Katie wrote a phenomenal guest post some months back, about why women are held back in magic. I've wanted her to write a new post ever since, and here it is. A compelling and fascinating look at the how the deepest of human psychology and perception can affect how we're seen as performers. - Allan
Note to reader: If you’re easily offended, or think you are perfect the way you are, please do not read. You are not the target audience who can extrapolate anything positive from this.
Going into the New Year, a time when people place a lot of value on self-improvement, I felt inspired to share some ideas and information that I have gathered over some time. This blog post is all about perception, self-improvement and how to make biases work to your advantage. As magicians, there is a perception from the audience, spectators, friends, and colleagues and how they view us, especially in terms of viewing us as performers. I thought it would be both interesting and inspiring, if not a little controversial, to bring up a fascinating topic that is highly relevant in the world of entertainment, even if people are afraid to talk about it.
I am talking broadly about appearances. Literally, the way that people look, how they carry themselves, and how that has such a large impact on first impressions, as well as how it can both positively and negatively affect success in the world of magic (as well as many other areas of life).
Now, before you read further I must explain where I am coming from. I do not consider my self by any means to be an expert; this is also not me touting some elitist crap. It’s an honest look at a plethora of information about biases, impressions, and appearances. I have long had an interest in studying human psychology, especially in terms of our subliminal inclinations and desires. For years I have been reading academic papers and research for fun, and would love to share my take on how some of those very ideas (both fact and theory) can play in directly to success and failure in the world of being a magician. If you knew you could play into the way people are wired, wouldn’t you?
Feeding into the natural tendencies and prejudices of the human condition is a vital and necessary part of doing strong magic. But something people might fail to consider is that these predispositions are in play at all times, and it’s happening from the moment you walk on stage or in front of your audience, or the moment someone goes on your website and sees your photo.
Have you ever thought of it as strange that some of the most popular magicians, the ones with bustling social media accounts, who make television appearances, and appear to enjoy relatively effortless success… they often don’t happen to be more than average in terms of magical skill? Certainly while it’s not always the case, it can seem to be the rule rather than the exception. Like in most areas of entertainment, highly attractive magicians (both men and women) seem to find success much more easily than the “average” person.
Before anyone gets offended (I said this might be controversial), let me clarify that obviously this is not always the case, and I believe it’s actually a lot more fair in the world of magic than it is in say, singing or acting.
- Sometimes these people do become very good anyway because they are offered more resources initially.
- Sometimes these people are just really, really good naturally. They just have it all.
- Not everyone who makes it in the world of entertainment has done so just based on looks, as many people have gotten there from hard work and phenomenal talent.
You might be thinking this isn’t fair, that the biases towards giving attractive, beautiful people a step up in society is all that’s wrong in the world. But as research continues to show, it’s just how the human brain operates. Instead of fighting the uphill battle most of us sometimes experience, knowing how to play into subconscious tendencies of people is working smarter, not harder.
Case Study 1:
The example I am about to give is heavily referenced from the book Subliminally Exposed. However, it was also used as an example in the documentary Our Magic (which I highly recommend watching if you haven’t already seen it).
“Beauty” is all about context. Context gives us the framework to make a judgement. So no matter how stunning something or someone is, it can be completely overlooked in the wrong environment or given with the wrong delivery. A magician doing the most perfect Triumph in the world will struggle ten fold to get the audience he deserves if he looks like he hasn’t seen sunlight in a year, because he’s been living in mom’s basement playing video games. By the same theory, if you saw a Basquiat hanging in the hallway of an elementary school, you would think it was junk some kid made. Hang the same painting at a Gagosian gallery, and suddenly it’s worth more money than I will probably ever make in my life.
So The Washington Post conducted a social experiment with famed violinist Joshua Bell. Days before the experiment, Bell had performed at Boston Symphony Hall, where tickets went for hundreds of dollars for even the most mediocre seats. A few days later, he took his Stradivarius violin to a subway entrance and played his music for 45 minutes. He earned only $32 and most people walked right past him, not even realizing that one of the world’s most acclaimed musicians was playing beautiful music.
The lack of interest from the thousands of people who walked past Bell at the subway proves that the way artistry is presented is critical to how it is perceived. The combination of both the artistry (or in our case, magic) and the way it’s perceived (who is the magician, what does he/she look like, how do they act) is the defining structure of first impressions.
The reason that first impressions are so powerful is because our brain is constantly absorbing first impressions of people, and interpreting and acting on those perceptions. This was developed for species survival and it is critical to us.
On a biological level, we use first impressions to find a mate and promote the passing along of only the best genes. Attractiveness is an outward display of good genes and good health. Things that people universally find attractive, like symmetry, certain ratios, and youthfulness, all play back down to whether this person has good genes to pass on to humankind, and are therefore valuable to humankind. This is simply how the perception of beauty came to be in our brains. This kind of bias can be seen time and time again. In social experiments you can find all over the internet, when a well groomed business man or a beautiful young woman tripped and fell in the street, or found themselves in danger, strangers rushed to their aid. The same actors who were then dressed as sickly and unwell homeless individuals were often left to their own devices. This type of reaction expands beyond cultures. I’m speaking here from a proven evolutionary standpoint about why we even care about appearances. So what does this have to do with the world of entertainment, and even magic? Just keep reading.
Knowing that “beauty” is the universal language of health and good genes, how it is projected is still another matter entirely. This is where impression comes in, everything from poise, odor, clothing, and facial expressions. A person who is physically less attractive can make himself or herself appear highly attractive by presenting themselves in a favorable way. This comes from having enormous self-confidence. The personality you project, along with all the other factors of impression, add in to the final mix of whether someone is truly attractive, magnetic, and beautiful.
Now, lets continue to draw a line all the way from this concept to success in the world of entertainment and magic.
Case Study 2:
In a study published in 2009, 123 undergraduate students had their photograph taken. In the first photo, they were asked to pose with a neutral expression and stance. Then they were asked to pose in a relaxed and natural state. Then, regardless of whether the viewers looked at one photo or the other, they were able to accurately determine which ones were the most extroverted. Self-esteem was also easily identified. Observers could identify qualities like openness and likability just from the photos. This confirms that not only how we stand and carry ourselves affects first impressions, but also it gives tons of non-verbal cues about important elements of our personality. Those same snap, one-second judgments people make on you can determine whether they’re expecting you to really impress them, or if they’re already mentally preparing to do a polite clap for your awkward magic trick.
One great example of this is Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent. Most people, whether they’d like to admit it or not, were mentally preparing for a painful performance the very first second they saw her. Logically, most people know it’s not “right” to judge the way others look, but we do and will continue to because it’s a deeply evolved evolutionary survival tool, and one that will not go away with 100 years of cultural evolution and manners.
In another study, 300 observers were asked to record their first impressions of headshots of random people. I’m sure you wouldn’t be surprised to know that the people smiling were perceived to be more attractive, more successful, and even academically superior to the images where people weren’t smiling.
An acute awareness of this must be some of the most powerful information you could have as a performer. You have a massive amount of control over how others perceive you. You are not just stuck with the body, face, voice, hands or whatever else you were born with that you may not think is so great.
The impression you create is more important than physical beauty, and the secret to enhancing that first impression boils down to confidence. Confidence is the key ingredient to appearing attractive. Attractiveness is a key ingredient to great first impressions. Great first impressions are tremendously valuable, especially as a performer.
In another large study, it was found that as much as 70% of our confidence stems from our own perception of our appearance. As we grow up, we discover where we fall into that spectrum and learn the effects of that. However, as we then continue to age and achieve professional success, it has also been proven to show that the confidence gotten from that ends up becoming positively translated in all other areas of life, including how others perceive you. Consequently, the same person voted “best looking” in their senior high school class, may not feel the same way if at their ten year reunion they are not leading a life that meets their expectations.
So by now, you may be thinking, “Okay, I get it. Be confident. This isn’t groundbreaking.”
However it’s more than that. It has to be real. You can’t be cocky, because people have impeccable instincts for knowing when you’re genuinely full of confidence and believe in yourself, and when you’re just compensating for whatever you’re lacking. Whatever you feel you need to improve upon, it can’t happen overnight or with a simple shift of mindset. It’s a personal journey of self-improvement, but knowing how powerful it can be surely motivates me to be better, and I can’t see why it wouldn’t motivate anyone else.
The benefits of being highly attractive (and as discussed above, attractiveness is measure of both by physical appearance and attitude) are where you can find power in business, and as an entertainer.
In 1995, Newsweek released a special report that very attractive people got the most job offers when going for interviews. Another study even found that attractive individuals received more favorable treatment from a judge in a court of law.
So by that logic, it almost seems common sense that the young, confident guy with crap magic will be asked to do a morning news segment or get featured on a talent show, when someone with the best magic in the world, who slouches and drags along untied shoelaces, would remain struggling to even book gigs.
But there is an important note here. Those who are deemed to be the most attractive may get attention, easily, but there will also be a burnout. After the initial first impressions and biased treatment, the “truth” will always come through. If you get to the top based on looks alone, and not by skill or talent, you will likely find a premature end to your career.
Your physical appearance, your confidence, attitude and self-esteem is just as important as the magic you’re doing. The best performers do not just rely on one strength or the other.
So if like most of us, you know you’re just somewhere in the world of average, do whatever you can to make yourself feel good. It really matters and really makes a difference. Don’t just feel like you got the short end of the stick. When you feel good, you will feel genuinely confident. It’s that confidence, that genuine belief in yourself, that will only make you more attractive and give you an edge. Whether you improve your posture, freshen up your wardrobe or work on aspects of your personality that you feel maybe hold you back, the “edge” is there for anyone to take and to take advantage of.
Human beings simply cannot help but want to engage with other people who make that great first impression. The plain and hard truth is that how we look does matter, but only to a point. You cannot use appearances as a crutch for lack of talent. You cannot expect to ever find massive success as a performer when you do not care about the way you look. When you try, and you work on yourself, that will 100% translate into your work as an entertainer and magician.
People want to be entertained; people are drawn to the magnetic quality of attractive people. And the greatest part is the realization that you have control over the impression you create. It’s not about being born lucky or unlucky. You do not need an Adonis like figure or perfect symmetry to compel people to want to come over and watch your magic, share your video, or take a double take at your show poster. If you have it, use it. If you don’t, make it. All kinds of research have just simply proven that you will be taken more seriously and given more respect. If you want to rebel against that, and say “I shouldn’t have to change for anyone”, then you’re getting this all wrong. It’s not about change; it’s about making yourself better. But… if you want to work against the most deep-seated prejudices of people, then good luck to you. You’ll need it.
Self-esteem and attitude are integral and influential components of the first impression you give others, and the first impression you give, whether in a photo, video or in person, has a measurable and important hold on how easily you may or may not achieve respect, success, opportunities and attention from others.
Magic is such a highly competitive field, and one that consequently seems to attract those who can sometimes be in the span of “socially maladjusted” (again, an idea discussed in Our Magic). I too have personally struggled with that, spanning into the realm of being quite more eccentric than others. But I wrote this because I see so many people who have insane amounts of talent, but very little self-confidence or self-esteem. Those who don’t give them a second glance perceive them as just average in all aspects, or worse. Yet others who would maybe have been easily perceived as average can blow people away with their magnetic personality, powerful first impressions, and self-esteem. All before they ever pull out a deck of cards. Then there are those people who are just naturally very attractive (in many senses of the word), and they are handed the keys to the kingdom in entertainment, despite having no real skills (just look at the Kardashians). When people realize they have no real skills, the magic of their charisma and beauty wears off. Regardless of where your strength or weakness lies, I think only a fool would rely on or rebel against the partialities of the human condition.
Playing into the naturally wired tendencies of the mind is not vanity. Genuine confidence, a positive attitude, and making yourself the best person you can be can give you, perhaps, the greatest edge you could ever hope for, and make the rest of the world want to stop and watch your magic. Without that, your incredible skills and wonderful ideas may forever be looked past, because those first impressions and appearances really do matter.
It’s all a state of mind. There is a ton of more in depth research on the topic you can do yourself. If you want to be seen, and you want to be heard, you can and you will.
Photography by Daniel Hovdahl.