In magic, choices are rarely what they seem. Magicians know how to manipulate us into a false sense of free will while really holding the puppet strings. Here’s a simple but clever example of a false choice used in magic. Imagine, if you will, the face of an analog clock and think of any hour on the dial (one, two, three … all the way to twelve.) You have a totally free choice. You can even change your mind if you like. Now we’re going to inject some randomness into your decision. Imagine that your finger is the hour hand and, starting at midnight, spell out the hour you chose, moving your finger clockwise by one step for each letter. (For instance, if you thought of seven, you’d spell out s-e-v-e-n, moving the time forward a total of five hours.). After you’ve done that, your finger will be on a new number. Starting there, spell this number, following the same procedure as before, moving your finger around the dial until you land on yet another number. Repeat the procedure one last time, starting where you left off. Remember the hour on which your finger finally lands. This is your selection. You arrived at this number randomly after making a free choice, so I think it’s fair to say that it would be impossible for me to know where your finger ended up. And yet I’m getting an impression right now. In my third eye, a vision of an old mahogany grandfather clock with a swinging pendulum and hand-painted Roman numerals on the dial. The image is ghostly and pale. I can barely make out the face. The hour-hand reads: One o’clock.
This elementary ruse is known as a force. (Try starting with another number and you’ll see why it’s a force.) A force is a way to control a spectator’s selection, be it of a card, number, word, letter — just about anything — and it’s one of the most powerful weapons in magic. There are hundreds of methods. (See for instance, 202 Methods of Forcing, by the great mentalist Ted Annemann.) Forcing gets way more sophisticated, but the basic idea is always the same.
Another familiar force is known as Magician’s Choice, the equivoqué. The idea is to set up multiple paths to the same endpoint. In the simplest version, you deal two cards down on the table and ask the spectator to “remove” to one of them. If your volunteer removes to the card you want to force, you say “OK, that’ll be yours.” If, however, the spectator points to the other card, you eliminate it, saying “Great, we’ll remove that one.” (Here you’re exploiting the ambiguity in the meaning of the word remove.) Either way the spectator winds up with the same card. This sounds transparent — especially with only two cards — but it gets more sophisticated. In the right hands, it can be incredibly deceptive. By couching choices in ambiguous, open-ended language and exploiting the fact that the spectator doesn’t know what’s coming — assuming they’ve never seen the trick before — the magician can gently control an apparently free decision from among numerous items.
As in magic, real-world decisions can also be influenced by how the criteria are framed. In one fascinating example, Princeton University psychologist Eldar Shafir asked a group of students to act as the jury in a mock custody battle between two parents. Parent A was said to have an average income, average health, average working hours, a reasonable rapport with the child, and a relatively stable social life. Parent B, on the other hand, had an above-average income, a very close relationship with the child, an extremely active social life, lots of work-related travel, and minor health problems. Parent A was clearly the more conservative choice, with no real positive or negative extremes, while Parent B had two very positive attributes, such as a very close relationship with the child and an above-average income, but also a few modestly troubling ones, like minor health problems and an active social life. So which parent did most people prefer?
The answer, rather unexpectedly, depended on how the question was phrased. When the jury was asked, “Which parent would you deny sole custody of the child?” they awarded the child to Parent A. But when asked, “To which parent would you award sole custody of the child?” Parent B got the kid. The reason for this discrepancy, Shafir concluded, was that the former question draws attention to the parents’ strengths — which favors Parent B, who boasts two strong attributes despite also having some negative ones — while the latter question highlights the parents’ weaknesses — which favors the safer bet, Parent A, who though never rising above “average” in any area has no real negatives.
A similar susceptibility to the wording of choices has been found to influence people’s preferences over vacation spots and college courses and even their self-reported happiness scores. (People who are asked “Are you happy?” for instance, tend to rate themselves as happier on average than those asked “Are you unhappy?” This is why, as experimental psychologist Cordelia Fine points out in A Mind of Its Own, you should never ask a partner you want to stay with, “Don’t you still love me?”) When it comes to weighing important options, seemingly irrelevant details such as the phrasing of the parameters can play a decisive role in our decisions.
These findings run counter to our intuition because we tend to regard our choices as outward reflections of inner values. In those we elect, in those we marry, in our purchase choices and dietary decisions, we believe that our choices define us and express us. Our instincts tells us that we are good at “endgaming” our decisions, that our choices matter and our preferences sway the outcomes in meaningful ways.
But a growing mass of empirical evidence on the cognitive processes behind decision-making suggests otherwise. Despite what our instincts would have us believe, the cognitive calculus behind even simple decisions is murky at best — and subject to external influence. We are not nearly as free in our choices as we think we are, or as precise at weighing the outcomes after the fact.
Alex Stone is the author of Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks and the Hidden Powers of the Mind. His writing has appeared in Discover, Harper’s, Science, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.