How to Get People to Question Irrational Beliefs

This is a picture I took in a coffee shop the other day.

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It might not be 100% clear what’s going on here, but for the first time in my life I encountered people using a pendulum in the wild. I came in just as they were wrapping up whatever they were doing, so I didn’t quite get the gist of what was going on, but they were raving about how “amazing” it was.

For most of my life I would have been the person who would say, “Have you heard of the ideomotor response? You’re actually moving the pendulum yourself, with movement you don’t even sense that you’re doing. That crystal means nothing. It would work the same with a washer on dental floss.” Well, I probably wouldn’t actually say that to strangers at a cafe, but I’d want to.

While I’m still personally just as much of a skeptic/non-believer as I’ve been in the past, I’ve come up with a new technique for handling this sort of situation. I no longer try to make a rational argument against this sort of thing. You don’t rationalize with people who think a crystal on a chain has mystic powers. It’s not like it was a double-blind, placebo-controlled study that got them believing in the powers of crystals in the first place. Believing nonsense is just one of 1000 coping mechanisms we have for filling the holes in us that are inherent in the human condition. So it would be like trying to rationalize people out of doing meth. “Meth is actually really bad for you.” “Wait… whaaaaattt???!!!!”

So I don’t try and talk people out of that sort of thing these days. I’m still a grade-A expert at making people feel retarded for believing in something stupid. But I just don’t care about that stuff anymore. If you want to believe in crystals, or tarot, or ghosts, or the Law of Attraction, or whatever… knock yourself out. I’m not completely laissez faire about it. If someone is being taken advantage of, then I’ll intervene. And if someone is like, “You know, I’m thinking of stopping my chemotherapy treatments and instead rubbing this lucky penny for 45 minutes a day,” then I’ll say something. Beyond that, I don’t really challenge people on this sort of thing. (And I’ve even taken on some irrational beliefs of my own in regards to synchronicity and my own control over the universe. I find it has a positive impact on my outlook and behavior.)

Despite my change in approach, I think I’ve stumbled over a non-combative way to make people reassess beliefs that many of us would describe as nonsense. It’s a bit counterintuitive, and it certainly doesn’t always work, but I’ve found better success with this technique than I have with trying to debate these things with people.

Instead of arguing over the topic, I just amplify their belief and then demonstrate the phenomena in a very direct way. So, for example, if someone is talking about the power of the tarot, they usually mean that you can read into the cards in some sort of general way that maybe addresses your past or future if you squint enough. So I’ll be like, “Oh, absolutely, the tarot is incredibly powerful. I’ve learned techniques that allow it to make specific predictions of things that will happen in the immediate future.” And then I’ll do some sort of tarot-based card effect. Now, you might think that a strong trick would reinforce someone’s belief in the tarot. But what I find is that if it has any effect at all, it’s to undermine their belief in the phenomenon. If this clear, credible “evidence” seems like it must be fake, then the vague, sketchy evidence their belief was previously based on is going to come into question as well.

Not for everyone. A lot of the time they’ll still continue to separate the experiences. But for some people, doing something so blatant and “obviously a trick” will weaken their belief in the phenomenon in general.

I’m not trying to change people’s opinions. But that is the outcome for a subset of people when I do a trick with a presentation based in some irrational belief. And for everyone else, I’ve just done a trick dealing with a subject they’re interested in. So it’s a win-win. I don’t end up actually reinforcing anyone’s belief, because my style of magic is unbelievable.

With the women using the crystal in the coffee shop, I certainly wasn’t trying to change their opinion on crystals or pendulums. I did engage with them because it was such a perfect set-up for a trick that I was compelled to capitalize on it. I ended up talking with them about crystals and offered to show them something interesting I’ve learned about “crystal power.” “It’s not about the size of the crystal,” I say, “It’s the number of facets present. That’s why a packet of sugar crystals is so powerful. It’s just about the sheer number.” It’s funny to me when people who were just earnestly waggling around a pendulum are giving me sideways glances like I’m crazy. But they were game to play along. So they each dangled sugar packets over playing cards and they were able to each find the color cards I had assigned them. (An impromptu OOTW style trick.)

I then dumped some packets of sugar out on a saucer. And with the sugar and the cards completely out of my hands, they shuffled the deck in packets, holding them over the plate of sugar. Then they cut the deck to one card, the six of diamonds. Without touching anything, I showed them that if they looked at the sugar just right they could see a faint 6 ♦️ in the sugar. This completely fucked with them.

(How? The deck was marked, and I used some techniques I learned from Ben Earl to allow them to shuffle the cards before doing the cross-cut force on themselves. I had dumped the sugar out and subtly drawn the card in the sugar long before they finished shuffling and cutting. By the way, I didn’t have the marked deck on me. Months ago I put it in the bookcase at the coffee shop below. I’ve also set some stuff up in the Trivial Pursuit game and the Scruples game. And I have a crib for the first few words on page 127 of most of the books on that bookshelf. Always Be Prepared. It’s the Jerx Scouts motto.)

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As the women got ready to leave and one went off to the bathroom, the other said to me, “Do you really think there’s anything to the crystal stuff?”

I said, “Of course! You just witnessed it.”

She said, “Ahhh. Gotcha,” in a way that suggested: Okay, I get it. it’s all just fun bullshit.

My goal wasn’t to talk her out of this belief, but if it had been, I think I would have considered this a success.