Carbonaro and the Belief Paradox

I recently received an email with the subject line, Carbonaro. It read:

So why not more love for this guy? His TV schtick seems to embrace at least one of your core ideas: It's Not About Me.”— ML

Now, while I don’t regularly watch the Carbonaro Effect, every time I do watch it, I think, “Why don’t I regularly watch this?” I always enjoy it when I see it. I enjoy it on the primary level that everyone who watches it can appreciate. And I also enjoy it as a magician, seeing the way they’ve repurposed older effects to put them in new contexts.

As ML states in his email, there is a big overlap in the presentations on the Carbonaro Effect and the presentations I write about here in that they both shift the power away from the performer. But beyond that, I don’t think the Carbonaro Effect is a great model for social magic. The “magic as practical joke” style is really only something you can get away with once per spectator. It would fall flat if you tried to do it continually to people. Carbonaro’s style is somewhat predicated on playing different roles. He’s a shoe salesman. Or he works in a toy store. Or he’s your dad’s verbally abusive boyfriend (The Carbonaro Effect: A Very Special Episode, Season 3, Episode 19).

Whereas, in social magic you’re just you. The whole point is that you’re performing for people who know you.

And where Carbonaro generally doesn’t want the people he’s performing for to be thinking in terms of magic, in social magic you do, because that’s going to be your “in” to perform for them. Once they get to know you and they know you’re into magic—or at least generally into some mysterious or unusual things—then you don’t have to come up with a new entry point every time you want to show them something.

But the big difference is that Michael Carbonaro wants those people to think what they’re seeing is real, at least for the few minutes until it’s revealed it’s a prank. That’s the premise of the whole show.

And while it works great on that show, in a social magic situation, this actually leads to less powerful performances over time than them knowing it’s fake all along.

How can this be? How could knowing something was fake the whole time be ultimately more powerful than thinking it was real at least some of the time?

This is the Belief Paradox.

Let’s think about it. Let’s say I’m going to show you something impossible. I have three potential ways to play it.

  1. I show you something impossible and I want you to genuinely believe in the reality of that experience for the rest of your life.

  2. I show you something impossible and I get you to believe it’s real. Then at the end I reveal that it’s just a trick. This would be the Carbonaro style. You experience the situation as if it’s real, but then learn that it’s “just a trick,” or “just a joke.”

  3. I show you something impossible and—while there may be elements of the presentation that you’re not certain about as far as if they’re real or not—you know the experience as a whole is fiction.

Let’s take #1 off the table for the amateur magician. If you seriously want to live your real life with your friends, family, and co-workers, as if you have legitimate magic/mental powers you’re a fucking lunatic. Your self-worth is so ridiculously non-existent that you can’t even be yourself around the people you love. You need mental help.

So now let’s consider #2 and #3. In #2 I convince you that what you’re seeing is real. At the end I come clean, but for those few moments I had you genuinely convinced of something.

In #3, while it has the structure of a real-life interaction, you know from our history that this is a type of trick that we engage in for some period of time and play along together, but at no point am I expecting you to accept this as “reality.”

In the long-run, #3—where there is never any feeling of true 100% belief—is more powerful. Why? You would think something you believe, even for just a short while, would be stronger than something you don’t believe at all. But it’s not the case. That’s the paradox. Here’s why it works…

When someone successfully tricks you or plays a prank on you or scams you, they are generally toying with your emotions in some way. They want you to feel fear or joy or sadness based on something that isn’t true. When you find out it wasn’t real you say to yourself, “I felt those things because I thought the situation was real, but it wasn’t. So those feelings weren’t actually real.” You don’t have to live with those feelings because they were built on false pretenses. So the lasting feeling is just the feeling of being tricked.

If you believe something is real, and at the end I tell you it was fake, that pulls the rug out from under the entire experience. Both the things you believed and the things you felt. It’s all tainted as being fake.

However, if you’re taking part in something that no one is suggesting is anything other than fantasy and yet you still feel some fear, joy, or sorrow, those feelings are completely legitimate. They’re not based on your confusion about the reality of the situation. So they can’t be undermined.

If you watched something you thought was a documentary, and got very worked up by it, and then someone told you it was fake, you’d consider the way it made you feel as illegitimate. But when you watch a fictional film, you value the emotions it generates, even though the film itself is not “real.”

It works this way with the “magical” feeling as well. If you feel it in a situation that you think is real and later you learn isn’t, you tend to toss it away along with your belief in the situation. But if I can develop that magical or mysterious feeling in a situation you knew from the start was “fake,” then it become an enduring feeling. You can’t destroy it by saying, “Well, that wasn’t real.” Because the feeling developed from a situation you knew wasn’t real in the first place.

(I cover more of this difference between feeling and belief in this post, appropriately titled, Feeling and Belief.)