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May 5, 2009 | 15 Comments

Mental Magic and Psychology

I say, Thank God Penn & Teller reveal the workings of their magic tricks. We’re all used to it now, but when they first got going they caused a lot of angst and delicate hand-wringing among the brotherhood. No one will watch magic if they know how the tricks work! went the standard lamentation.

But it wasn’t shouted too loudly. Sympathy for secrecy wasn’t exactly on the wane when the boys showed up, but complaints against violations were reflexive more than strident.

Penn & TellerThis is because magic had fallen into the doldrums. There were a plethora of exaggerated hand-waving silent acts. These consisted of a magician who would purposefully stride across the stage, gesturing like a ballet dancer at his change cabinet—whoosh, whoosh, whoosh—swirl the thing round once or twice, and out would pop a bikinied gorilla, all set to bad, loud music. The only difference between acts were their magicians’ costumes—and those weren’t too dissimilar either.

Penn & Teller forced illusionists to change their thinking, or at least to develop fresh material. Silent acts are still with us, but not to the same extent (yes, I know Teller doesn’t talk).

And it was Penn & Teller, and later Fox’s Masked Magician, that proved the old belief wrong. Knowing how the tricks were done did not lessen people’s enjoyment of them. I’d say it was also empirically demonstrated that nobody can remember how illusions work. Or that even if they do, they can’t follow the trick as it’s happening.

Jonah Lehrer at Wired picks up this theme of Penn & Teller’s brand of magic (which is linked from the indispensable Arts & Letters Daily—a site which you should know by now is necessary reading).

Psychologists, presumably having bored themselves with ritalin studies, are starting to wonder how it is illusionists can fool people so easily, so they have engaged the help of Teller and others to find out. They came to the right people: you’d be surprised how much of the conjuring literature is devoted to psychology and how little to the mechanics of the tricks.

“The magic show is a competition,” [Teller] says. “The audience is trying to figure you out. They aren’t suspending their disbelief—they’re trying to expose you as a scam artist.” This is what makes magic so difficult: The magician must sell people a lie even as they know they’re being lied to. Unless the illusion feels more real than the truth, there is no magic.

One pickpocket in the study shows how he can filch wallets when he uses misdirection, but only if he waves his hand in an arc but not if he moves it in a straight line. I can vouch for this.

Once at Tannen’s, the famous Manhattan magic shop, I saw a clerk (all clerks there are magicians; I’m sorry I can’t recall his name) demonstrate a card trick to a patron. Cards were moving left and right; it was hard to keep up. But that wasn’t the trick. The clerk first showed a move and then asked the patron to mimic it. While the patron was doing this the clerk would steal an item from the patron’s person.

First his watch, then a pen from his pocket, finally the glasses right off his head! Understand that this was happening right in the moment. The clerk would grab the patron’s wrist to “show a move” and then steal the watch. The glasses were hilarious: he just reached out and took them while jabbering about the cards. The guy never noticed.

The clerk put the watch on his own hand, the pen in his own pocket, then the glasses on his own face. When the card “trick” was over, the patron nodded his head that he understood the card moves and began to walk away. It was only then he realized he couldn’t see too well.

After Penn & Teller, the field started taking advantage of more psychological methods and moving into different areas, especially with the younger breed coming up: guys like David Blaine, Chris Angel, Derren Brown, The Amazing Jonathan, and so on.

Mental and bizarre magic—psychic readings, ESP, psychokinesis, ghosts and hauntings, etc.—have become more vibrant. Some practitioners took, and are taking, the ideas too far and are trying to become the next Uri Geller (see the second book on the left). But there’s no arguing that mentalism feels like real magic, like producing a rabbit from a hat must have done four hundred years ago.

For example, I often do a trick using a Si Stebbins deck. The moves are trivial, but I tell my mark that I’m doing a psychological experiment. I ask them their favorite color or what word immediately comes into their mind. After that, I “guess” their card, sometimes purposely making small mistakes. Everybody instantly forgets about the cards and starts discussing the questions I asked. “Oh, you knew it was a black card because I told you my favorite color was blue, which is dark” and on an on. People are extraordinarily inventive coming up with spurious explanations. Nobody guesses the deck is gaffed, nobody tries to guess how the trick was done because they don’t believe one was done.

No matter what theories the psychologists glean from conjurers, I don’t think it will stop people from coming to magic shows.

May 1, 2009 | 13 Comments

Pink horror

Why do people occasionally enjoy having the bejesus scared out of themselves by watching horror movies? Maybe it’s a way to relieve stress or to recall vague, primal memories of being hunted. Those regular chompings by various beasties must be wired into our DNA, so seeing an Alien bite into somebody triggers a cellular reaction. A regular squirt of adrenalin into the veins might be a physiological necessity.

Doubtless, there are psychological theories aplenty, and probably one of them explains the gory details of today’s theme. However, we can ignore all of these sophistications, because our purpose today is to document and not to resolve.

First, a quiz:

Which of these television networks airs the most horror movies?

  1. Sci-Fi (soon to be Sy Fy; aren’t MBA-led decisions clever?)
  2. USA
  3. Spike
  4. Lifetime

The shocking winner, by orders of magnitude, is D.

Obviously, more male-types watch the first three networks than do female-types, though perhaps USA comes in at a tie, but overwhelmingly more female-types than male-types watch Lifetime.

Although USA and Spike regularly rebroadcast slasher classics, like Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the Thirteenth, and Sci-Fi has had every kind of bug, reptile, arachnid, and mutant mammal chase down, kill, and eat multitudes of c’mon-gang-let’s-separate bands of pretty twenty-somethings, Lifetime, and its sister channel Lifetime Movie Network, frighten more people than all the tax bills ever written by Nancy Pelosi.

We all know that men prefer their frightenings formulaic: dodge, preserver, chase, kill, keep possible the chance for sex. This truism is what allows Sci-Fi to commission dozens of identically scripted movies, changing in each only the creature that menaces.

Lifetime movie It will shortly become clear that women require more from their horror. They will watch what men do, but take away from films different lessons. They will not thrill to the idea that one can, as Arnie did in Predator, cover oneself with cool mud to make oneself invisible in the near infrared and thus avoid certain death. Women will roll their eyes when Jesse “The Mind” (formerly “The Body”) Ventura announces “I ain’t got time to bleed”.

But this doesn’t mean women don’t like to self-inflict the willies just as much as men do. It’s that different themes terrify them. What are they? Let’s impute them from looking at a sample of movie titles shown on Lifetime. I apologize for the length of this list; it is tedious but necessary (this is statistics of the first kind).

Other Women’s Children Liar, Liar: Between Father and Daughter
Sorry, Wrong Number Another Women’s Husband
Blind Faith (model husband accused of arranging his wife’s murder) Gone in the Night (a couple is unjustly accused of murdering their daughter)
Forgotten Sins (two daughters reveal horrible truths about dad) A Murderous Affair
Cheater’s Club Ultimate Deception
Fatal Affair Infidelity
Lady Killer Stranger in My Bed
Improper Conduct The Wrong Woman
Badge of Betrayal Surviving (two youth’s suicide pact destroys their families)
Matter of Justice (mother vows to bring son’s murderers to justice) A Promise to Carolyn (two sisters battle with repressed memories to bring their sister’s murderer to justice)
The Prosecutors (husband murdered in front of son, wife engages lawyers to bring murderers to justice) Baby Snatcher
The Stepsister (father dies after remarrying, his daughter suspects new mom and attempts to bring her to justice) Murder or Memory? (A Moment of Truth Movie : son confesses to murder under hypnosis, mother brings real killer to justice)
Eye of the Stalker Wife, Mother, Murderer (with Judith Light)
We Were the Mulvaneys (“Has your family ever been torn apart
by a secret?”)
Empty Cradle

Lifetime movie guide In case the title doesn’t immediately give the plot away, a movie guide helpfully lists its sub-genre, like Thriller, Vengeance, and, my favorite, Madness. Descriptions are provided, too. For the madness movie Hush:

Nina is thrilled when her hubby, Noah, suggests they move back to his picturesque hometown. Little does she know Noah’s crazy former girlfriend, Callie, has an unhealthy obsession with Nina’s spouse. This infatuated ex will stop at nothing to get Noah back — including impersonating Nina! Fans of “Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?” will love this flick.

Incidentally, a poll on the site suggests that more Lifetime viewers prefer a movie to conclude with “a shocking twist” and than do those who like happy endings. Keep this in mind.

As we know, a man-centered horror film has the star battling monsters, while the list makes it clear that a woman-centered horror has the star battling infidelity or rife waywardness, dangers which are less fantastic and certainly less tangible. Lifetime movies will contain many minutes of scenes of the heroine looking pained, or concerned, or fretting, all as the camera moves closer to her face.

And so, anti-climatically, we can conclude that man-centered horror is mainly about physical stuff, and woman-centered horror is mainly about feelings.

We can, therefore, construct from our evidence the perfect female horror movie. Titled How Could He Do This To Me?—starring Sally Fields as wife and lawyer ‘Sally’, and Eric Estrada as car salesman husband ‘Vic’—it’s the saga of how Vic, after having seduced and then sold his only daughter to baby brokers to fund his drug habit, abandons the family, absconds with the bank book, then later returns with his mistress to stalk and kill the family dog.

The daughter, suffering from the trauma of being brokered and therefore thought to be slightly bonkers, is unjustly arrested for the crime, but battling Sally sees to it Vic is finally brought to justice. We see Sally triumphantly standing over her broken husband as he sits in his cell, a small, sad smile on his face. The scene fades to black.

As the credits are about to roll, we see Sally back home. She is taking a call from her doctor, where she hears the fateful words, “You’re pregnant.” She never should have made that jail house visit!

Now for our second quiz, a final exam to see if you have been paying attention.

One of the movies listed below is not a genuine Lifetime movie. Can you guess which?

  1. Baby Brokers
  2. For My Daughter’s Honor
  3. When Diets Go Bad
  4. Unwed Father
April 29, 2009 | 16 Comments

Thou shalt not be more able

The funniest thing I have read in a long time comes from Robert Shibley, a member of “FIRE”, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (more details).

The Virginia Tech University—an institution that awards “degrees” to students who can pay four-plus years of tuition—recently modified their list of tenure criteria to include (try not to be drinking anything as you read further) that professors demonstrate a “commitment to diversity.”

VT diversity

That is, in addition to pumping out papers, bringing in grants, and serving on endless committees, professors also had to prove that they engaged in a career devoted to diversity. More formally, the guidelines state, “The university and college committees require special attention to be given to documenting involvement in diversity initiatives.”

I say “had to prove” because when the policy became public, Shibley and FIRE pitched a fit, and the big boss at VT hastened to change the rule to aver that the diversity commitment would be voluntary and not mandatory. Which of course will come to mean—as you would agree if you have had any experience inside a university—mandatory.

Maybe it’s not as bad as it sounds. After all, what’s a little diversity? Here’s VT’s definition (asterisk in original):

We, the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences Diversity Committee, use the term “diversity” to mean the desirability and value of many kinds of individual differences while at the same time acknowledging and respecting that socially constructed differences based on certain characteristics exist within systems of power that create and sustain inequality, hierarchy, and privilege.* The College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences is determined to eliminate these forms of inequality, hierarchy, and privilege in our programs and practices. In this sense, diversity is to be actively advanced because it fosters excellence in learning, discovery, and engagement.

* These characteristics include, but are not limited to ability, age, body size and condition, class, color, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, geographical and cultural background, health status, national origin, political affiliation, race, religion, sexual orientation, and veteran status.

The VT men’s basketball team, if they want to hold to this ideal, will be forced to accept all “body sizes and conditions”. Strike that. It will now be known as the VT basketball team, sans “men”, so that they do not discriminate on “gender” (a word which means, presumably, biological sex). Anything else would be inconsistent with the definition.

I think diversifying college sports is a fine thing, as a matter of fact. As I’ve said many times, universities devote far too much money and support to athletics. Making a team “diverse” will have the effect of immediately deemphasizing itself so that its student participants can spend more time actually studying (which, once upon a time was the intent of “education”).

But that is a minor point. The real meat comes when they acknowledge that “socially constructed differences…exist within systems of power that create and sustain inequality, hierarchy, and privilege.” We see that they award pride of first place to the socially constructed difference of ability.

In plain English, this means that professors are people who have used their socially constructed difference of ability to create and sustain a system of power which leads to inequality, hierarchy, and privilege. Thus, to be perfectly consistent and nobly diverse, professors will have to go.

Or they can stay, but they should not be allowed to exert or extend any iniquitous system of power over students, to include requiring class attendance, the taking of exams, or work of any kind. Who are professors to say what’s best for students anyway?

OK, my reading is absurd. But it is logically consistent in the sense that it is impossible to show how my interpretations are in any way flawed given their official definition of diversity (I invite you to try). So, since my interpretations are absurd, and obviously so, something must be wrong. What?

No secret. Diversity itself: the very idea of it is asinine. Prove this to yourself by taking any subject and then faithfully cataloging what diversity in that subject might be. Try babysitting for a start. We want—no, we demand—diversity in babysitters. This will include those sitters who change the diapers often and those that think one diaper sufficient for each twenty-four period. Sitters who assiduously check baby in its crib must be employed equally as often as those with no arms or legs who place baby in the oven to keep it warm.

Need I go on? Still absurd? Then you are not thinking of diversity as its actual definition demands. You instead might be thinking of diversity in the quota-like sense of discrimination based on desired traits to fit a specific purpose. Nothing wrong with that—except that this sense is the exact opposite of what is proclaimed. And those who champion diversity would swoon were you to use the word discrimination in any positive sense, or in a way which did not reflect the characteristics they felt important.

Or were you thinking of diversity in the sense of parity: where stated biological and political characteristics are found here in the exact proportion they are found in the wild? Ah, that becomes a statistical question, and we shall shortly see that this kind of diversity is just as impossible as the other kind.

April 28, 2009 | 65 Comments

Gay marriage and tradition: a continuation

In Big Jake , John Wayne and Bruce Cabot ready themselves for the final battle against the bad guys.

Wayne: Well, Sam, they say the elk in Montana are as big as buffalo this year. We outta go hunt ’em when this is over.

Cabot: I look forward to that. (Sighs). I wish they were buffalo.

Wayne: Yeah. Times change.


Let’s return to the idea of tradition as it is used in arguments for gay marriage, which we can define as the marriage of two—and only two—men or two women.

Last time, we acknowledged that the modifier “only two” in our explication of marriage was the implicit resultant of tradition, by which we meant the customary practices of a people, or activities driven by a common set of beliefs, that is, a culture. This definition is loose enough, God knows, but will be close enough for us.

Fascinatingly, if an opponent of gay marriage brings up the point, “Why not more than two in a ‘marriage’?”, he is usually told he is being absurd or foolish or he is laughed at—which proves that people aren’t thinking deeply enough about the subject, because no matter how disingenuously the question might have been asked, it is exactly the right one.

Tradition forms the largest part of the debate on gay marriage. Obviously, it is not in our tradition to accommodate such unions, but some want to contravene tradition by urging acceptance for gay marriage. This plea is, at least, consistent with itself (but it is not clear how it would not apply to any other tradition; abandon tradition here, and why not abandon it everywhere?).

The difficulty begins, and the argument suddenly becomes inconsistent, when the same people who ask us to abandon tradition want also to embrace tradition by insisting on the word “marriage” to sanctify their vows.

Are you with me? If you want to claim (as some of us have) that we have “evolved” beyond tradition and have no need of it, you cannot consistently and simultaneously seek the blessings of tradition.

Let’s be more specific. Some states have constructed laws which award similar, even identical, legal status as marriage confers (burial rights, powers of attorney, etc.) to partners in a same-sex couple should they ask for it. Strong arguments for these new recognitions have been made, though still with a mind towards tradition, because these laws always talk about “couples” or “pairs”.

Why is this legal recognition not good enough? Why, that is, do people still hunger for something beyond “civil union”? Why the word “marriage”? It is, is it not?, just a word. Why is it such a powerful one?

The reason is obvious: tradition is not so easily abandoned. It is a deep need for humans to have ties with the past, for ceremony and ritual. It is also important to stress that marriage is not just a legal contract between two people, it is an understanding between a couple and society, largely governed by understood rules.

But what, it is now natural to ask, about those places that allow men to take multiple wives, or have customs that differ from ours? Well, if their customs are not our customs, then unless we are seeking to intervene directly in those peoples’ culture (in the form of war, say), they are none of our business. However, the consideration is not entirely irrelevant.

Montaigne writes on a clothing custom in Rome: “When they wore the busk of their doublet between their breasts, they maintained with heated arguments that it was in the proper place; some years after, it has slipped down between the thighs, and they laugh at their former custom and find it absurd and intolerable.”

The banal message—and one we already knew—is that customs and traditions change. An argument on the proper placement of a doublet appears to us trivial, and we also feel that (dangerous) sense of superiority when we regard history: they argued over doublets for goodness sake? How silly. But change the argument to whether jeans should be worn and it becomes immediately relevant and contentious. This point is made so that we can see that there are two things to consider: the relative degree of importance of a custom and the rate at which it is modified.

It is already apparent the degree to which marriage is important. How about that custom’s rate of change?

Certain states and municipalities have sought recently, by extra-legislative means—by, that is, judicial fiat—to mark an abrupt divergence in marriage custom. Judges looked into their constitutions and said, “Aha! We have found hiding in a corner where nobody thought to look before, the right to same sex marriage. It’s a good thing we checked.”

The consequences of these rights hunts are well known. People knew they were being spun (to use the modern term) and, as in California and Iowa, voted the rights back out of existence. Many were still howling over these democratic (and traditional) actions when along came Vermont, which used the same (and now warmly accepted) democratic actions to change their marriage custom.

“Well”, I have heard some say, “that’s Vermont. Those people up there are different.” And if your answer, like mine, is a variant of “Exactly”, then you will have understood this article’s arguments.