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I think anyone who’s seen a magic show has witnessed conversations between the magician and a supposedly-randomly-chosen audience member that goes something like this:

  • Magician: What’s your name?
  • Volunteer: John
  • Magician: John, welcome. Have we ever met?
  • Volunteer: No
  • Magician: Do you know how the following trick works?
  • Volunteer: No

In order to believe that the audience member is an aide, I would have to believe that they are lying. However, they are not providing any evidence that they are not lying, so is it reasonable to assume that they likely are?

Recently a show on British TV, Enigma, showed Derren Brown performing a sequence of tricks, all of which can easily be explained simply by saying all the “volunteers” are aides, despite his insistence that they are not (they even displayed a message on-screen after every intermission to that effect).

Furthermore, there is this lecture by James Randi in which he performs a magic trick (fast forward to 1:01:00 to see it). Again, James Randi and the audience member (Lisa) both insist that she is genuine; in fact, Randi spends much of the talk saying how magicians are all “honest” because they don’t claim to have supernatural powers like the psychics and charlatans do... but there is no evidence to believe it. Is it reasonable to assume that she is most likely an aide?

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For some tricks you require the "volunteer" to be an aide, but there are a lot of astonishing tricks, often relying on psychology, that do not need volunteers. Wondering whether or not someone is an aide is therefore part of trying to figure out the trick :) –  Lagerbaer Apr 29 '11 at 3:11
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I've left some comments on the answers. The question is old, and the answers are from before we decided to require reference*. As such, the answers are not broken windows -- bad examples. To the respective authors: please fix them or they'll eventually be deleted. Thank you :-) –  Sklivvz Apr 29 '11 at 8:40
    
David Copperfield used to throw a rubber brick around the audience several times to "show" that the volunteer is genuine. Is that sufficient evidence? Then again, an entire section of the audience where the brick is thrown could be filled with aides... –  Gnubie Nov 15 '12 at 13:59
    
@Gnubie: Well, no... throwing the brick multiple times only increases the probability that you hit a stooge. He probably just has it thrown over and over again until it hits a stooge. –  Timwi Nov 16 '12 at 14:29
    
@Timwi: True, since he doesn't say in advance how many times the brick will be thrown. –  Gnubie Nov 17 '12 at 23:30

2 Answers 2

Magicians could be using aides, but they really aren't needed. Humans are fundamentally wired to respond in certain ways, which has been shown to be accurate over and over. As a stage magician you can take use of techniques such as cold reading, suggestion, hypnosis and even the natural desire of people to want to please. This is much the way that sociopaths work ironically, except where a magician is out to entertain a sociopath is out to get their way.

For more in depth information into how this works check out the following resources:

http://revision3.com/scamschool

http://www.psychologistworld.com/cognitive/cold_reading.php

"The sociopath next door" by Martha Stout

http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/ucce50/ag-labor/7article/article35.htm

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18225612

http://www.ericksonian.com/?page_id=10 (for the bio of Milton Erickson)

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Welcome to Skeptics! Wikipedia alone is not considered an authoritative reference for answers. Please add links to more authoritative resources! :-) –  Sklivvz Apr 29 '11 at 8:38
    
@Sklivvz fixed the links –  avwa Apr 29 '11 at 15:32
    
Thanks for that! –  Sklivvz Apr 29 '11 at 16:16
    
Magicians have far more repertoire than just that list of attributes of human nature! You have neglected all sleight of hand and prop-based tricks! –  Oddthinking Jun 8 '11 at 3:55

It is a logical (or perhaps statistical) fallacy to assume that it is an aide. Let me see if I can explain why, with sufficient references!

I'll starting with two premises:

1) Yes, magicians sometimes uses stooges in the audience. [Ref: (1) My grade 4 teacher, Miss Knott, used me as the stooge. (2) I once used more than one stooge. Okay, these are both anecdotes, but this is hardly an extraordinary claim.]

2) But magicians also do tricks that DON'T require volunteers from audience members. [Ref: Duninger's Complete Encyclopedia of Magic, by Joseph Duninger, (1967), to pick a random book of magic off my bookshelf.]

With those two premises, the rest is simple logic:

If you don't have volunteers, then clearly you don't have stooges. So, it is possible to do illusions that fool people - ones where the lay public cannot see any possible explanation of how something was done - that do not rely on stooges.

So, if magicians can regularly perform illusions that have no need for stooges, it is a fallacy to assume that any trick involving volunteers that you cannot explain must be done with stooges. It is even a fallacy to assume that it is a likely explanation.

Of course, it would be a similar fallacy to assume that it is not performed by stooges.

In short, magicians have many different techniques, and using stooges is only one of them.

[Anecdotally, I have been dragged on stage by magicians, and had tricks performed on me where I have not been a stooge and have no explanation of how they were done, which you would expect to happen occasionally if stooges were not used.]


In the case of Randi's trick, I do not know how he did it, and if I did, I would not tell you. Given I don't know, and I am only guessing wildly, I don't mind sharing my thoughts: he spent more time than he needed to explaining that the gave the volunteer his pen and his magazine, and IIRC, that he took the magazine back afterwards. This suggests to me he may have had a mechanism for determining the chosen word. Historically, I have been frequently wrong at guessing the mechanism of tricks, so this is wild speculation.

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The question may not have been approaching this via logic: "Is it reasonable to assume?" Assumptions can be proven wrong; you can hold reasonable assumptions until more data comes in. This is highly subjective, obviously. –  MrHen Jun 8 '11 at 18:22
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In the question are the phrases "is it reasonable to assume that they likely are?" and "Is it reasonable to assume that she is most likely an aide?". So not just assume it is a possibility, but that it is the most likely possibility. I'm guessing the OP hasn't learnt much magic, and therefore can only think of one possibility, making it seem the most likely. I have learnt just enough magic to know there are many, many possibilities, and that stooges aren't common. But I could never prove that, without knowing how a majority of tricks work - and I don't. –  Oddthinking Jun 8 '11 at 18:32
    
Ah, I see. Excellent rebuttal. :) –  MrHen Jun 8 '11 at 18:38
    
This answer while interesting is rather poor and comes across as based on personal experience, despite a single reference to a single book that is hard to check. Surely this question can be updated with some online references, and be less rambling/anecdotal? –  Sklivvz Apr 1 '12 at 9:07

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