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How to fool Houdini–and avoid fooling yourself

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Alex Stone's "Fooling Houdini," out today from HarperCollins. Photo credit: www.foolinghoudini.com.

Last week, Alex Stone taught Wall Street Journal readers the world round how to steal a watch. It’s probably a safe bet that fellow magicians were none too pleased. Nor are they likely to have gotten a kick out of Stone’s new book, Fooling Houdini (out today), where the watch theft maneuver is but one of the effects that the amateur magician so shamelessly reveals. Shamelessly, that is, if you’re playing by the traditional rules of magic conduct, where, as Stone puts it, “exposure is seen as a form of vandalism,” something that “deadens the mystery and tarnishes the brand, shrinking all the grandeur in magic to the scale of an intellectual puzzle.”

But does it really? Stone certainly doesn’t think so. Though initially cowed by the magic community’s overwhelming insistence on a code of silence (one that even got him kicked out of his local magic chapter, after he published an exposé in Harper’s), he has since come to believe that the emphasis on secrecy is not only misplaced, but detrimental to the very practice of magic. In its exploration of Stone’s quest to become a better magician, Fooling Houdini becomes an ode of sorts to the principles of openness—a testament to the notion that when we strive to maintain secrecy, we are only fooling ourselves.

Secrecy, Stone argues, makes magic look finite, old, and stagnant—a washed-up pastime that is afraid of change, of criticism, of anything that might threaten its ascendance. It’s as if the community were afraid that magic would vanish if exposed. Not so, says Stone. Magic will remain magic no matter how many of its principles you open up to the public. “Practically every classic trick has been exposed at one time or another,” he writes—but that doesn’t make it any less classic. Instead, the revelation might even heighten curiosity: the more you know, the more there is to learn—an exposure of mystery that serves only to deepen that very mystery. The process is akin to physicist Richard Feynman’s approach to the mystery of physics. Each finding makes it clear just how much remains to be discovered, how vast the unknown and unknowable is as compared to the kernels of the known. “Magic is a science as well as an art,” writes Stone, “and in science, knowledge serves only to deepen the mystery. Each new find opens vistas on an unchartered territory at the edge of human understanding. Nestled within each answer lies another riddle in an endless stream of unknowns.”

That principle holds true far outside of magic. Take something as seemingly unrelated as fiction—or any writing, for that matter. Read all the books you will on the craft of writing, comb through as many interviews as you can with your favorite writers, collect as many ‘how to write a bestseller’s as you can get your hands on, and still, the writing you admire will not lose its magic or its grip on your imagination. Even knowing the entire plot, that surprise ending or that give-away spoiler—arguably the closest approximation to finding out the trick of a magic act—is unlikely to limit your enjoyment in any way. In fact, it might even make the process of reading more enjoyable.

In a 2011 study, psychologists from UC San Diego found that individuals who had seen a spoiler paragraph prior to reading a short story rated the story as more, not less, pleasurable. And that held true even of stories where the plot, the “trick” so to speak, was seemingly the center of the experience, such as one of Roald Dahl’s signature ironic twist tales or an Agatha Christie mystery.

Why? When we know the plot, the twist, the surprise, we become more able to focus on everything else: language, character, the intricacies of rhythm and technique. We may even pay closer attention than we otherwise would, trying to wrestle with elements that we hadn’t even noticed the first time around. While it may seem that the surprise is the epicenter of the experience, that initial perception couldn’t be further from the truth. Focus too much on trying to figure out what the twist will be and you miss the art of the telling. Know the twist, and even if you’d previously thought that the knowledge would ruin your experience, you find your attention free to take in a much richer panorama than it otherwise would—and your mind enjoying itself far more as a result.

So, too, with magic. As Stone stresses repeatedly, the trick is only part of the experience. Equally as—if not more—important is the performance, the whole package in all its artistry and psychology. Does your awe at a magician’s performance lessen with knowledge of technique—or does it instead grow deeper, with a new appreciation for the difficulties and subtleties of the craft? Does finding a trick out spoil the act, or does it enhance the pleasure of the reading—or the watching, as the case may be?

What’s more, even if we know each principle, there is always the barrier of perception itself: when it comes down to it, our eyes are not that quick. No matter what we know, there remains a disconnect between what’s in our mind and what our vision can discern. Take the case of optical illusions. Even if we know they are fake—and know all of the principles behind them—we will be affected all the same. They never stop working. They never stop fooling us. And we never stop loving them, even if we know all of the science behind them. If anything, knowing the background helps us appreciate them even more. We know, and yet we are still tricked. Again and again. There’s something giddy about that.

 

Does knowing a trick's technique undermine its magic? Photo credit: Steven Depolo, Creative Commons.

But, argue proponents of secrecy, the viewer’s experience is only half the problem. What of that other devil—the ability of others to appropriate your act, the argument that a lack of secrecy means not only ruining the magic for those who watch but also enabling others to “steal” your material?

Here, too, the argument falls short. For one, there’s a chasm between knowing a principle and being able to recreate in practice—or even being able to notice it. Knowing the technique behind a trick in no way means you can repeat the trick itself, just as knowing all about a writer’s style in no way means you can create your own literary masterpiece. (Or artistic masterpiece, for all that. At best, you’d be an imitator or a forger. Never an innovator or one the greats, be it of magic, literature, or art.) Think you can steal a watch now that you’ve read Stone’s explanation? Think again—and be ready to put in the hours upon hours of practice that are required, as he’ll be the first to tell you, to attain any semblance of proficiency. Knowledge itself, absent skill, application, time, and true engagement, means little. Want to steal my book or my magic act? Good luck to you.

But perhaps the most important argument against secrecy lies outside both the viewer and the performer, at the very heart of the craft itself: innovation. If a technique behind a magic trick becomes known, you are more likely to try to find a new one—a new approach, a new trick, a new act. (Nothing is quite as satisfying, Stone says, as being able to trick a room full of magicians with a new sleight of hand.) But if the technique remains secret, why in the world would you bother coming up with anything new?

The point shouldn’t be underestimated. It may, in fact, be the single biggest argument in favor of openness, be it in magic or elsewhere. It’s not only that competition forces improvement. It’s also a question of never knowing just when that very openness may prove to be the key to a central innovation. Take Stone himself: when he finally finds the inspiration for his act, it comes from outside magic. His defining secret, as it turns out, lies in mathematics. Had he devoted himself only to the study of magic, he never would have found it. And had he not opened his act to mathematicians, they never would have been able to help.

Houdini himself published many of his own secrets. Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons.

In Stone’s case, he himself was the seeker. But openness also allows for accidental discovery in a way that would not otherwise be possible. How often do seminal advancements in a field come from the outside world, brought in by someone with a new outlook, a fresh perspective, a novel background who is not stymied by set ways of thinking? There is even a think tank that has been founded on the principle of outsider insight.

I can’t help but think of those scientists—specifically, psychologists, the ones I have direct experience with, but also, I’m sure, representatives of other disciplines—who do their utmost to veil their experiments, methods, and ideas in secrecy, lest someone beat them to the punch. Data isn’t shared freely. Approaches remain proprietary. Lips remain sealed. It’s the traditional magician’s ideal world—and it is one that hurts the science and public alike.

I’ve been shocked at how often I find the same ideas cropping up over and over in parallel literatures—under different names, and with no reference to one another. That’s the result of a field that doesn’t communicate, that not only remains secretive but also frowns upon forays into any other discipline—a lack of openness in its own area as well as a lack of openness of mind. External interests are something akin to betrayal.

But who are you really betraying when you follow that approach? You never know where that crucial innovation will come from. Close the field, you close the opportunity.

Secrecy seems anathema to innovation and creativity, to any real, meaningful progress, be it in magic or science. When we insist on secrecy, we may think we’re fooling everyone, Houdini included. But at the end, the biggest victim of that deception may well be ourselves.

 

 

Leavitt JD, & Christenfeld NJ (2011). Story spoilers don’t spoil stories. Psychological science, 22 (9), 1152-4 PMID: 21841150

Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. sudonym 7:57 pm 06/19/2012

    That’s so true what you say about the magic of books. If the books is well-written, knowing the ending does not ruin its magic. It’s just as fun to go back and re-read the story to see how the ending is woven into the tale. Rather like the movie The Sixth Sense. Once you know the ending, you just have to watch the movie again to see how well the surprise was set up. I can’t imagine that knowing how a magic trick was done would ruin the trick for me. It would merely deepen my respect for the creative thinking and skill that made the trick possible.

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  2. 2. way2ec 11:37 pm 06/19/2012

    sudonym posted first, my first response is the same, rereading a book, watching a movie again and again is further proof that surprise is only one factor in the enjoyment. 100% agree with the author Stone, “as in science, knowledge only serves to deepen the mystery”… as in art, as in magic, as in archaeology, “even” mathematics (pi is magical, mysterious, and forever powerful). When all the data is in about Stonehenge, cave art, Mayan calender systems, Egyptian pyramids, there is no less mystery, no less awe, but maybe more respect. Same for magicians who share their art and magic, no less awe, but much more respect. VERY well written Maria Konnikova. Whatever magic and mysteries you uncover in Psychology I trust that you will share with the world and both broaden our understandings of ourselves and deepen the mystery as to what “makes us tick”.

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  3. 3. Brin Bellway 1:56 pm 06/20/2012

    There’s a crucial difference between spoiling a mystery novel and spoiling a magic trick. At the end of an ordinary mystery novel, they explain what happened. At the end of an ordinary magic show, they don’t.

    The part where they explain how it works is what makes it worthwhile. It’s the part the whole show leads up to. A magic show without the explanation is like a mystery novel with the last chapter torn out so you never get to find out whodunnit.

    I’m not subjecting myself to that. I don’t know why anyone does.

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  4. 4. julianpenrod 6:12 pm 06/20/2012

    They make a big deal about the revealing of magic secrets, yet how many prove themselves still to be gullible dolts, easily taken in by magicians’ tactics when they fall for the ruse about magicians taking issue with someone revealing the techniques behind their acts. All the hoopla about threatening to kill the masked magician who gave background on tricks, or kicking Stone out of a local magic chapter. But techniques for tricks have been revealed for almost a century or more! In the ’30′s, for example, no less a luminary than the elder Great Blackstone published a book on manufacturing magical illusions, from card tricks to versions of sawing a woman in half. Kids’ project books and even such as Classics Illustrated comics demonstrated illusions and tricks. There’s nothing new about it and magicians don’t mind it.
    Perhaps they create the hullabaloo to convince the malleable that they really are afraid of someone revealing mechanisms behind tricks, to divert belief from the fact that the magic they perform is absolutely authentic!

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  5. 5. jjsimonds 6:40 pm 06/20/2012

    Although your article is well-written and compelling I have to disagree. First I am a member of the Magic Castle and so an amateur magician and I can verify that knowing how to do a trick and performing a trick are two very different things. I’d like to point out that there are sevral personality types: those who enjoy magic, those who tolerate it but feel like they are being fooled and those that hate it (who also feel they are being fooled). Also one can walk into any magic shop and buy numerous DVD’s, books and tricks so the idea that somehow this is a groundbreaking book is misleading. Magic is not held to some code of secrecy but it did force you to be interested enough to 1) find a magic shop and 2) invest some money. If you were at that point still interested you might invest the time necessary to actually perform a trick. The real problem in exposing tricks is that then there’s no magic. The worst audience member is one who’s constantly saying “I know how he/she does that! It ruins it for everyone else and that’s the point of teh secrecy of it becuase in meny, many instances people are disappointed when they know.
    Does it inhibit innovation? No because it cities throughout the world magaicians get together monthly, if not more regularly and share tricks. A Physicist shares papers and ideas with other physicists and scientist not the general public becuase there is a lot of assumed knowledge, just so with magicians. Sharing tricks with mathameticians for specific reasons would not be a betray any secrecy in my opinion, but is different from sharing it with everyone.
    When I first read “Lord of the Rings” I was horror-striken when Gandalf ‘died’ at the hands of the balrog in Moria. I was talking about it and some jerk told me “Oh he’s not dead he comes back.’ Now it didn’t ruin the book for me but it definitly ‘spoiled’ part of it. Secrecy is part of the tension of stories and you can appreciate the other parts of the book but you have taken away part of the intrigue and suspense the writer was trying to achieve.
    I for one don’t want my novels or my magic spoiled.

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  6. 6. TheDavethPower 11:31 pm 06/20/2012

    There are definitely advantages to co-operation and the sharing of ideas. However I think it may be a bit rash to, for example, have every researcher, writer and artist “open-source” their ideas for the world to see. The main problem I see is that different starting points are often helpful in solving problems creatively. If everyone starts with the same information (in a world where everyone’s ideas are open to everyone else’s) people’s starting points will be more similar than they would if people started with different information (which would be the case in a world where there were many ideas not available to everyone). In the extreme case, over time people’s starting points for problems will be more and more similar as problems are solved in more similar ways than in different ways until everyone is thinking along the same lines.

    To maintain creativity I think it is helpful to have people starting with different information(and thus different starting points) so they can pursue as many different approaches as possible to solving problems. We want as much of this diversity of approaches as possible in solving problems (i.e. we want to the ability to approach the problem from the largest number of angles as is possible). If everyone starts with the same information we may lose this diversity. Schools already push too many ideas that are packaged as ‘tried and true’ to students instead of letting students try to solve problems on their own without looking to see how ‘the experts’ solve them.

    In order to gain the advantages of openness and avoid the disadvantages of degeneracy mentioned above perhaps we should aim for a percentage of openness of ideas that’s say 65% or so in order to allow new ideas to percolate their way into society at random while at the same time allowing enough ignorance of new ideas so that people are forced to try as many new avenues as possible. Of course simply having a percentage of openess of ideas will probably not go far enough to establish unique starting points for solving problems. And of course you do want some people trying to solve problems with the same starting information so that you can get competition between techniques. It’s complicated, but I think a purely open idea space may not always be beneficial to society though there are many instances where it would be beneficial.

    A more obvious reason not to share ideas is when you know the ideas will fall into the wrong hands and be used to harm others. I remember when the “Anarchists Cookbook” showed up on the internet back when I was in high-school. All the people who I didn’t want to see get the book someone got a copy.

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