Free Choice

by Mark S Farrar

Question: When is a free choice not a free choice?


Answer: Never.


What do I mean by this? What I mean is that a spectator should never be able to tell the difference between true free choice and a force. Now I realise that this seems obvious, but I believe that we, as magicians, get caught up too much in our own methods and sometimes try to over-analyse the thoughts of the audience.

For example, supposing that we ask a spectator to choose a playing card. It may either be a truly free choice, or it may be no choice at all, i.e. a force. Many magic books, when describing the former, all seem to say something like "stress the fact that they have a free choice". The problem is that, sometimes, such a song and dance is made about this free choice, it may reach the point where spectators become suspicious if no mention is made. This is obviously more of an issue where an entire routine is being performed, where, say, one trick requires a force and one doesn't.


It seems to me that we should be consistent whenever we want something chosen, whether it's a playing card, a book or whatever, and whether it really is a free choice or not.


This implies two parallel approaches:


1. If we are forcing the item, try to use a force that seems as fair as possible, given the circumstances (e.g. a mathematical force may be appropriate in a mental routine but not in a gambling demonstration). Don't forget that what seems to be an obvious force to us may not to a non-magician, and that the opposite may also apply.


2. If we really are offering a free choice, do not use phrases such as "There is no force" or "You really can pick any one you want". If you do want to use such phrases, ensure that you (lie and) use them even when forcing something. Whilst this may not be so important when performing for other magicians, it is, all the same, a good habit to get into.


In fact, like the word "ordinary", as in the hackneyed phrase "I have here an ordinary deck of cards", the word "force" should never be used, even in any explanatory or introductory patter. It is, I believe, an accepted principle that non-magicians should not even be aware that they can be made to "choose" what we want them to choose instead of what they actually want. Whilst we have to acknowledge that (some) people are not unintelligent, it is, all the same, better not to put such ideas into their heads. Alternative phrases such as "influencing your choice" are psychologically much better.


But there is one final question that needs to be asked. Is this article itself guilty of over-analysis? How can we ever really ascertain what the audience think? All we can hope to do is to perform our magic for "real" people, be aware of their visible reactions and try to learn from this.


Mark S. Farrar July 2000