Meet the King of the Internet Skeptics
Aug 4 2014
If you don’t know his name, you’ll probably know Richard Wiseman’s videos. They’re those handy YouTube clips—all of them still racking up millions of views—that teach you how to successfully hustle strangers into buying you drinks (or just how to win a bet, depending on how much you like swindling people you don’t know).
But Richard is much more than the oracle of online betting advice. The professor of the public understanding of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, a magician, a skeptic, and a best-selling author, he’s been called “the most interesting and innovative experimental psychologist in the world today.” His brand of psychology touches on everything from magic and the principles of luck, through the deconstruction of myths around paranormal phenomena and astrology, to undertaking international experiments with the aim of finding the world’s funniest joke.
I met with him in Edinburgh to chat about some of that stuff.
VICE: Hey, Richard. How did you first get into magic?
Richard Wiseman: People get into magic young. They know either it’s for them or it's not—there’s no middle ground. I got into it when I was about eight or so, then did loads of kids' parties where I was entertaining kids not much younger than me. Then, when I studied at the University of London, a friend and I—another psychologist, actually—decided to put together an act as street performers in Covent Garden.
Your YouTube videos touch on psychology, magic, pop culture science, and academia. How do you bring all those together? It seems like a tricky balancing act.
I think it is. My professorship is in the public understanding of psychology, so it’s my job to do that. I look at interesting aspects of psychology, then try to reach out to the public. It's a kind of balancing act between simplification, which is fine, and dumbing down, which isn't fine. You try to simplify things, to get people energised and excited so they understand a little more about what’s going on. For me, it’s about finding platforms to do that.
Presumably there's plenty of crossover between magic and psychology.
Yeah, in a way magic tricks are little psychology experiments, because they have to work and fool the person every single time, unlike most [psychological] experiments.
My friend conducted an experiment recently. She left an old chipped mug on the wall with a sign saying, "Don’t move this; it's an art installation." It got moved a lot.
Ah, that’s interesting. So the question would then be, "Why?" Is it that the sign draws more attention to it and people actually notice, or that they don’t like being told what to do? One could do experiments to find out which of those is true. You could get another sign that says, "Do not move this mug," instead of, "Do not move this mug; it’s part of an art installation," and that will tell you how much the words "art installation" matter.
I think the mug eventually disappeared.
So someone has an extra chipped mug in their cupboard. I heard of an experiment yesterday where they’d dressed mannequins as homeless people, and people were giving more money to the mannequins dressed up as homeless people than to homeless people.
Because they felt uncomfortable [with real people]—because you have the embarrassment with an actual person.
You have a show at the Edinburgh Fringe about lucid dreaming—teaching people to control their dreams. Can you tell me about that?
There are actually three shows. First is a musical I’m doing about a ghost hunter called Harry Price, which is fun. We’re then doing a psychological show where people are led through a series of experiences with no performer, which is quite a challenge. I’m also doing the Night School talk, which is about work on dream control, and that’s related to an iPhone app called "Dream On," which plays sound clips when you’re asleep, the theory being those influence your dreams. So yes, it’s going to be a busy August.
You’re also speaking with Jon Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test, this summer and you’ve previously spoken to Derren Brown. Would you say there's a cohesion between your respective work—a kind of pop culture approach to psychology?
Well, I think there's been a rise in—I don’t know what to call it, whether it’s skepticism or an interest in science, or being nerdy. Certainly when I started out the audiences were fairly small; then, since about 2001, they started to build up, and you noticed a movement come through. I think Derren and Jon are part of that. I think people are interested, in the loosest sense, in science, and in new ways to look at it.
I read that you have night terrors, but instead of finding them terrifying you just search for what was causing them?
I had night terrors for about a year. You sit up in bed suddenly and think there’s a demonic presence in the room. You’re in deep sleep at the time, so you just go straight back to sleep afterwards. It’s if you’re sleeping next to somebody; that’s when they get disturbed. So I can either imagine there’s a demonic entity in my room, you know, following me around from one hotel to another, or I can simply say, "It’s something in my mind creating this." But what might it be and how do you use that kind of interpretation to reduce it?
It's the same thing with sleep paralysis, where you wake up paralyzed. Once you realize it’s a very normal thing—you’re coming out of dream state, which is why you’re paralyzed—the whole experience, though unpleasant, at least isn't so terrifying.
What's your attitude towards the supernatural? I was having a conversation the other day about how ghosts could be glitches in time.
Yeah, there have been a few things like that—there have been theories about ghosts somehow being trapped in the fabric of a building, and if you play certain sounds you’ll get them out of the building—the Stone Tape hypothesis. And there’s been the trapped-in-time idea.
A lot of that comes from technology—whenever a new piece of technology is invented, you then use that to try to describe ghosts. So when Edison came up with the idea of the phonograph—that you could sort of record a voice—people started to think maybe you could record ghost voices using it, and they would put it in haunted locations to try to detect ghosts. Often when technology comes along it makes us less rational instead of more rational. We use quantum mechanics, or whatever, and we’re like, "Oh yes, that might explain ghosts."
So, interestingly, we always try to find explanations for these things—explanations that aren’t merely saying, "We’re just frightening ourselves in our heads."
Finally, can you tell me a story that isn't in any of your books?
I can tell you the worst thing that involves sort of magic thinking. I had a small photocopier in my house pretty early on, so it was sort of unusual then. This kid and his mom came to stay. He was five and he did a really beautiful, intricate line drawing. When he left the room I popped it in the photocopier and made a copy, and I put the original in the envelope. I put the copy on the table and said, "I’ve got this trick to show you."
I took the copy, ripped it up, put it into my envelope, pulled the other one out, and said, "Look, it’s come back together." He thought that was wonderful, then took the original, ripped it into eight pieces, gave it to me and said, "Do it again." So you have to be careful, because I remember thinking that I really didn’t think that through. Once you genuinely believe your magic envelope is magic, why wouldn’t you want to do it again?
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