Up Escalators and Upper Arms

“Your ancestors called it magic but you call it science. I come from a land where they are one and the same.”

Okay, so I saw Thor this weekend. I had a lot of fun (though not quite as much fun as my wife and daughters had – the sight of a shirtless Chris Hemsworth reduced them to quivering bowls of estrogen jelly).

The movie also reminded me that I’ve been meaning to post on magic and science, but I’ve been having trouble getting started: the topic is too broad – it seems like I’ve got too much to say and too little time to say it. So I thought I’d chip away at it with a bunch of short posts. You know, like a real blogger.

To ease myself into it, I thought I’d do nothing more than draw your attention to a couple of studies that could have real, practical implications for working magicians. The first explores the power of a touch on the upper arm to boost compliance and cooperation:

"Participants were asked to sign a petition. While 55% of those not touched agreed to sign it, this went up to 81% of those participants touched once on the upper arm. A second study asked people to fill in a questionnaire. The same touch increased compliance from 40% to 70%."

(Full article is here.)

In all, the article links to ten studies that show the depth and breadth of the effect.

I had the pleasure of seeing Max Maven lecture twice in the past couple months and for me the indisputable highlight was seeing Max go off on a tangent about audience management – he started off tentatively, asking if anyone was interested – I’m not sure everyone was, but the few who spoke up were, like me, excited and utterly fascinated. Of course, Max had hit upon the power of the touch to an upper arm and knew just how to work it. I’m sure most of the master performers did – but they likely learned it through intuition, trial and error – if we’ve seen a breakdown in the mentorship approach to learning, we might as well try to fill the void with experimental psychology and google.

The second study is perhaps less practical, but even more fascinating to me: it’s a cool piece in Scientific American:

"Building on research showing the power of metaphors to shape our thinking, Sanna and his colleagues noted that height is often used as a metaphor for virtue: moral high ground, God on high, looking up to good people, etc. If people were primed to think about height, they wondered, might people be more virtuous?

In a series of four different studies, the authors found consistent support for their predictions. In the first study they found that twice as many mall shoppers who had just ridden an up escalator contributed to the Salvation Army than shoppers who had just ridden the down escalator."

The full study references a wide variety of related research.

I think this is pretty wild. It suggests you could influence a choice one of your spectator makes by the simple act of leading him up on stage, or down to the orchestra pit, perhaps even with something as subtle as saying, “Come on down!” versus “Come on up!” You might further influence behavior by including height imagery in your instructions: “Are you up for it?” “I know you’ll rise to the occasion”, versus, “Let me give you the down low”, and “Ready to get down?” Perhaps you could influence someone by the way you position your spectator, guiding him to stand straight and hold his head high, versus having him bend over a table.

Obviously, none of this would be fail-safe, but combined with other techniques from the psychological strains of mentalism – Psychological Subtleties, Wonder Words, Neuro-Linguistic Programming – it could be a small but effective tool to help create miracles.

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