In which psychologist Richard Wiseman demonstrates that everything you thought you knew is wrong.
More Wiseman at Quirkology
After reading my friend Mitchel Cohen’s essay on factors affecting how people change their political views, I was reminded of the scene above from Chaplin’s Modern Times (I’m strange that way). Facts alone, Cohen says, are often not enough to change a person’s political views, because the person’s psychological reaction formation simply dismisses the new facts as false propaganda.
I’m a little less pessimistic concerning facts. Generally, I think that facts that challenge the framework of the conversation, or move the discussion to a wider context, some meta-level, can be very useful.
Well, this isn’t the place for that discussion (but see Mitchel Cohen’s excellent series of essays here: http://www.redballoonbooks.org/books/books.html for really deep imaginative thinking about how political change is effected and affected).
But what that conversation reminded me of was the roller skating scene from Modern Times, as well as reminding me of magic and the technology of deception. If you haven’t watched the video above yet, please take two minutes to watch it. Don’t watch the video link below though yet—it’s a spoiler.
Once you watch the first video, consider your feelings about the scene. Next click the link below. I think you’ll enjoy it. Consider what happens to your mindset about the first video when the frame is broken.
While most people understand that the performance of magic requires deception, they generally have no idea of the range of deceptions possible. Mirrors, sleight-of-hand, threads, trapdoors, yes, these are known, of course. But, really, these are only a small number of the methods—not that they can’t still fool even those who know of them.
But the performance of magic actually entails a very large collection of often interlocking discrete methods, and even magicians can be fooled by another magician. Each time I learned about a branch of magic different from those with which I was already familiar, I would be surprised at the new tools brought to bear—“Oh, they’re really doing that!—I had no idea!” Sometimes ideas and methods from one branch of magic are carried over to another branch, but cleverly adapted to the limitations and possibilities of the other field; on the other hand, some methods really are unique to one particular branch of magic. For a magician it’s kind of a thrill to learn that the method was not method a, b, or c, or even method x, y, or z , but the unconceived Ψ, Ω, and Σ. (Most spectators on the other hand, as previously discussed, do not feel delighted at all when told of a method. They generally just feel stupid and suckered. Contrary to magic ads of the 50s and 60s, it’s not “Fun to be fooled!”)
I have in mind, for example, the mentalist practice of miscalling. Now I’m not at liberty to explain what that is here, but it absolutely shocked me when I first came across it. It filled me with surprise, disbelief, scorn, and then ultimately admiration. Probably not many in the general public know of the use of the technique. But what I can tell you is that that class of methods was totally off my radar.
Now writers deceive all the time, too, but not much attention is paid by the general public to the methods of deception used. Unlike in a magic performance, with writing the deceptions are not the main course, but the means to a different end. You can take lots of literature courses in college, intensively studying a work, but the facts of deception are almost always glossed over in favor of focusing on matters like theme, plot, character, and so on: the deceptions fade into the background and become invisibly transparent.
I know this, though: I feel more of a cheat as a writer than as a magician. At least most people understand that a magician is using deception even if they don’t understand the means. On the other hand, I don’t think that many readers understand the range of deceptions that the writer brings to the table. Perhaps the deceptive technique that slides by readers the most is that of revision. It’s a huge cheat. Readers see the final artifact of a novel as if it were created at once in a coherent linear manner. But that’s almost never the case. It’s not even true of this essay; I’m writing this now on Tuesday, September 15, 2015. But I have no intention of publishing it now. I know that by the time that I do publish this essay, I will have revised it, and it will be very different. In fact, I have no idea what this essay will look like ultimately when I do finally publish it. I am trusting right now that despite my first incoherent draft, somehow, sometime later, I’ll be able to pull something out of it. It really is an act of faith, but the reader will never know what this piece once was. I have all the time in the world to make this be just what I want it to be. So, I’ll be seeing you sometime later—who knows how much later?—just don’t tell anybody when I really wrote this (wink).