What Can Magicians Learn From Focus Groups?

Pete McCabe on focus groups, magic, and the best way to force a card, based on the research!

What Can Magicians Learn From Focus Groups?
Photo by Dylan Gillis / Unsplash

Focus groups have a bad reputation in entertainment. Movie directors especially love to moan about being forced to compromise their artistic vision to satisfy some focus group. But outside of entertainment, businesses are desperate for data about their customers.

When I worked in advertising, I watched focus groups on topics from a new model of printer to what people think of their phone company versus their cable tv provider. All these companies spent big money to learn about their customers.

But magicians, whatever their artistic vision, had no choice. There was just no focus group research on magic.

That’s not true anymore. Over the past decade or so, Andy (not his real name) who writes thejerx.com, worked with Andrew Costello to run several focus groups on magic.

There are limitations to focus group research, but this is pretty much the only actual scientific data available on the subject. And the results contradict some of magic’s most cherished conventional wisdom.

This is why companies do focus groups: quite often, conventional wisdom is wrong. The phone company I mentioned assumed that people liked their phone company much more than their cable company. The exact opposite was true.

The Limits of Focus Group Results

There are two things you have to remember when looking at any focus group results.

1) People may not behave the same in a focus group as they do in real life.

In a survey, People often respond with what they think the answer should be, rather than what it is. People can also be strongly influenced by other people in the group—google “Asch Conformity Line Experiment” if you doubt this.

In one legendary (in the advertising world) example, a company were testing a new music player. They had samples available for people to try out, in two different colors, yellow and black. Yellow was overwhelmingly preferred.

At the end, the participants were told they could each take one of the devices. Everybody took a black one.

2) The results are specific to the group.

All the results I’ll be reporting on were tested in the United States. They may not apply to people in other places.

So if you want to discount these results and just believe the conventional wisdom, there’s your out. But you will be missing a chance to make your magic better.

Card forces

This study was designed to answer the question: which is the most effective card force? Here are the forces they tested, listed in alphabetical order so as not to give away which did better:

  • Classic force
  • Crosscut force
  • Dribble force
  • Riffle force
  • Second deal force
  • Under-the-spread force

Which of those do you think scored the best? Which was the worst?

More importantly, why do you think that?

Actually, let’s be very clear about what we’re talking about:

  • Classic Force: The magician spreads the cards in their hands, the spectator takes one.
  • Cross Cut Force: The spectator cuts the deck, and one half is put across the other to mark the cut.
  • Dribble Force: The magician dribbles the cards from one hand to the other until the spectator says, “Stop.”
  • Riffle Force: The magician holds the deck in a dealing grip and runs their thumb down the corner of the deck until the spectator says, “Stop.”
  • Second Deal Force: The cards are dealt on the table until the spectator says "Stop." They can choose that card or keep dealing.
  • Under-the-spread Force: The magician spreads the cards in their hands, and the spectator touches one. They can change their mind.

The biggest challenge in any test is to limit the variables. You want the same magician to do all the forces, so any difference in the results is due to the force itself. But what magician is equally good at all these forces? If my Dribble force beats my Riffle force, how do you know it’s not just me?

So here’s what they did: they didn’t force any cards. They had a card selected using the handling of each force, but without any actual force. So for the classic force, they simply spread the deck and let the person pick any card. For the second deal force they dealt fairly until the person said stop. No card was forced.

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