-“All magic is mental!” said Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels.
So true. There’s not much we magicians can do with facts, but as soon as it is about mental processes, then we are on familiar turf.
A rather intriguing 2-part study (by among others Gustav Kuhn ) was recently published regarding gender bias and magic:
Videos of male and female magicians who had their genders camouflaged were shown to laypeople (men and women).
All the magicians were presented as both male and female magicians.
The laypeople then rated how good/effective/impressive they thought the tricks were.
The outcome of its first part was what many of us had guessed – we have not imagined it, there is a gender bias.
A small one.
Big enough to be statistically significant, but not big enough to be an insurmountable obstacle in real life. It is yet another factor in the uphills battle that many women have to fight, but probably not on the magnitude of the lack of literature and role models.
Best thing about this part is that now we know that people who disregard the talent of women are factually wrong.
Instead of being a duel of subjective & personal opinions, we can now firmly tell anyone who says ”women are less skilled than men” that their notion have been scientifically proven to be wrong.
However; what was unexpected and surprising was the second part of the study.
Both that it was even done in the first place – I certainly wouldn’t have the foresight to design that experiment – and its very surprising outcome; that in our field – as opposed to many other fields – it is a rather simple matter to completely delete the gender bias. All it takes is to add one extra consideration in our routine constructions.
I would have thought that the outcome of these two experiments would have been welcomed with open arms in our world. But the reception have been very strange and weird.
Several champions of the status quo have argued that ”What do they know?”, that the study should be disregarded and ignored… and various permutations on the idea that we all should preserve the documented gender bias. As magicians we challenge and utilize loads of biases, so I’m not sure why this one should be considered taboo and untouchable.
Others, very clearly affected by said bias, have argued that it is impossible for women to have any skill at all, and any notion otherwise is evidence that cultural marxists and SJWs are trying to destroy magic.
While many others seem to be unaware of what a ”bias” is, and seem to be confusing it for ”fact”.
So let’s just briefly go through what a ”bias” is, and what purpose it serves.
We have two modes of thinking.
Mode 1, heuristic thinking, is lightning fast. The reason it is fast is because it is reductive. It simplifies everything. Takes shortcuts. Uses biases and assumptions. It is rule based and makes use of a rule of thumb, an educated guess, an intuitive judgment, a guesstimate, profiling, and ”common sense”. It is not guaranteed to be optimal, perfect or rational, but in most cases it is sufficient for reaching an immediate, short-term goal. These instinctive snap judgements are usually close enough to handle most ordinary situations during ordinary days – but have huge gaps that we magicians can exploit. As magicians, we usually want our audience to use heuristic thinking.
Mode 2, analytical thinking, is a lot slower and a lot more difficult. There are gaps here too, but they are more narrow and less easy to exploit.
Most people does not engage analytical thinking until they realize that their heuristic thinking have led them astray, and even then it requires quite a lot of discipline to stay on course and avoid slipping back to Mode 1 again. A lot of systems have been evolved to help us stay within the analytical thinking; empirical methods, double-blind testing and so on. With considerable training, we can switch back and forth between Mode 1 and Mode 2 thinking at will during shorter periods.
During magic performances, we can often see people engage their Mode 2 thinking during the second or the third effect. When the first effect have taken them by surprise, and they go ”Wait, I must have missed something. Let’s figure this out!” and they lean forward with their foreheads knotted in concentration. Putting your boldest trick as no. 2 or 3 in your show isn’t advisable, and my guess is that most experienced magicians have – by design or by instinct – their best structured trick in that spot. Or their most deceptive one. Would you agree? What do you have as your second effect?
For a female magician, if going by Experiment 2 in the study, it might be advantageous to encourage Mode 2 thinking already in the opener.
But I’m skipping ahead too fast – we aren’t done with biases yet.
A bias is an inclination towards something, or a predisposition, partiality, prejudice, preference, or predilection.
A bias is a systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment.
A bias can be fundamental like Object Permanence, or irrational like jingoism.
A bias might have correlation to facts and reality, but it is actually fiction, and can be governed and shaped by the tools of fiction.
There’s a list of known biases on Wikipedia:
”Bias blind spot” is a bias we all have, that tricks us into believing that we personally are less biased than others.
”Confirmation bias” is what makes a strong narrative useful in a magic routine. It is the tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that agree with one’s expectations, and to disregard/forget information that contradict one’s expectations.
Most performances, regardless of level, contains both cringeworthy and brilliant parts.
Let’s say you’ve been conditioned to think green-eyed people are crap performers and blue-eyed people are great performers, and you see a taped performance where the video editor have given the performer green eyes. Due to confirmation bias, you’d put more emphasis on the cringeworthy parts and you’d disregard the brilliant parts. If the video editor have given the performer blue eyes, then the opposite happens, you’d disregard the crap parts and only remember the brilliant parts. Leading you to evaluate the same identical video in two very different ways.
That’s also what happened in Experiment 1 in the study. Gender bias, ”confirmed” through confirmation bias
Biases are what lies as foundation to structural magic techniques like ”one ahead” and ”cancelling”.
Biases are also what we have to battle when we need to entertain people who doesn’t know they will be entertained.
Like in tablehopping or walk-around magic. I’m fairly competent at that. So I know there’s a time window when I approach a group who doesn’t know that there will be performances. They are very likely biased against strangers interrupting them to demand attention, and probably biased against magicians in general. So there’s not many seconds to change, form and sculpt their impressions before their biases solidify into a rejection. If I manage to ’hook’ them in less than 10 seconds, the performance itself becomes a joyride. If I don’t, then it is an uphills battle the whole way, if there’s not an outright rejection. My opening effect is designed to shape the preconceptions to be advantageous for me. I think most experienced walk-around performers have, by design or instinct, openers that fill the same purpose.
An experienced female magician, with one more bias to battle than me, would likely have an opener that is even more efficient than mine. Looking at Fay Presto, we find that her opener is twice as efficient than mine, she ’hook’ her audience in less than 5 seconds. I haven’t talked with her about it, but my guess is that the work is a bit more uphill if she skip her opening bit.
So yes, as magicians, we work with biases the whole time. ”ALL magic is mental!”. The magic doesn’t happen in the hands of the magician, but in the head of the observer.
We have the tools to work with biases, to shape and form them to be useful to us.
So, how do we do that with gender bias? Well, that is what the surprising conclusion of Experiment 2 in the study gives an answer to:
All that is necessary is to ensure that the audience engage their Mode 2 thinking already in the opener, before confirmation bias takes hold.
How do we do that? Well, we do have a whole catalogue of suitable routines that we have named ”challenge routines”.
For an audience of laypeople, there’s an almost perfect silk routine in David Kaye’s book ”Seriously Silly” (page 44-45) that is designed to engage Mode 2 thinking. It introduces and cancels all possible solutions as you progress through the piece, and at the end the silk reappear and the gender bias vanish.
That piece unfortunately does nothing for people at magic clubs and conventions – people who are lightly informed, and subject to both gender bias and the Dunning-Kruger bias (The tendency for poorly informed individuals to overestimate their own knowledge).
I have a different hypothesis on how to handle those situations.
Not tested, but I still believe it might have merit, just because the gender bias isn’t very strong.
There are myths around some classical routines. Routines that the average magician believe require an extraordinary amount of skill to perform, but which in reality is quite within the grasp of any ambitious magician.
I believe those myths might have a stronger hold than the gender bias, and that the former can obliterate the latter.
For example, the general amateur magician believe that a good magician is judged by their performance of the Cups and Balls. So I believe that if an normally skilled female magician would perform Cups and Balls at their magic club, then magicians who formerly had an adverse attitude would suddenly become lyrical and give compliments for her skill.
For an audience of amateur close-up magicians, Cylinder & Coins might fill the same purpose (or any coin routine that involves a cylinder – most magicians have no idea how the legendary routine actually goes).
For an audience of amateur card magicians… I would guess Travellers or Roll-over Aces.
Of course, field testing would be necessary before saying anything for certain. There’s always the risk that all this was delusional and irrational ramblings
Any female magician who’d be willing to try out the David Kaye silk routine, as described, as an opener for laypeople – and see if there is a noticeable difference in response?
Or to do Cups and Balls for the magic club, and see if there’s a sudden increase in appreciation of your skill?