Sex, Pizza, Self-Esteem and Magic
(Posted 1/26/2011)

There was a fascinating piece in The New York Times a couple weeks ago called "Choosing Self-Esteem Over Sex or Pizza" that I think has some real implications for how magicians interact with their spectators (article is here).

Given the choice, young bright college students said they’d rather get a boost to their ego — like a compliment or a good grade on a paper — than eat a favorite food or engage in sex, a new paper suggests….

The results of the new paper suggest young people have a compulsion to feel good about themselves that overwhelms and precedes other desires.

“I was shocked,” said the lead researcher, Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at the Ohio State University. “Everybody likes compliments, but more than engaging in your favorite sexual activity? More than receiving a paycheck? I was surprised it was such a powerful thing that it trumped everything else.”

I was trying to form a coherent thesis on the issue when I suddenly realized, “Wait a second! I’m not some high school humanities teacher – I’m a blogger! I don’t need a coherent thesis!”

And so here are some random thoughts on the topic:

Random Thought One: “If I knew it was your birthday I would have produced a cake!”

There’s been an idea floating around the magical ether lately on performances that leave spectators with some kind of gift. One of my favorite tricks of last year was Jamy Ian Swiss’ The Flowering (in the December edition of Genii) in which he folds a paper flower, lights it and in a flash it becomes a real flower which he presents to the spectator. What a great trick!

In fact there’s a new book on the topic: Gift Magic, edited by Lawrence Hass with contributions by Jeff McBride, Eugene Burger and, um, a whole bunch of other people (I was going to look this up before writing this, but then I realized: bloggers don’t have to look things up! I refer to this principle as “BLoggers don’t Look THings up – we’re not High school Humanities Teachers!” or
“BLLTHHHT!” for short).

The thesis of Gift Magic is that magic can be much more powerful when it leaves the spectator with some kind of magical token after the performance. At least I assume that’s the thesis but I can’t really say since I haven’t read it (BLLTHHHT!)

Whatever – it still sounds like a great book. But as cool as it is to walk away from a performance with some magical token like a flower, paper hat, pizza, or even sex (oh wait, I’m thinking of a different kind of trick there), in light of the NYT piece, maybe the most meaningful gift you can give a spectator is a surge to their self-esteem.

How would that work? Well, take Paul Curry’s Out of This World for example (where the spectator separates reds from blacks from a shuffled pack without looking). Perhaps part of the effect’s reputation as “the greatest of all card tricks” rests not on the sheer impossibility of it (there are lots of impossible card tricks) but the fact that it bolsters the spectator’s ego: they are given a near-impossible task and they succeed! Sure they know it’s all make-believe, but still – how can the spectator help but feel a little pride at their pseudo skill.

Random Thought Two: “No, I’m the psychic!”

Do spectators really get an ego boost from doing an effect like Out of This World? I think they do and the moment that made me come to this conclusion has been preserved on video so you can judge for yourself.

It was when I was out on the street doing the promo for my effect Incandescence. I was performing it for one woman and after I correctly named the sound she was thinking of, she let out a loud wtf! followed by “okay, okay, okay – I’m psychic” (you can see it here– she’s about 24 seconds in)

Wait a second. You’re psychic? Dude, I just read your mind – I’m the psychic!

But she got me thinking. So the next time I did the effect, when I had finished I said something to the spectator, four little words, and those words made them light up like a kid on Christmas morning, like I had just paid them one of the best compliments they’d gotten in a long, long time.

And what are those four words?

“It was so clear.”

Now, isn’t saying it’s easy to read someone’s mind a bit of an insult? Isn’t it a bit like when a website asks you to choose a password and then rejects it and starts mocking you saying a password so lame could be broken by a toddler at Happy Little Hackers Daycare between draughts from his sippy cup?

Perhaps. But I generally present Incandescence not so much as a display of my psychic brilliance as a cooperative venture: you project and I receive. By saying “it was so clear”, I was telling them they’d done their part and done it unusually well. I was telling them they have a skill they didn’t even know they had and that tickles them pink. Often they would go on to describe with unbridled pride the way they had projected their thoughts.

Of course, this also gets me into an ethical pickle – because now if I say “Actually, I’m not a
mind-reader: it was all a trick” it’s kind of like saying “You’re really a beautiful, special person – Psych!” Now usually I’ve got no problem telling people it’s just a trick, but not like this. After all, what’s the harm in letting this woman think she has a skill that will likely never come up again in her life?

(Or will it? Late that night I started to worry… What if one day this woman was tied to a train track with an oncoming train racing around a blind corner and what if she just had enough time to wriggle free, but instead she decides to focus all her energy on projecting her thoughts into the engineer’s mind, telling him to stop the train?! And what if when the still-speeding train is mere yards away, she finally realizes the awful truth – she doesn’t have the power of thought projection!! It was all a sham!! And as the train bears down on her, she lets out one last plaintive wail: “Damn you, Street Mentalist!”)

Okay, that’s probably not going to happen. Still, The Psychic Entertainers Association Code of Conduct is very clear on the matter when it states… well, actually I forget what it says at the moment but I’m sure you can look it up (BLLTHHHT!)

Random Thought Three: “Sorry, you’re an idiot”.

It strikes me that if effects that boost a spectator’s self-esteem may be giving more pleasure than we had thought, then conversely, effects that wound a person’s self-esteem may be hurting them more than they let on.

Of course it all depends on how it’s played, but some tricks are just inherently risky this way: I’m thinking of tricks like The Three Shell Game or that thing where the spectator puts his finger in loops of string and never picks the right one – I think it’s called Endless Chain but I’m not sure (BLLTHHHT!)

Now I know a lot of people love these effects, do them well and defend them eloquently (Darwin Ortiz for one), but in light of the new evidence, tricks like this seem to me to be the magic equivalent of Pit Bulls: great dogs with the right owner, but in the wrong hands they’ll mangle arms and egos in seconds.

To my mind, these tricks have to be done carefully – for an example of someone doing it right, check out Whit Hayden’s Do as I Do version of the linking rings (somehow he manages to work miracles, beat the spectator, make fun of himself, and compliment the spectator all at the same time – masterful!)

Random Thought Four: Tony Andruzzi does the Sponge Balls.

We all know the old adage that the best magic takes place in the spectator’s hands. This is absolutely true, unless you’re producing a cactus or electric eel.

But the results of the self-esteem study makes me wonder why this is. I’d always assumed the reason magic in the spectator’s hands is more powerful is because 1) the closer the magic happens, the cooler it is, and 2) it adds a really rigorous condition – when a magician puts a hanky over a coin all manner of sneakiness could be happening under there, but when it’s in your own hand, you know nothing funny’s going on.

I’m starting to think there’s a third reason magic in the spectator’s hand is so strong: on some level, it is not just the magician who is performing the magic – I mean, if the magic is in the spectator’s hand, it's somehow the spectator’s magical energy that caused it, right? This is usually unconscious, but it need not be: the magician could say “this only works when I do it for some people” which implies the spectator’s innate, forgotten magic is part of the “method”.

Obviously, this is not always advisable: there is a (delightfully) frivolous quality to the sponge balls that resists bringing in Andruzzian Bizarre Magick portent, but if you were bending a coin in someone’s hand, this presentation might kick it up a notch.

Random Thought Five: “All roads lead to a card trick.”

I do a trick, a simple little thing, but it gets reactions so strong that the first time it surprised me. In retrospect, I can see why since I think it unites the power of pseudo-skill self-esteem bolstering magic with personalized gift magic. I just put it up on my free magic page here but I’ll put it here as well in case there are any bloggers reading because I know how you hate looking stuff up.

Destiny’s Aces.

This is basically a spectator-finds-the-aces plot – the bulk of the handling I use comes from an effect in Joshua Jay’s Magic – as I recall he credits much of it to Syd Lorraine. Or maybe it was Harry Lorayne. Or Quiche Lorraine. I can’t remember now but it was one of the Lorraine brothers and I’m pretty sure it was after Zeppo Lorraine left. (BLLTHHHT!)

In effect, you shuffle the deck as you tell the audience…

“In olden days, card sharks were so skilled and cheating devices like marked decks were so prevalent, that a player at a poker table could at any time request that a dealer deal from the bottom of the deck instead of the top so as to prevent marked cards being read and controlled into the dealer’s hand. So that’s what we’re going to do today – find the aces from a thoroughly shuffled deck, dealing from the bottom – a feat so difficult… I can’t do it. But I think you can. So as I deal the cards face down onto the table one by one I would like four different people to call out STOP at any point using nothing but intuition. Who would like to be first?”

And so the magician deals from the bottom one by one until the first spectator says stop – you put that card aside on the table and ask them to put their hand on it, but not to look at it yet. Then you ask who else would like to do it and repeat the dealing and selecting until four people have selected four cards.

You ask why they picked those particular cards:

“Was it just a feeling? Because earlier, I had a feeling, a premonition perhaps, about which cards would be chosen… and by whom.”

Then one-by-one the four people turn over their cards – not only have they successfully chosen the four aces, each ace is marked on the face with a sharpie and states the name of the person who selected it, as in “Emily will choose this card” and your signature. Of course, they get to keep the card with their name on it at the end.

The method is dirt simple. I’ll present a brief version here – if you want more detail (and pictures!) check out Jay’s book. About all I added was a (totally bogus) excuse for dealing from the bottom and the bit about the spectator’s names.

Here’s how you prep for the effect: you get the names of the people you will be doing it for and guess the order they’ll go in. That may not sound like much of a method, but it works (and it’s actually kind of fun).

For example, when I did the trick for friends who came for dinner, I guessed that when I asked for volunteers they’d let their daughter go first, then their son, then the mom, then the dad and so I arranged the aces accordingly. Sure enough, though I left it to them which order they would go, they followed the pattern I’d predicted. Once when I did it for some friends of my daughter at her birthday party, I asked my daughter beforehand to rank her friends in order of most to least likely to volunteer to assist a magic trick – in that case, I had control of picking from the group, but my choice pretty accurately reflected their enthusiasm when volunteering.

And if by chance your guess is wrong, it’s not that hard to do a kind of double glide to get to the proper ace.

As you begin the performance, the aces are on the bottom with one indifferent card beneath them and kept there with some basic riffle and overhand shuffle controls. Just before you begin dealing out the cards, you flash the bottom card, then do the glide, pushing the bottom five (or more) cards in about ¾ of an inch. You deal the bottom (indifferent) card, turning it face up, before thinking better of it and turning it face down. Now you take cards one by one from above the ace stack and when someone calls stop, you deal an ace onto the table close to that person.

Depending on everyone’s position, it’s nice to have them put a finger on their card. It’s nice to have them turn over their cards one-by-one. It’s very nice for you to give them the card with their name on it at the end.

That’s it. I thought it was a pretty little trick before I did it – the plot was perhaps a bit of a
mish-mash but hell, Casablanca’s plot is a mish-mash – if the end result works, I don’t think it matters much.

But something happened when I first did the effect that made me think it was something more than just another pretty little card trick. It was at the performance at my daughter’s birthday. One of the four girls who selected a card hung onto it all night – I mean, it didn’t leave her hand for hours! She held onto it as the girls talked, she held onto it as they ate, and when they watched a movie together, it was in her hand the whole time.

Clearly, this is an example of the kind of magic I was talking about – magic that leaves someone with a gift, but also magic that implies some kind of skill on the spectator’s part – after all that girl just guessed where an ace might be and she was right! And it doesn’t hurt that the magical object had her name on it.

In the end, the card that girl hung onto was no longer just a card: it had become something magical, something wonderful, a talisman with secret powers that were somehow connected to her own magical energy.

It’s a good trick.

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