TSA to Employ Mindreaders

Bloggified by Jake on Tuesday, August 16, 2011

For a while now, I've suspected that the story NPR's Morning Edition runs at 4:45 every morning is specifically designed to sour my mood right before I go to work each day. In the past it has covered such topics as "Dedicating 5 minutes of national air time to letting white baby boomers complain that they aren't pandered enough to in this country because grocery stores aren't all carpeted and sometimes play hip-hop music" and "Dedicating 5 minutes of national air time talking on the phone to some housewives in Ohio who are spending all day watching the royal wedding." The reason I get my news from NPR is because it is dedicated to actual journalism, but at quarter to five that always seems to go out the window, and today's story was one of the worst examples of that yet.

This morning, Tovia Smith reported on a new airport screening technique the TSA is implementing in Boston and plans to have in place nationwide eventually. TSA agents will ask a series of questions for which they don't really care about answers. What they are looking for is subtle clues that someone might be a terrorist revealed by sweating, body language, or any other number of things someone who watched half an episode of "Lie to Me" claimed would matter.

Tovia Smith interviews George Nacarra, the federal security director for the TSA at Logan airport, giving him all the intense scrutiny the mass media of River City gave Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. Listen to the story and you will hear a government official pull a turn-of-the-century flim-flam on a reporter from our nation's last bastion of true journalism.

He offers to demonstrate, even over the phone. "Pick a two-digit number, between 50 and 100, both digits even," he says. He explains that he can't guarantee 100 percent success, since he won't be able to read all of the clues he usually gets from face and body language. On the phone, his only clues are things like voice quality, hesitation, pacing and breathing.

"Say nothing aloud," he says. "I'm just going to work off of breath. Hold your mouth next to the phone," and he begins to count as fast as he can from 50 — until he stops dead at 68.

"[It's] 68!" he announces. He says he heard a faint tongue click right when he said the number.

As soon as he qualified "both digits even," I shouted at my radio, "Fuck! He's going to 68 her?" This is a standard warm-up trick for mind-readers and psychics going back to the pre-Houdini days. In the present, it's a trick Mystery of VH1's "The Pick-Up Arist" suggests for meeting girls in bars--and given Smith's reaction as a well-educated woman, it's hard to insult Mystery as tempting as that may be.

There are certain "forces" in mentalism that are based simply on our brain's tendency to select from a small field while thinking it's selecting from a large one. The key is making you decide quickly. "Think of a vegetable," will get the response "carrot" 90 or more percent of the time as long as you don't let the subject really think about it. "Go with the first thing that pops into your head. Think of a wild animal in the jungle," will get you "lion."

"Think of an odd number between 1-50 with both digits odd and different" will almost always yield "37." Why? Because while you think you're selecting from 50 numbers, you're not. You're limited to odds, so already you're eliminating half the field. A two-digit number eliminates five more (1, 3, 5, 7, 9). Both digits odd eliminates another 10 (21, 23, 25... 49). Two different digits gets rid of 11 and 33. That leaves only eight choices (13, 15, 17, 19, 31, 35, 37, 39), so already the mentalist has a 12.5% chance of guessing correctly as opposed to the perceived 2% chance. But for some reason, the human mind jumps on 37 more often than the other seven combined and anyone who knows this appears to have impossibly guessed your number. In the case of 68, the field is limited to 60, 62, 64, 68, 80, 82, 84, and 86, and again, 68 is chosen disproportionately more than all the rest.

Another favorite is "Think of two simple geometric shapes, one inside the other. Make them different though, don't do a square inside a square or a rectangle. Now draw it." The mentalist then reads your mind and draws:Why? Because while he'll then say, "You could have picked any of hundreds of designs," you really couldn't. Simple shapes pretty much limits you to triangle, circle, and square/rectangle--a dodecahedron inside a parallelogram isn't "simple." When he suggests that a square inside a rectangle would be a bad idea, it limits you to a triangle and a circle. At that point, we fall back on the fact that we circle things (ads in the classifieds, answers to Is He Into You? tests in Cosmo, word searches) and don't triangle them. However, if the subject does draw a circle inside a triangle, the mentalist still can salvage it by saying, "Wow, pretty close, huh? I got the vibe of the two shapes, but I couldn't pick up which was on the outside," and look pretty impressive.

Banachek's Psychological Subtleties gives an intensive list of such "forces" and explains routines he uses in his shows based on them. He and Larry Becker get away with such blatant forces as "think of a flower... a beautiful, long-stemmed flower... is it a rose?" on a regular basis because while it seems obvious while reading it on a blog sitting at your desk, the illusion is much different when you're on the spot in a nightclub or--apparently--interviewing a TSA official over the phone.

Tovia Smith should be embarrassed. I only hope she will scrutinize her subject a little harder in the future before declaring Secretary Tim Geithner is going to solve the debt crisis by pulling coins out of her ears.

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