In magic, one of the first principles the practitioner learns is that of “misdirection.” In its crudest form, it exists when the magician distracts the audience pointing to the right and saying, “Look over there!” while the elephant is ushered onstage from the left. But over the centuries magicians have developed the technique of misdirection to a fine art. As I’m writing this shortly after Election Day, I’d like to take a look at some of the more refined techniques of misdirection while keeping in mind their use in the public sphere.

The late Tommy Wonder , one of the great thinkers and do-ers of magic (see the video above), objected to the term “misdirection.” He thought it should be called “attention management.” Several ideas were encompassed in this nomenclature. First,  if magicians don’t have the attention of the audience in the first place, they can’t misdirect. So the first obligation of magicians is to train the audience to pay attention to them. Establishing rapport always comes first, before anything else.

Second, the term “misdirection” itself misdirects. The magician does not just want the audience to be negatively pulled away from one stimulus, but rather to be positively moved in the magician’s desired direction. That is, interest and attention are manipulated in such a way that the audience never feels that their attention is being distracted away from something else; they believe that they are following their own interest all the time. In the ideal case, they are never aware that there is something from which they are being distracted.

How is this done?

1) The magician starts with  initial conditions different from what the audience believes the situation to be. That deck of cards pulled from the card case was secretly set-up beforehand, for example.

2) The magician performs  in-transit actions. That is, secret actions are performed at a moment when the action is not contextualized by the audience as belonging to the magic performance. For example, in the middle of an effect, the magician appears to be sweating and so drinks a glass of water that has been sitting to her left. In that action however, she has loaded the previously palmed spectator’s card under the glass for later discovery. The audience deletes those actions since they were outside the framework of the expected performance.

3) The magician plants false memories. Before the magician makes the final reveal, the fairness of the conditions are stressed. “Now you chose a card, put it in the middle of the deck, shuffled, so there’s no way I could possibly know what your card is.” Well, no. The spectator cut the cards several times, but never actually shuffled the deck. And that makes all the difference.

4) The magician performs a secret action at a time when attention has been relaxed. Magicians call that moment the off-beat. Typically, if a magician can make the audience laugh, at that precise moment there is an opportunity to perform a secret action in an undetected manner.

5) The audience’s eyes will follow the performer’s eyes; if the magician addresses a spectator in the audience, that spectator will look at the magician and the rest of the audience will look at that spectator. At that moment, secret actions may be performed in an undetected manner.

How do these principles of misdirection apply to political performance? I’ll leave that as an open-ended question for the reader. I’d love to hear what your ideas are.

2 thoughts on “Misdirection

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