The unofficial psychology blog from Paul Hutchings

The Magician’s Choices all around us

Chomsky has suggested that ‘[T]he smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum’ (2008). Basically, give people the illusion of control over the things which do not particularly matter that much in order to stifle debate about the important things (my simplification of the process). But does even that exist any more? Or are even the mundane things in life controlled in a similar fashion and the hope is that the public in general will be too stupid, or not care enough, to do anything about it?

I’ve always been interested in how the “magician’s choice” can be used in everyday situations, and it has struck me this week how many areas it appears to crop up in. I don’t want to spoil people’s enjoyment of magic tricks so I’m not going to go into the details of how it works, but the basic idea behind the magician’s choice is to give a person the illusion of control, usually in selecting a card/object, whilst all the time the magician knows exactly where the object is and controls its selection, usually through clever manipulation of language.

The first case this week (and pretty much every week) is the X Factor, but substitute most programmes of a similar format and it works the same. Imagine that the judges/programme want to get one particular contestant through because they make lots of money for them in the future – the danger is of course that those pesky viewers may not agree. At the same time, the money from all those phonecalls/texts adds up and comes in very handy, so what do you do? Simple really – if your star performer doesn’t end up in the bottom two no problem, but if they do then you simply get rid of the other person in the bottom two with them. You need never lose your star right until the end, even if not a single member of the public voted for them! True, they might lose at the very final hurdle when it is purely a viewer’s vote but to get them there from odds of 12/1 is pretty impressive. A magician could use 100 objects and get it down to two before giving the participant a free choice – moving the odds from 100/1 to fifty-fifty is still pretty impressive going.
So the judges get what they want and the public gets the feeling that they have had their say in something – everybody happy.

More important, but with the same outcome, is the EU vote – get 100k signatures on a petition and the feeling that you are having a say in the democratic process, but once again the outcome is already known. Admittedly, the magician in this case wasn’t exactly subtle about how he did it but when important stuff is at stake you can’t go letting ordinary people make decisions about these things. And they felt quite happy about having a say in the democratic process in the meantime so everyone is (sort of) happy.

Take a look around your world – look for the magician’s choices around you, the elements of control that you think you have, and ask whether you truly do…

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Categorised in: General Musings, Psychology

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