a question about Ethics in Mentalism

Instead of mentally projecting your mentalism thoughts, type them here.

Postby Simone M » 04/19/11 11:10 AM

I apologize in advance if the discussion will sound obvious and old. I imagine seasoned performers have already discussed and solved these topics long before I was born.

The other day on youtube, I saw a mentalist from my country performing for a TV show. Beside the mentalist and the TV host, there was another guest there, and when asked what he thought about mentalists, he said he respects them alot because they don't pretend to be psychics but they are people who have developed incredible abilities (like reading body language etc) after studying books of great psychologists.

As both a mentalism performer and a clinical psychology student, I felt a bit [censored]. Is that really the way we want people to perceive us?

Of course the average mentalist knows about real psychology as much as the average psychologist knows about mentalism. "Hey, we don't have to sell ourself as psychics anymore, we can sell ourself as fake psychology experts and start insulting the fake psychics!!". Ever since the acronym 'NLP' has started making its way into mentalism books and presentations, and the word 'psychology' has entered into the dictionaries of the performers, anybody goes onstage presenting himself has a little Sigmund Freud.*

I'm not talking about our methods of verbal and physical deception and 'ludic' psychological subtleties...these are actually the best and most honest part of our branch of the art. I just don't know how I feel when I see so many performers abusing of words such as "psychology", "suggestion", "planting thoughts inside your mind" "influencing your actions" "reading your body language" etc. I don't like this attempt at making mentalism more prestigious and serious using proto-scientifical expressions.

I don't want to disrespect people's work or whatever, but everytime I try and think of ways of presenting mentalism that are entertaining without being dishonest and scary and without making the audience believe that I can juggle with their "subconscious" or whatever (because I can't, otherwise I would be at the hospital helping people getting rid of their mental issues instead of performing at the club), I struggle with these topics.




* just to mention, although they say NLP is based on the work of a psychiatrist (and, truth to be told, a serious and clever one - Erickson), it has the same psychological and scientifical relevance of the telemarketed diet products.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 04/19/11 11:30 AM

? you want to bring a lumpy couch on stage and a chow-chow dog and pretend that the dog can sense their thoughts?

Just saying that "shut-eye", "open-eye", comic entertainer, bizarrist and tinfoil hat wearing nutcase are not the only options you have. I agree that the labcoat and clipboard thing was better left to Milgram - unless you want to play agent for a higher authority (which is closer to bizarrist IMHO) and enroll the participants into experiments for laughs.
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Postby Ivanovich » 04/19/11 01:28 PM

If you want a great way to present mentalism without resorting to outright lies about your "powers" or that disingenuous crap that you hear from many mentalists who don't want to admit that they are using magician's techniques but don't want to say that they have actual powers, read Teller's intro to Derren Brown's Absolute Magic.

It's perfect. Pure and simple.

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Postby Ivanovich » 04/19/11 03:54 PM

BTW, my mistake. I meant Teller's intro to Banachek's Psychological Subtleties. Augh! I'm rereading both in tandem and my brain took a leave of absence. I thank Jamy Swiss for setting me straight.

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Postby SteveP » 04/19/11 07:13 PM

Why claim or disclaim anything? There is absolutely no reason to. This is just magician's guilt and possibly peer pressure. You have only one responsibility and that is to present an entertaining program.
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Postby Xavier » 04/19/11 07:16 PM

In the end where are you performing? A church? When I go see wicked, I know the witches aren't real.... If they came out and said you know I'm not actually a witch, I don't have magic, I can't fly on a broom, oz is a mythical place creat by Baum (I think it was), and now watch me pretend to do magic while acting; most people would feel cheated and couldn't disconnect from that speech.

Please ladies and gentlemen as powerful as you feel after doing magic, no one really believes you can teleport cards etc. If they do there's something wrong in their mental state. If I'm producing a think a drink and clothing prediction at a magic bar, I'm pretty sure I'm not converting people to xavierism...

Peace... Love.... Card peeks...
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Postby Xavier » 04/19/11 07:18 PM

You know I've been thinking about this more and more.... Didn't Houdini convince the heathens of Africa to believe he was a real shaman.... Didn't he also convince people his son levitated due to the mystical powers of ether?

If a presentation or pseudo science depends a performance, what's wrong? Especially if it's clear it's entertainment.
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Postby SteveP » 04/19/11 09:55 PM

I'm sure you meant Houdin and not Houdini.
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Postby Brad Henderson » 04/20/11 12:14 AM

Steve, didn't we get into a rather heated argument over Alain nu's special ages ago on your blog? If I recall you took the position that he should have disclaimed - or at least done so more strongly. Have you a change of heart? (not trying to be argumentative, just seeing if you did change your mind and, if so, what specifically brought it about?)
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Postby Brad Henderson » 04/20/11 12:18 AM

Xavier, I think, for many, your last sentence is the key - as long as it is clear it is entertainment. Some 'break the proscenium arch' with their claims and characters. For many, that's when things become grey. Some people won't be happy unless you slap the audience in the face with the word 'trick'. Some have no problem with anything.
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Postby SteveP » 04/20/11 05:56 AM

Brad,

I think the issue I had with Alain's TV show is that he claimed what he was doing was real. I would have to see/hear the statement from the show again because I may disagree with what I wrote several years ago.

Now I'm coming from the perspective of a working mentalist, which has been the primary show I've been presenting for the past several years. So I've given a lot of thought to my approach, which is I don't disclaim anything. But I'm also not claiming what I do is real either, aside from a lie detection presentation, which can be real and I miss occasionally (which happened two nights ago at a corporate event).

In my opinion there are much more interesting things to say at the beginning of the show other than a disclaimer. So my approach is to just do the show.
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Postby Dusty » 04/20/11 06:42 AM

Steve Pellegrino wrote:Why claim or disclaim anything? There is absolutely no reason to. This is just magician's guilt and possibly peer pressure. You have only one responsibility and that is to present an entertaining program.

Totally agree Steve, let them believe what they want, they will anyway!
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 04/20/11 09:11 AM

Looks like some folks here have read Teller's introduction to the Banacheck book.
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Postby SteveP » 04/20/11 09:25 AM

If someone is struggling with a disclaimer as an ethical issue, then maybe they should ask themselves another question - why don't magicians use disclaimers? Is it already decided that magic is just trickery, full of sleight of hand and misdirection and real magic doesn't exist? And if that's the case, then why are magicians presenting it as if it is real? If you're doing a gambling themed card routine and you give the audience the impression that you really could cheat a casino with your amazing abilities, it's that lying? Shouldn't there be a disclaimer?
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 04/20/11 09:31 AM

Steve, have a look at Teller's introduction as cited earlier.

IMHO a few moments reading can save much fussing and fretting and make things much easier for working performers.
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Postby SteveP » 04/20/11 09:55 AM

I've read it several times in the past and just went back and read it again to refresh my memory. I agree with some of it and disagree with some of it. I don't think it's as black and white as states.

There are always going to be some people who, know matter what you say or do, believe what you're doing is real. I remember after one show many years ago a guy came up to me and thought I knew some things that were outside of reality because of my linking rings. Somebody like that cannot be helped and it's not my responsibility to set them straight.

After a mentalism show there can be strange conversations as well, but my feeling is most people have common sense and they know what I'm doing is for entertainment. If I really had the abilities I display in my show, then why would I be doing the show? I could be making a lot more money doing other, more interesting things.

My interpretation of Teller's intro is that he is in favor of a disclaimer. He wrote one in the intro. I like Richard Osterlind's approach - I don't claim anything, therefore I don't have anything to disclaim.

On his Fabulous Monster DVD, Max Maven made an interesting point. He said that some people may feel what he does is real and others may feel what he does is a trick and that no matter how they felt, he was fine with it either way. I think that sums it up!
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Postby SteveP » 04/20/11 11:01 AM

I think one last point is this. It's a personal issue. If having a disclaimer makes you feel better, then do it. If you don't care, then don't do it. There isn't a right or wrong answer.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 04/20/11 11:04 AM

How much of this can be handled by framing - ie the basic format of the show advertising, decor and character work so the audience is set up and cued as to how to interpret what they are presented?
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 04/20/11 11:34 AM

As noted earlier, Max Maven answers this question succinctly in the documentary on him called Max Maven: A Fabulous Monster. Obviously it is his answer, but I believe if this question is something that one is struggling with, hearing his thoughts on it are worth the meager price of this DVD. (And I believe that youll also enjoy the rest of what it has to offer.)

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Postby Simone M » 04/20/11 11:34 AM

Well, I think "magic" is self-explanatory enough to not needing any disclaimer. How did things happen? By magic. If you make a bill float, the audience doesn't assume you have power over the rules of gravity and you're a mini-Newton. They don't assume you have a thread either though, they just sit back and enjoy cause everybody knows that the concept of "magic" goes beyond science and reality.

With mentalism is a bit different. Some mental effects can be very touching for people's sensibility: Q&A, cold reading, dealing with dead relatives, mindreading etc. Since mentalists are usually afraid of mentioning the word "magic", it's only natural that the some people in the audience will start wondering and they'll cling to the most vivid cultural references they have (psychics, paranormal etc). I find it questionable when performers, after the trick, ask "Do you believe in mind reading now?". Eh, did you feel the power of the Lord?

I strongly disagree with people saying that it's fine to present these things as pseudo-science for the sake of entertainment. I don't want feed the people with misconceptions about science and psychology for my own benefit and prestige. It's not magician's guilt, is more of "cultural guilt". For example (good) magicians put a lot of thoughts, presentation wise, when they have to perform, say a sex-themed trick. Even though a sexist presentation would make a greater impact on macho-men in the audience, they try to avoid sexism so they don't risk to bother other people's sensibility. That said, I don't see any good reason why a mentalist shouldn't put the same effort in "caring" about his audience.

I think the question goes a bit beyond the claim/disclaim thing. I believe it can be done in a clever way without the performer having to state before every trick "Remember folks it's just an illusion". For example, trying to avoid to borrow words from science, psychology and stuff. I always talk about mystery, coincidence, miracles etc. That helps me convincing them that they are seeing magical things that don't exist in the real world.

And Jonathan, I think a lot can be handled by framing, performer's persona and material.
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Postby SteveP » 04/20/11 12:09 PM

Agreed with everyone's thoughts.

Dustin, you're correct about Max's Fabulous Monster DVD. Very entertaining documentary and you get to see clips of Max perform. I think it's a must have for any mentalist.

Jonathan, you bring up an interesting point. Yes there is quite a bit you can do to set the expectation of the show. For those of us lesser known mentalists, it's an interesting challenge and sometimes this is where and why a disclaimer comes in. It's almost as if the disclaimer is used as an explanation of what the show is about.

Most people don't know what a mentalist is, so there is no expectation about what the show is about. I should restate that and say most people in the USA don't know. Even though Derren Brown doesn't call himself a mentalist, audiences in the UK are more aware of this style of entertainment.

You have to set a mood, an expectation in one way or another. I do it with a 7 foot banner people can see before I start and with my opening remarks. Obviously Derren or Kreskin already have a built-in fan base and no explanation is required. But you don't know what to expect. For example at some company events, they want the entertainment to be a surprise, so no chance to build a pre-show buzz.

Another simple technique is to do some strolling before the show and build rapport with the crowd that way.

Simone, regarding a pseudo-science framing, I disagree with it for another reason. Everyone who take that approach is really just stealing Derren Brown's style because that's obviously who some of these guys were inspired from.
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Postby Fred Zimmerman » 05/31/11 02:29 PM

Hi,

Just reviewing this thread, and am in agreement with Steve. However, just to be clear, Derren did not originate the pseudo-scientific approach. That had been around for several years (decades) before Derren arrived on the scene.

However, he did develop & "popularize" it in the UK (and to some extent, around the world). "Popularizing" something does not mean "originating." But, as a preemptive quibble, the perception of the audience is everything, and if they first encountered it through Derren, then to them, he originated it.

Personally, if you want to create something "new" and not too derivative, then I suggest looking into your own life and lineage, and finding information on which you can build that makes your story, if not unique, then at least authentic.

And certainly, a certain amount of hyperbole and story-telling also enters into it, but at least you're not simply parroting someone els'es act or approach.

BTW, easier said than done, but it's worthwhile.
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Postby Jonathan Pendragon » 06/04/11 05:07 AM

Gentlemen,

A very timely discussion! Jim Steinmeyer recently premiered his one-act play The Card Trick at the Magic Castle. Much of the play is about this very topic. My next column in the "Search for the Grail" series for Dodd Vickers' Magic Newswire gives my own take on the subject. In trying to create a new style of mentalism, I have veered away from the "psychic" and pseudo-psychological back stories. As many of you know, the basis of my character is someone with OCD [which I do have] who exhibits savant-like talents. The truth is we don't exhibit savant talents, so I have to walk a very fine line. I am still trying to learn my balance.
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Postby Dick Christian » 06/04/11 11:38 AM

I have read Tellers intro to Banacheks PS1, but dont have Maxs Fabulous Monster. Like Steve Pelligrino I agree with some of Tellers opinions and disagree with others, but the bottom line is that when it comes to either claims or disclaimers I agree with Steve and Dusty that both are unnecessary so I avoid them. I consider the fact that I am hired as an entertainer to be the only disclaimer required. IMO as soon as one offers an explanation (whether it is psychology, body language, NLP, etc., or psychic powers) -- which I consider synonymous to claiming an ability -- one risks being asked to prove it. In addition, it is not only quite possible, but likely, that a sophisticated audience (the best for performances of mentalism) may include one or more members who have more knowledge and experience in the subject claimed than the performer. Since I make no overt claims, I have nothing to prove.

I subscribe to Bob Cassidys assertion that the more abilities one claims or demonstrates, the more ones credibility is diminished. I bill myself as a mindreader, more specifically a reader of thoughts and that is the only ability I demonstrate. I simply do it and leave it to the audience to interpret what I do however they wish.

Having said that I DO try to make my demonstrations as real as possible by replicating how I think it would appear if I really COULD read minds. I assume that 20-25% will think its all trickery, a like % will believe it is real and the remaining 50-60% arent sure -- and THEY are the ones Im playing to.

As re: the question Steve raised -- why dont magicians use disclaimers? I think that it is, in part, because they know that the audience accepts what they do as nothing more than clever trickery. But I also believe that there is an element of what Ive dubbed premise envy on the part of magicians -- i.e., they secretly wish that the audience would believe that their magic IS real and envy the fact that the mentalist may be perceived as real by HIS audiences.
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Postby Mathias435 » 09/04/11 05:38 PM

Steve Pellegrino wrote:Why claim or disclaim anything? There is absolutely no reason to. This is just magician's guilt and possibly peer pressure. You have only one responsibility and that is to present an entertaining program.


What he says ! Totally agree!
I write on a site about how to be a mentalist.

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Postby Richard Stokes » 09/11/11 01:15 PM

Simone, I wonder if you are prepared to concede that clinical psychology is itself partly based on pseudo-scientific principles?
For example, classical learning theory, which underpins 'scientific psychology' is somewhat moth-eaten for the modern era.
Furthermore, clinical psychology tends to be harshly dismissive of psycho-dynamic theories.
When I was a psych student 30 yrs ago, I pinned a quotation to my wall (a real wall, not a facebook wall) attributed to Jung: "To really understand the human psyche, you should not study experimental psychology."
An extreme point of view, perhaps. But this reminder served me well.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 09/11/11 06:46 PM

I don't suppose you need me to reassure you that I don't know what you're thinking, as we both already know there are folks who've been making sure they know what we're thinking as they send us messages night and day. For tonight, how about we leave the matter to rest and enjoy the show?

It's useful to treat "mind" and "thoughts" and "free will" as working presuppositions, constructs we treat as if actual. Perhaps that's close to what physicists do when use the psi function when making predictions about where to find dots or trails that indicate the presence of elementary particles.
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Postby mrgoat » 09/12/11 04:28 AM

I think it's wrong for someone to leave a performance believing what they saw was a display of NLP, OCD, or anything other than cheating using magic to entertain people.

No one leaves The Tempest thinking Prospero actually could do magic.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 09/12/11 06:19 AM

Isn't that why Shakespeare had him break his staff and drop his books of magic into the ocean on the way home ("But this rough magic I abjure" and all that) ? And more generally why the cast takes a curtain call at the end of a show?
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Postby mrgoat » 09/12/11 06:42 AM

Jonathan Townsend wrote:Isn't that why Shakespeare had him break his staff and drop his books of magic into the ocean on the way home ("But this rough magic I abjure" and all that) ?


I don't believe that was to let the audience know he was just an actor.

Jonathan Townsend wrote:And more generally why the cast takes a curtain call at the end of a show?


Now this is the thing, no one thinks an actor playing the part of a doctor is a doctor in real life. Willing suspension of disbelief.

However, in this day and age, with the death of the church, 'people' are desperate to believe in something. Anything to help them live their lives. Could be crystals, tarot, homeopathy, guji berries or someone that says they can do things with their mind.

It's wrong to dupe these people.

IMHO.
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Postby Simone M » 09/12/11 09:49 AM

Richard Stokes wrote:Simone, I wonder if you are prepared to concede that clinical psychology is itself partly based on pseudo-scientific principles?
For example, classical learning theory, which underpins 'scientific psychology' is somewhat moth-eaten for the modern era.
Furthermore, clinical psychology tends to be harshly dismissive of psycho-dynamic theories.
When I was a psych student 30 yrs ago, I pinned a quotation to my wall (a real wall, not a facebook wall) attributed to Jung: "To really understand the human psyche, you should not study experimental psychology."
An extreme point of view, perhaps. But this reminder served me well.



Richard,
my mistake for calling it "clinical" -- my attempt to get away from the so called "positive psychology" (self help books psychology of no value that people seem to like so much). I'm not familiar with foreign labels (not familiar with our own labels aswell!), but I want to point out that my approach is 100% socio-historical when dealing with the dynamics between the individual -- his/her superego and the environment.

Back on topic, I understand that pseudo-science is a big selling point for mentalism nowdays and it's hard for the average performer (who thinks in terms of theatre, entertainment, business rather than culture -- a lot more than his/her anti-psychic effort would suggest) to not fall in the trap.
Entertainment is something, promoting plausible [censored] that takes advantage of the spectator's ignorance for our own ego -- to get the gig -- is an entirely different matter.

Isn't it wrong to expect that is the spectator the one who has the responsibility (and enough notions) to discern the truth from the lie, the real life from the theatre, or is just a quibble to (in the best liberal way) take advantage of our position? Long story short, the risk is to persuade the audience that the brain works in a way it doesn't: that it's readable, malleable, controllable and (worst) fixable thru esoteric rituals.

And isn't Derren Brown curing people on telly nowdays?! Truth to be told, that's a lot worse than making the audience believe in ghosts and dead people talking.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 09/12/11 11:49 AM

? just how do folks advertise their shows?
What's on the program and theater billing?

Come on in and watch as what you think and what you believe is shown to be as puty in the hands of the great and powerful Oz?
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Postby Jonathan Pendragon » 09/16/11 06:41 AM

Prospero breaks his staff and drowns his books because, in the early 1600s, "magic" was still viewed with a wary eye. Shakespeare's magician returns to Naples triumphant, unlike Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, who is damned. But the true magic of the play has to do with theatre craft. Shakespeare, knowing it was going to be his last play, creates an allegory of Prospero's art of magic, equating it with the art of the theater. So, in a sense, Prospero does present "magic" on stage.

OCD is a part of me. It's who I am. It defines the way I think, and the way I present my magic. When I tell the audience that what they see is because of my OCD, I'm not lying. I'm not even telling a half-truth.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 09/16/11 08:26 AM

He went back a rightful Duke - to a different staff (scepter) and books of compelling words.
A less rough (more refined within the larger society) magic?
His story continues through Miranda by way of Ferdinand.
At a guess we're still keeping "royal", "holy" and "magic" compartmentalized.
If so, have a look at the walls/frames of those compartments.
Also at the frame which seperates a story from a model of the sort we use in science.
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Reason: A wink is as good as a nod if you blink or miss the rowboat in a Tempest of denial.
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Postby Jonathan Pendragon » 09/17/11 07:02 AM

"Mien Fuhrer! I can walk."

Yes there are limits and "curing" people on stage is one of them. Not even citing the "placebo effect" gives any performer the right to conjurer false hope.
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Postby aireM » 09/27/11 10:44 AM

I always put it down to this, it does not matter how you are perceived as long as you don't claim to have supernatural ability's. People will and DO still believe I am psychic after I have performed, even if I make a point of stating I am not!

People look for a way to excuse the things they have seen and as mentalism is wrapped up differently to magic people will always put it down to things like body language.

If you have ethical issues about lying to people you are in the wrong industry, what's the difference in saying I am placing your card in the middle (and not) or letting someone believe you are doing something one way (reading body language) and just not correcting them.

Very good question though
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