45 – The Ethics of Mentalism with Jon Archer

What’s the difference between a con artist and a magician? A great magician tells you they’re about to lie you. They admit it out right. And then fool you anyway.

But a great con artist will suck you in and leave you refusing to believe you were ever deceived.

So what then, about mentalism, that branch of magic that brings to life psychic phenomena like psychokinesis and telepathy or that makes extraordinary psychological techniques like neurolinguistic programming or body language reading seem legit.

These magicians are often so credible that audiences are left actually believing that the entertainer has abilities that they do not have and often, do not exist.

Are they con artist? Is it ethical to lie to an audience in this way? Or is it all just show business?

On this episode of Scamapalooza, magician and comedian Jon Archer seeks to get inside the mind…of the mind readers.


Nicholas J. Johnson is a Melbourne magician, author and collector of scams

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2 responses to “45 – The Ethics of Mentalism with Jon Archer”

  1. Curtis says:

    I love John Archer. An uproariously funny guy and one of the best magic minds in the business, IMO. He is a well-rounded (pun intended) and fantastic entertainer, writer, comedian, magician, etc.

    As a professional mentalist, it is my job to entertain people with mental mysteries. Plain and simple.
    When pressed hard by people for the “but how?” or “is it real?” questions, I simply tell them basically three things:

    1) I am simply an entertainer. Period.
    2) I do not have any special, supernatural powers.
    3) Mentalism–like magic, music, dance, acting, painting, etc., is a LEARNED SKILL that I have been practicing for over 25 years. Those skills are the secret to it’s success as a performing art form.

    The premises that I base my performing character on and use during my performances are strictly for the show and the show alone. It is part of what makes up my performing character. It is what makes it fascinating, compelling, humorous and entertaining.

    A singer, who sings a song about a lost love and makes everyone swoon and cry, is often singing words written by someone else about something else that has nothing to do with them. Yet they have no ethical quandaries about misrepresenting themselves or the song or how what they do is perceived by others.

    The jokes that a comedian tells of his or her personal life aren’t always true. As long as the joke is funny, does it really matter? People are there to laugh and expect them to tell funny stories, say funny things or “things funny,” whether true or not.

    An actor makes no disclaimer about not actually being the people that they portray on stage, in film, etc. Yet some people still hate them as actors because of the bad person they once played in a film (and were very believable). As performers, we only have so much control over how people perceive us, even when we do everything that we can to do so. It is part of the hazard of the performing arts profession.

    My version of the famous Thomas Aquinas quote goes like this: “For those who understand, no explanation is necessary; for those who don’t, none will suffice.” Those who get we are merely entertainers don’t bother wondering and can still enjoy our peformances. Those who insist we are of “the devil” or want to believe we have special “gifts” or whatever, regardless of our claims, cannot be convinced to the contrary anyway, no matter how hard we try. In my experience those people are actually few in number and nothing to be too concerned about.

    If people are paying to see a show; for entertainment by a person who entertains with mental mysteries, and I do EXACTLY THAT, I have not deceived them in any way. I have given them what they expect and delivered what they’ve ordered. If they wanted a singer, an actor, dancer, comedian, etc., they would have chosen that art form for their entertainment for the moment.

    For me, the ONLY ethical demarcation is simply this:

    Am I trying to control their personal lives, like some sort of evil, controlling religious leader? To live and believe a lie directly concerning their day-to-day personal lives? No. (Note: I’m not saying that all religion is a lie, I’m just making a point concerning the ethical issue of the performance premise).

    Am I trying to scam them out of money by extortion or taking advantage of their gullibility for unjust personal gain? Absolutely not.

    Am I directly and purposefully causing them any physical or emotional distress or harm with my actions? No.
    Then I have done them no harm. There is thus, for me, no ethical quandary as long as I’m not doing these things. I have honestly delivered as promised.

    I don’t personally take myself very seriously. I tell the people I meet (after my shows and various other places) not to take me too seriously, either. I thank them for enjoying the performance, glad they had fun, etc. The mask is off. The show is over.

    Often, that seems to puzzle them even more.

    Just my own, personal thoughts on the matter.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for your long and thoughtful reply. I appreciate you taking the time. You’ve clearly thought long and hard about what you do and why you do it.

      A lot of the mentalists we discussed don’t have such a clear demarcation of where the fiction ends and reality begins. The mask is always on.

      You mentioned ” I do not have any special, supernatural powers.” would you also tell your audience that “I do not have any special, psychological powers?”

      Is there a difference being claiming falsely to having supernatural powers vs falsely claiming psychological powers.

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