminate that possibility.” Etc., etc.

When you give a justification, you’re also giving them an opportunity to call bullshit.


I mentioned that this doesn’t really work for professionals and that’s because the audience has established expectations in that situation. If you’re Pete the Mentalist then they’re going in expecting you to read their mind, and your actions should align with that or they’ll be questioned. (Also, change your stage name. It sucks.)

But, for the social magician, you’re performing for people either you’ve just met (so they have no assumptions regarding what you’re going to show them) or you’re performing for people who have seen you do a bunch of different types of things (hopefully), so they’re not sure what to expect.

When I say to someone, “Hey, can I try something with you?” They don’t know what’s to come. Is it a straight magic trick, or a mind-reading thing, or a game, or an experiment, or a joke, or an optical illusion, or something related to gambling, or body language, or fortune telling, or a psychological test, or 100 other things. They may have seen me perform dozens of times before, but they don’t know quite what direction the interaction is going to take. And that uncertainty leads them to have an unfocused critical eye, which can allow me to get away with some things.

But, Andy, I only perform mentalism. So when I show people something, they do have expectations from the very start.

Okay, well, that’s a problem of your own making. I can understand the professional mentalist who says, “I only do mentalism with a psychological presentation.” I think it’s a completely unnecessary limitation, and is driven by a creepy desire for people to think they’re “the real thing,” but I understand why people do it. I don’t understand limiting yourself in that way as an amateur/social magician. You’re performing for people who are going to be seeing you do many things, potentially, over the course of years. Why not use these skills to give them a wide variety of experiences, not just to “read their mind” 1000 times. But that’s a conversation for another day.


This post may make it sound like I’m anti-justification. I’m not. I think too little, and too much justification are both problems in magic. But if you’re reading this site then you’re probably someone who gives some thought to your performances, and over-justification is a problem of the thoughtful performer.

It’s very much a balancing act. Do I justify this thing, or not? Do I bring attention to this moment, or not? It’s all depends on the trick and presentation, so there are no hard and fast rules.

Some effects rely on the spectator being hyper aware of the conditions of the trick in order for it to be really strong. In emphasizing the conditions, you will often create expectations (“Oh, he’s pointing out the glass is empty, that must mean something is going to appear there.”) And once you create expectations, then you need to justify your actions. It’s all connected.

The purpose of this post is to highlight that relationship between expectations and justification. Certainly I think it’s smart to always have a good justification in your back pocket. But if you can maintain the strength of the trick, and get the dirty work done, while keeping them in the dark in regards to what’s about to happen, then I think it’s best to use that justification only if someone asks. Otherwise you might be shining a spotlight on a moment that may have slipped by completely unnoticed or have been forgotten entirely had you not drawn attention to it.