Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Richard Wiseman (@richardwiseman). Richard holds Britain’s only professorship in the public understanding of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He has published over 100 peer-reviewed articles examining the psychology of magic and illusion, the paranormal, luck, and self-help. His books on psychology, which include The Luck Factor: The Scientific Study of the Lucky Mind and 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, have sold more than three million copies worldwide, and his psychology-based YouTube videos have garnered more than 500 million views.
Elizabeth Loftus, former president of The Association for Psychological Science, described Richard as “one of the world’s most creative psychologists,” and The Independent On Sunday chose him as one of the top 100 people who make Britain a better place to live. In addition to his work in the field of psychology, Richard served as director of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for eight years.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello boys and girls, ladies and germs, this is Tim Ferris. Welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferris Show. My guest today, I’ve been looking forward to for some time, although he may not know that, this is Richard Wiseman who holds Britain’s only professorship in the public understanding of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, maybe getting that right. He has published more than 100 peer reviewed articles examining the psychology of magic and illusion, the paranormal luck, and self-help. His books on psychology, which include The Luck Factor: The Scientific Study of the Lucky Mind, and 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, have sold more than 3 million copies worldwide. And his psychology-based YouTube videos, which I highly recommend, have garnered more than 500 million views.
Elizabeth Loftus, I hope I’m getting that right, we’ll find out which corrections I need to make, former president of the Association of Psychological Science, described Richard as “one of the world’s most creative psychologists,” and The Independent On Sunday chose him as one of the top 100 people who make Britain a better place to live.
In addition to his work in the field of psychology, Richard served as director of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for eight years. You can find him on Twitter at Richard Wiseman, W-I-S-E-M-A-N.
Richard, it’s nice to see you and thank you for taking the time today.
Richard Wiseman: Pleasure to be here. I hope I can live up to that wonderful introduction. Thank you very much.
Tim Ferriss: I will ask, just out of curiosity since I do not know, before we dive in, to the meat and potatoes, maybe, of the conversation, what is the Fringe Festival?
Richard Wiseman: Oh, the Edinburgh Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world. So it takes place-
Tim Ferriss: Something I should know, I suppose.
Richard Wiseman: Well, maybe not. It takes place throughout the whole of August in Edinburgh. Yeah, I think it’s about sort of 20,000 shows or so are performed. It’s huge. So it’s everything: it’s drama, it’s music, it’s magic, it’s cabaret and everyone should come. It’s wonderful.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. This is self-indulgent to tell this story, but my memory of Edinburgh, I have a few memories. And I say “a few,” because I think I put myself into a diabetic coma by having several kilos of fudge, which I didn’t know was a thing in Edinburgh. I went there for an All Blacks game with a friend who is a huge rugby player from New Zealand. I had a lot of fudge, went into this fever dream of some type, ended up at, I want to say the cafe where JK Rowling wrote the first in the series of Harry Potter. It was a great visit, but I don’t remember all too much, so maybe I’ll get back to the festival.
To hop from that in a very lateral segue. I want to describe how I came across you and your name. The first time it was a subconscious imprint, and I’ll come back to what the hell that means. Then I was reading a piece on, let me pull it up here, Slate Star Codex, and the piece is called The Control Group Is Out of Control, which is recommended to be by my brother who has a PhD in statistics. And he said this is one of the best primers, “pree-mers” if people prefer, on statistics and some of the subtleties that he’s seen for laypeople.
So I read this and your name came up and there was a link to a resource and a paper on your website that I’m definitely going to want to dig into in a second called Experimental Effects in the Remote Detection of Staring, so we’re going to come back to that. But your name popped up in this and then I was showing a friend of mine, a trailer for one of my favorite documentaries, which is An Honest Liar about the Amazing Randi. You also pop up in that trailer. And I said, “I think I recognize that name,” it being the second time I’d seen it, I connected two and two, and I thought I really should have Richard on the podcast to discuss many, many different things.
Let’s start with this paper. Could you provide people listening with some background on that. We’re going to flash backwards and forwards chronologically, but if you don’t mind, let’s start with that paper.
Richard Wiseman: We certainly can. I mean, it’s quite a few years ago now. So, one of the downsides of doing things for a long time is remembering what you’ve done, quite frankly. So yes, that was many years ago, I think in the late nineties. So I’ve been involved in parapsychology for a long time. Let’s go back a little bit more. I did originally worked as a magician doing tricks for people. Because of that, I got fascinated with the paranormal because magicians are sort of faking paranormal stuff all the time. By chance, I did my degree at University College London. I was walking along in my final year, walking along one of the corridors and I saw this poster. Back then, email didn’t exist, so it as a poster. It said, “Opportunity to do a PhD up at University of Edinburgh in parapsychology, the psychology of the paranormal.”
And I got in touch with Professor Robert Morris, who’s head of the uni at that point, and said, “Look, I’m skeptical about this stuff. I’m a magician. I don’t think any of this stuff is true. Am I the sort of person you want? And he said, “Absolutely, it’d be great to have another perspective.” So I came up here, worked for four years on this PhD about skepticism and the paranormal. Then I went to university of Hertfordshire, which I still am all these years later, and was doing experiments like the one that you’re talking about there.
And so that particular study was looking at the remote detection of staring, which is this idea we all had that someone’s staring at you, you turn around and see them behind you. And we wanted to see whether there was experimental evidence for this. So we put people into the lab, we’d monitor their physiology. We’d have a video camera in front of them that fed out to another room, and at random times an experimenter would stare at their image and try and affect their physiology.
And to make it really interesting, I was running half the trials. The other half were being run by colleague of mine, Marilyn Schlitz, who was a big believer in the paranormal. And what we found was that on her trial, she got a significant effect; on mine, we didn’t. And so this is evidence of an experimental effect, which you get all over psychology, all over science, which is that the experimenter seems to be imposing their thoughts and wishes and beliefs on the experiment itself. So it got a lot of airplay, and that was one of the initial studies. We then tried to replicate it and didn’t get anything at all. So we did a much larger study. Complete washout, complete null results.
But because of that, I got involved in some of those debates about replication. Of course, that’s become a very hot topic in science recently. Again, because of parapsychology. So [Daryl Bam 00:06:58], a colleague of mine, published a study which was apparently showing that people could see into the future, it’s a precognition study. I tried to replicate it, couldn’t. And then other people looked at his work and found all sorts of problems with it. And so, for example, as a scientist, when you run an experiment, you’re not supposed to look at your results and then decide how to analyze your data. And he was doing that type of thing. And so that got criticized.
And then another group of scientists said, “Hold on a second. This may be true of parapsychology, but it’s also true of psychology.” And so they started to try and replicate mainstream psychological findings and some of those failed to replicate as well.
So now there’s this big movement towards trying to increase the quality of psychological research and the catalyst for that, bizarrely, is parapsychology. And so it’s a great example of how you start off doing one thing and end up in a completely different place having effects that you just thought you’d never have.
Tim Ferriss: When you saw that poster initially… Well, I suppose you answered it in part by describing that initial conversation and saying that you were a skeptic and largely or completely didn’t believe in these things, as someone who practiced magic and was developing the ability to create these illusions, why would you dedicate so much time to that study? I suppose what I’m alluding to is, it would seem unusual for someone to dedicate that amount of time to disproving or engaging in something that they’re largely so skeptical of. Not to say you shouldn’t, I’m just curious what the internal drivers were for you.
Richard Wiseman: It’s a good question. Most of my research was looking at why people believe this stuff, which I find endlessly fascinating and how they get fooled by magicians, which is incredibly complicated psychology. I think the real answer, though, in terms of doing the experimental work, is this just really interesting. It’s really fun. I could be running a really dulled memory experiment where you ask people to repeat back strings of numbers, or I could be running a parapsychology experiment, which is lots of fun because everybody wants to do it, and everyone’s interested in the results and so on.
And so even now, these years later, I’m still skeptical about the paranormal, but I still find it fascinating. I did as a kid, I saw these books on UFOs and Bigfoot and all this sort of stuff. I think once you’ve got that passion, you just spend longer looking at the topic you’re passionate about and you become better than everyone else or better informed than everyone else. And so that’s how you become an expert in it. So I think that, yes, I was kind of skeptical, but I was also just fascinated by the topic.
Tim Ferriss: So you already mentioned your early engagement with magic, but I want to underscore that a bit because we should establish the bonafides, the “bona-feedes” as they say in my corner of the world, perhaps we could start with the Magic Circle Society. Could you explain what that is or what it was? I assume it’s still in existence.
Richard Wiseman: Oh yeah. The Magic Circle’s based in London and it’s been going for very long time. I can’t remember when it was formed now, but 1904, I think. And it’s the kind of melting pot for all of the kind of British magicians. So there’s the Magic Circle, there’s the Inner Circle, which is only 300 magicians worldwide. I’m a member of the Inner Circle. Magic is this incredibly close-knit community. You can go anywhere in the world and you’ll know other magicians and so on. That’s what the Circle is. It’s one of the reasons why I ended up at University College London, is that that’s very close to where the Magic Circle’s based in London. I should say if other people are choosing where to do your university degree, that’s probably not the best criteria to be using, but I did that.
And then as a younger young man, in my sort of teens, I performed professionally. I went over to the Magic Castle in Hollywood, performed over there.
Tim Ferriss: Amazing place.
Richard Wiseman: It’s incredible, incredible. So I love magic. Most of my best friends are magicians. I’ve worked with very well known magicians. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. I was thinking about this the other day, in part because it provides you with a tremendous community. And I think we overlook that with hobbies and interests it’s that it isn’t just that interest. The fact you’re connecting with others, you’ve got a shared interest, it’s people you can talk to about whatever it is. So community, building community, tremendously important, and magic does that very easily.
Tim Ferriss: So my experience in other fields, let’s just say, exercise and science, the practitioners in the field are often in some respects ahead of the academicians or the theoreticians who are working mostly on papers and not with people, let’s just say. So if you look at Olympic coaches, very often, not always, but there are elements of their training used for competitive advantage, with incredible incentives that end up being proven out many years later in some capacity. Are there any particular disciplines, conceptual frameworks, any such advantages that you see magicians as having that you think we’re only going to start to touch or only beginning to explore now or in the forthcoming years?
Richard Wiseman: Oh yeah. I mean, there is a whole psychology and science of magic, but it’s very, very primitive compared to what the practitioners are doing. It’s exactly what you say. As a magician, you have to go out in front of a bunch of strangers and fool them every single time. It’s like doing a psychology study, but the difference is where psychology studies sometimes fail, or only work with 90% of people, even on a good day, your experiment, your magic trick, has to work with a 100% of people every single night. And not only when they watch the trick, when they all go to the bar afterwards and try and figure out how it’s done. So all these things are incredibly important.
Richard Wiseman: Magic tricks have to work every single time. Not only when people see them, but when they talk about it in the bar afterwards, and so magicians are really good psychologists, they have to understand where you’re going to place your attention, how you’re perceiving a particular action. If you’re taking a coin in one hand and trying to convince them that it’s really there when it isn’t, how you do that, the subtleties of that, and then how they recall, how they remember a show. So all these things, the sort of skills magicians are really good at, psychologists haven’t even scratched that surface. So it’s absolutely as you say. Practitioners, in this instance, way ahead of the scientists.
Tim Ferriss: I like to foreshadow a lot, so forgive that predisposition. I’m going to ask about mass participation studies because I am incredibly interested in this, but before we get to that, are there any particular magicians, illusionists, mentalists, whichever labels you might want to use, who you think are underrated or who particularly impress you, or you look at them and you’re like, “Wow, I wish I could do that.” Or, “I don’t know how they do that.” Are there any names, people who come to mind?
Richard Wiseman: Well, there’s a few different questions sitting in there. Most magic, once you’ve been in magic a long time, doesn’t fool you. And so you don’t get that kind of wondrous experience of, “Oh, my goodness! I have no idea how that just happened,” because you’ve been around it while, you know most of the strategies and so on. So not very much magic would fool me.
In terms of being impressed, well, the answer is pretty much anyone who earns their living doing magic. It’s a really hard way to earn your living. And so if you take, in the Vegas performers, Penn and Teller, David Copperfield and so on, they’ve been doing it a very long time. They’re extremely good at what they’re doing. It’s astonishing, their stagecraft and so on.
So yeah, I’m impressed all the time by anyone who earns their living doing magic, even though I’m probably not fooled by what they’re doing. It’s the reason why magicians don’t tell you their secrets. It’s the effects, the wondrous effects of having showed you a box empty and a person appears, and it’s a wondrous moment. If you actually saw the method, if you saw the dirty part, it’s so simple and so disappointing that it just is a huge letdown. It probably means next time you won’t have that wondrous experience. So magicians withhold their secrets actually for the good of the audience, most times.
Tim Ferriss: So that answer actually elicits maybe a counter example. Not that they’re mutually exclusive, but I recall one of my first larger public speaking engagement. It was at something called The Entertainment Gathering, which was sort of a close cousin of TED, very small. I think it was in Monterey at the time. And Teller of Penn and Teller was there. And as people may or may not know, he usually doesn’t talk, at least on stage. And he gave this presentation, and almost the entire presentation was he showed this particular magic trick where he’s making this ball, follow his hands around. It’s an incredible visual performance. Then he goes into 90% of the presentation is the description of all the training and practice that went into it. And then he shows it again. He says, “Now, are you more or less impressed after having seen what went into it?” And I think for a lot of people, the answer was, “More.” But I do think also, as you said, it’s true that for the benefit of the audience, very often, it’s not shared.
Richard Wiseman: Let me just talk to that for the moment, because Teller is deeply knowledgeable about magic, so he isn’t just revealing the method there of the red ball. He’s going through everything, everything he has to do as a performer to make that happen and how he created it in the first place. And that’s very different. I think magic becomes fascinating at that level, but that’s very different to what lots of people who expose magic do, which is go, “Oh, it’s a mirror.” And that’s the end of that. So yeah, when you unpack it, therefore Teller could unpack it, absolutely it’s fascinating.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So I want to give a few examples of people who impress me for different reasons. And this is as a layperson. I mean, you’ve forgotten more about magic and illusion today than I will learn in my entire life. But David Blaine is one example. I’ve spent some time with him, I’ve interviewed him. And I think what you may, he uses the term “endurance artist” for himself, which I actually think is very appropriate because what some in the audience might think of as a magic trick is actually months and months of physical training for these just absurdly punishing physical acts, right? Living in ice for a period of time or holding your breath for 17 minutes. These aren’t sort of illusions in the usual sense of the word.
And then you have somebody, say, like Derek DelGaudio, who I’ve never met, but we’ve texted a little bit. I read his book, A Moral Man, which I greatly enjoyed. And in his show, in and of itself, which I highly recommend to folks, I think it’s just a masterclass in storytelling and stage presence in a lot of ways, but there’s one piece where he walks through the audience and he’s naming the cards that people have chosen prior. Spoiler alert, sorry, guys, a little late with spoiler alert, but it won’t ruin the effect. And he’s pairing people with the cards they chose as their identities prior to the event. And there are hundreds of people, maybe 200 people in the audience. I remember watching it with someone and they said, “Oh my God, that’s such an amazing trick.” They looked at it as an illusion. And for me, as someone who had read books about Harry Lorraine and these various kind of memory, brute force mnemonic experts, I was like, “No, I think I know how he’s doing it. It’s just mind boggling how quickly he’s able to do it, while he’s also running an entire show.”
I’m wondering if there are… Are there any other performances or performers who come to mind in that capacity, if that’s even a coaching question. Because I don’t know which different species of magic exist. I’ve seen performers on the street, I’ve seen performers on the stage, but I have to imagine it’s somewhat like medicine or surgery, you have specialists. So, are there any specialists who come to mind as particularly impressive?
Richard Wiseman: Yeah. Those two that you’ve chosen are wonderful examples. What was really smart about Blaine, first of all, he’s doing those endurance feats and oftentimes they’re genuine and absolutely terrifying. Also, what he did was really clever in the first specials where he was doing street magic, which is one of the genres now which is out there, which is taking magic away from the stage and actually back where it started: on the streets. What was really smart was instead of placing the camera entirely on him doing tricks, he’d really focus it on the audience responding to those illusions. And you saw people scream and go, “Wow!” And run down the street and all those things. Of course, those emotions then came through the scream because they became contagious emotions. And so you’ve got to feel how those people felt. And that was the brilliance of David’s early street work.
Derek, what he’s superb at is incorporating narrative into magic and lots of tricks don’t have any sense of narrative. They just, “Here’s an empty box. Now there’s a person inside.” And you go, “That’s a great puzzle, but whatever. What am I supposed to be thinking?” And Derek’s brilliance, and partly, is to really incorporate that touches people, that means something to people, that suddenly this magic is far more meaningful in a much more sort of theatrical sense.
So all these things are really interesting skill sets, but to answer your question, there’s close-up magic, street magic, there’s stage magic, there’s mentalism, there’s silent magic, which would be the sort of collection of doves, there’s manipulation with cards and coins. It goes on and on, and on. And people become very specialized in certain types of it.
Tim Ferriss: How would you define or describe mentalism?
Richard Wiseman: Mentalism is the fabrication of mental effects. So it would be telepathy, predicting the future, clairvoyance, where somebody shakes a dice in a cup and you tell them what numbers will come up and whatever. So it’s that side of things. And then it shades into psychological illusionism, which is where you’re doing the same sorts of things. But you’re saying, “Actually, it’s based on your body language,” or whatever. You’re giving a psychological explanation rather than a paranormal one.
Tim Ferriss: So cold reading would fall into the bucket of mentalism. Is that…
Richard Wiseman: Yeah, broadly. Cold reading, which is where you’re often starting out with very general statements about people. It’s what psychic readers do. And often, they’re very sort of… Depend on flattery. So it’d be like, “Oh, I get the impression you’ve got a lot of untapped creative potential.” Very few people that will go, “No, that’s not me at all.” Or they’re doubleheaders, “Sometimes you like to be the life and soul of the party, other times you’d rather stay at home, reading a book.” Well, that’s true of everyone because you just predicted both outcomes. So you throw out these general things and then on the basis of their body language, on how interested they look and so on, you start to sharpen it up and you start to try and figure out what their lives are like. And so that’s, broadly, cold reading.
Tim Ferriss: Any names? Because I love watching performances and documentaries and reading about performers and all the specialties that you just mentioned. So I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Dealt about Richard Turner, who I then ended up interviewing. His entire story, I don’t want to spoil it for folks, but just watch the trailer for Dealt about this card mechanic named Richard Turner. It’s incredible. Are there any names I could look up or the audience could look into for mentalism?
Richard Wiseman: Well, the obvious one in the UK would be Darren Brown.
Tim Ferriss: Darren Brown.
Richard Wiseman: Darren does, yes, astonishing work. And he’s been over on Broadway as well. And so, yeah, he’s doing a lot of that psychological stuff and mentalism as well. And of course, you mentioned another genre there, which is card magic, which actually is a very big part, close-up magic and Richard Turner’s wonderful, as in other incredible slight-of-hand people. That stuff never appealed to me quite so much because you have to spend your entire life with a deck of cards in your hand. And I just don’t have the patience, quite frankly, but I’m in awe of people that do.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s come back to what I left a bookmark in. Mass participation studies, you’ve carried out lots of mass participation studies. What is a mass participation study? And maybe you could answer that by giving some examples or any example that comes to mind.
Richard Wiseman: Sure. I mean, mass participation studies, as the name suggests, is studies involving lots of people.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Richard Wiseman: It was a life changing experience for me, surrounding my very first one. So I got to University of Hertfordshire after studying in Edinburgh. I think within a couple of weeks sitting at my desk, this email came round, because email had been invented by then, from the BBC. And they said, “We’re going to be doing a mass participation experiment as part of Science Week in the UK. We haven’t got any ideas for what we should do, so we are emailing all scientists and psychologists, anyone got the ideas?” And it would’ve been the easiest email to have just deleted and thought, “Oh, there’s thousands of people getting that.”
But at the time I was working on the psychology of lying and I thought, well, wouldn’t it be fun to suggest that politicians from the three main political parties which we had in the UK at the time, went on television and they lied and told the truth, and then the public voted in which they thought was the lie. And we could work out which party had got the best liars.
And I sent it in. I sent it in, it must have taken me, I don’t know, 30 seconds to write that email. And it changed my life because about two weeks later, Simon Singh, who’s a very big author and mathematician, was working at the BBC at the time, phoned me up. He said, “I’m working on Tomorrow’s World,” which is the TV program that this is going to go out on, and we’ve chosen yours as the winning study. This is going to be a mass participation study. We’re going to get the whole country trying to detect lies. And so we contacted the political parties said, “Will you come on and lie and tell the truth?” And they all said, “No.”
Tim Ferriss: Shocker.
Richard Wiseman: Shocker’s right. So we thought, this is the end of the study. And then we eventually decided to convince a very well-known political interviewer over here at the time, Sir Robin Day. I think he was kind of Walter Cronkite figure, would be the sort of equivalent in the States, to come and lie and tell the truth. So he goes into national television. I interview him twice, once he’s lying, once he’s telling the truth, and we open the phone lines. We had no idea whether 10 people were going to phone in or 15. We got about 30,000 people. It was incredible, in about 10 minutes. And this is all done live TV program. So I had to look at those results as they come in, turn them around very quickly, and then interpret the results on TV.
The fact of the matter was that when we watch people lie and tell the truth on video or film or TV, we are really not very good at detecting a lie. And that the results supported that, about 50/50, it was a chance split. However, we’d also run two other parts of the study. We broadcast just the audio on national radio, and we put the transcripts into a national newspaper. And when you focus people’s attention on the verbal cues, which is where the really good stuff is in terms of signals for lying, they become much better lie detectors. So that 50% went up to about out 60, went up to about 70% accuracy just when you read the transcripts or you listened to it on the radio, because suddenly all the “ums” and the “ahs” and the lack of detail, the lack of “I’s, me, my,” and so on, they all jump out at you, where when you’re overwhelmed with visual information, you just don’t spot that. And that was my first ever mass participation experiment. And because of that, they came back to me year after year and I invented low to them for them.
Tim Ferriss: All right. I want to hear more examples, but could you explain or elaborate on the lack of, I me, mine as an indicator?
Richard Wiseman: Yeah. When people, so we with lie detection, I’ve done quite a bit of it over the years. What you’re looking for are movements away from what’s called the baseline, and we’ve all got a sort of signature in terms of how much eye contact we make when we’re talking or whether we say the words I, me, mine, or adjectives or whatever. And once you’ve establish that baseline, what you see is that liars have a fairly consistent pattern of movement against that baseline. So one is a lack of detail, shorter sentences, bigger response time, which is the time between the end of a question and the beginning of an answer. And also a psychological distancing. They don’t like saying me, my, I, all those sorts of things, which wrap them up in the story. And so it’s a good little hint and tip as somebody, it’s evidence that somebody might be lying to you.
Tim Ferriss: What are some other favorite mass participation studies that you’ve read?
Richard Wiseman: My goodness. Well, the famous one, which haunts me to this day is, that doesn’t haunt me, I love it. I love it. A few years later, we are going to have not science week, but science year in the UK, and it was being run by the British Science Association. And they asked me to come up with an idea and I did this thing, which I’ve often done with ideas meetings, which is that you think about it, but you don’t have an idea. You don’t have an idea. You wait until you walk into the room to pitch your idea before you have your idea. You leave it until the very, very last minute.
And it means you either walk in full of energy and a great idea, or you walk in with nothing and it’s deeply embarrassing. So it’s neither all thing. But I try not to have ideas until I’m right in the room and with people, and that’s what happened here. Didn’t have one, walked in. As I walked through the door, I thought we should search for the world’s funniest joke because that’s a family friendly activity. Everyone’s interested in what’s the world’s funniest joke. Everyone’s got a view on what’s funny and not funny. And that –
Tim Ferriss: I suppose family friendly depends on the [inaudible].
Richard Wiseman: It depends on the, but it’s potentially family friendly and potentially utterly inappropriate. So that was it. It was a one line pitch and it was a one line answer. They said, “let’s do it.” So I go back to the lab and I said, “right, we’re going to find the world’s funniest joke.” And they went, “great, how are we going to do that?” And I hadn’t actually got a method. So I said, “Well, what we could do is set up a website to collect data”, which at the time was actually a novel idea—well, not now. So we set up this specialist website, people could input jokes in one part of it, and then rate how funny they found randomly selected jokes in the other part.
And we set this up, got huge amounts of media coverage, thousands of jokes coming in, and the problem came out, exactly the one you just alluded to, which is some of the jokes were a little bit rude and we couldn’t possibly allow families onto the site to read them. And there was no way of figuring out what’s a rude joke. You can search for certain words in an algorithm, but jokes often, they’ve got symbolic meaning. And so I had to employ somebody whose job it was full time, was to actually take out all the really rude jokes. So they ended up with this collection.
Tim Ferriss: I want their compilation.
Richard Wiseman: They’ve got it. They’ve got a compilation of 40,000 disgusting jokes. And so they used to go to parties with the rudest jokes I’ve ever heard based on the study. So we did that and again, mass participation, I think we had a million people take part in that study from all around the world. And it was so much fun to do. It lasted 12 months, as I say, I mean, that was great. So there’s another one it’s called LaughLab and it still comes up, it still crops up in the media and so on. Even though that was, I think about 2000, we did that.
Tim Ferriss: Where to go. We’re going to run out of, or I will run out of time before we run out of questions. There’s so many different directions I’d like to go, I’ll have to pick one. Let’s start with just a couple of subject areas and then I’d love to hear you expand on them. And I have a few, the first is, because I have a note, an AQ in front of me here, NLP. So neurolinguistic programming, let’s dive into that. I would love any and all perspectives again, be helpful to define terms for those who aren’t familiar.
Richard Wiseman: Yeah. Well, NLP, where do I start? I mean, it’s a bag o’ stuff, as us psychologists would refer to it. It’s lots of different ideas. Isn’t one thing, I’ve heard NLP refer to as enough thing like psychology and there is maybe some truth to that for some parts of it. So I think some parts of it have shown to be valid, I think, mirroring where you mirror the other person’s body language and in order to get rapport and so on is probably something to that. Some of the kind of verbal priming, I think there might be something to that. Unfortunately there’s big parts of it that are, just don’t work out at all. So to get back to lying, there’s this notion that if you look in a certain direction that you’ll be lying and if you are looking in another direction and you’re telling the truth, and I could never remember which way round is.
It’s like up to the left, he’s lying and down to the right, telling the truth or something. And it’s a very widely believed idea. And so a few years ago we put it to the test. So we had a bunch of students. We asked them to go into an office and either steal a mobile or phone that was in the office or to just put it into the drawer. And then they came out and they all tried to convince us that, put it into the drawer. So some of them were lying. Some of them were telling the truth. We could look at their eye movements, NLP didn’t work out at all. Didn’t matter where they were looking. And you might argue, that’s not a very, what psychologists would call ecologically valid task, it’s an artificial task. So we then went to look at these very public kind of press conferences that the police hold sometimes in the UK, when there’s been a missing person’s case, where relatives come on and appeal for the missing person.
In some instances, it turns out that the person doing the appeal is the person who’s guilty of the crime. So we know those people are lying during that press conference. Equally, we know in many of the press conferences, the people were telling the truth and it was a genuine appeal. So again, we could look at the eye movements. Again we did it, no indication at all, no hint that this idea that certain eye movements are associated with lying or telling the truth. So it’s very important with all of these ideas about psychology is to put them to the test because otherwise you might be using some kind of tip or technique that’s got no validity at all. And with lying it really matters.
Tim Ferriss: So NLP then, I don’t know what the sort of purported applications are of NLP, but would you say, kind of safe discard in terms of paying attention to it as a developable skill?
Richard Wiseman: No, I would say, think about what you’re trying to do. Think about what the practitioners are telling you, and then look at the academic literature to see if it holds water. If it’s a really important thing, like whether someone’s telling the truth or lying, if you’re just having fun once it matter. But yeah, so it’s important that I would always fall back on the academic work because it’s not just NLP, there so many things out there, which everybody does based on psychology and actually the academic work doesn’t underpin it.
So brainstorming for example, terrible idea, let’s all get together and kick around an idea and come up with new ideas. It doesn’t work, it’s not particularly effective. What’s far more effective is that everyone thinks of three ideas, three solutions to the problem before they go into the room and you go around the group and everyone mentions their three ideas, because that way you don’t get an individual dominating the group and certain ideas not getting a hearing. So again, it’s just really important I think to go, hold on a second, if this matters, if this is important, what’s the evidence? Which was underpinned by the 59 Seconds book.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, we’re going to talk more about 59 Seconds. Let’s dive into the literature. So in the last six to eight years, I’ve supported, or I should say more accurately. Mostly my foundation has supported a lot of early stage science, so basic science and also kind of clinical applications of various compounds and therapies at places like Johns Hopkins and UCSF. Actually also at Imperial College London with David Nutt and formerly Robin Carhart-Harris, mostly FMRI studies and kind of head-to-head trials looking at standard of care, antidepressants and in this case psilocybin. So I’m deeply, deeply interested in science.
It’s sometimes hard to get funding for experimentation, different categories of experimentation. Are there any particular, and this comes back actually also to the replication problem or crisis in so much as if people conduct studies and get a null result. In some cases they’re disincentivized for a number of reasons for submitting those for publication. And there’s a lot going on there. Are there particular areas where you really wish there would be more scientific study, just because there’s either a lack of funding or other issues that preclude there being much literature at this point to even search through?
Richard Wiseman: I think I would give a fairly generic answer to that. A lot of psychology and I can only speak for psychology. I don’t know, any other area of science. A lot of psychology simply isn’t relevant to peoples lives. And so the way you get on and you get, you do well in as a psychologist is you publish in certain well respected academic journals and you bring in funding. But in order to do that, you actually don’t have to do any research that’s especially relevant because those journals want often theoretical papers or their papers just a small group your colleagues find particularly interesting. And often funding agencies are run by very small numbers of people that got very particular agendas. So I would say in psychology, anything that is relevant to people’s lives, people have difficult lives. We know that, and we know that psychology can help them.
So that’s where I would always go. And a lot of psychology is very theoretical. It doesn’t really have any impact and or any relevance. So I think I would go there if I sort of dug down into very particular examples, I mean, I found all the sort of, you take the whole self-help literature, go into any bookstore, massive numbers of self development, self-help texts. How much psychology looks at those areas, often is absolutely tiny. Why are some people successful, other people aren’t? Why are some people entrepreneurial, other people? We don’t know the answer to these questions from academia, because no one looks at this stuff. They’re too busy looking at visual perception, short term memory or whatever it is that doesn’t really have any relevance to anything outside the lab. So my answer would be anything relevant to people’s lives.
Tim Ferriss: I’m going to come back to 59 Seconds. But since I wanted to lead to a second topic area after NLP, I’m going to go there first, remote viewing. One of the things I loved just to further sell an honest liar, this doc about the amazing Randi is that, and this isn’t really giving anything away. If anything, it’s going to make people want to see it more. Randi trained students to participate in, let’s just call it parapsychology studies. And he gave a checklist to the experimenters that would allow them to and in effect, catch his student, if they follow this checklist.
The whole thing is just fascinating, but let’s look at remote viewing specifically. I’d love to just have you define what it is and then explore that in any way that makes sense to you because there are books out there like Phenomenon written by journalists to explore. I think it was called Stargate, I may be getting the actual name of the initiative wrong within, I want to say the CIA, with a number of different folks from SRI and Palo Alto, some of them now in Texas. But could you speak to this and then go in any direction you like most, and to me, what I’d love to hear is like, how do people fake this? If that’s something that you’re familiar with.
Richard Wiseman: Yeah. So remote viewing is essentially a form of clairvoyance, which is that you allegedly go to a remote location psychically and tell people what’s there. And you’re absolutely right. Stargate, CIA, SRI, all these places were working with a small group of remote viewers, primarily for intelligence purposes. There’s not very much science that was happening there. It was very kind of practitioner based. And so they weren’t really testing those folks, they were just asking them for information for remote submarine bases or whatever. And some of it turned out to be accurate. Some of it didn’t. And I wrote a critique actually, of some of that work. I think in terms of people faking it, I suspect they’re probably not faking it. Most people claim to be psychic, aren’t fakes. Some are, but most are not. And the reason why they’re not is that, it’s very easy to fall yourself into thinking you’ve got these abilities when you haven’t without faking anything.
So for example, the closest thing that most people experience in remote viewing might be having a dream. And then the following day or the following week, events happen in your life that really correspond to that dream. Well, how do you know whether or not your dream predicted the future? I mean, for a start, you have a lot of dreams and we have four or five of them every single night. Second, you’ve got to remember the dream and find elements of it, that match events in your real life. Well, that’s a creativity exercise because some events will and some events won’t and then you have to remember, there’s lots of people like you on the planet. So it might be that you’ve like won the lottery and there’s genuine matching there, but there’s millions of people who didn’t. And that pulls that right back to chance.
And the same is true for remote viewing. You’re going to have a lot of guesses. You’re going to have a kind of creativity exercise of saying, well, I said it was this, but actually the answer was that, do those things match or not. And if you want to believe there’s patterning there, you’ll find those patterns. And of course you do it again and again and again. And sometimes you’re going to get lucky by chance and those the sorts of things, which trick people up, those biases that we all use in everyday life that convince them their psychic when they’re not. I don’t think it’s to do with conscious fakery as it were. Same with cold reading, most readers, most psychics, most mediums are not consciously cheating. They’re just falling foul of the biases, which we all have confirmation bias and so on when we want to believe something.
Tim Ferriss: How do you choose your book subjects? And you could pick anyone that comes to mind. You have 59 Seconds, certainly one great title, Paranormality. You could start with any example that you like, but we all have finite time. How do you choose or how have you chosen some of these subjects and why?
Richard Wiseman: Yeah. So actually, chance plays a big role. So 59, I went out, I’d written the luck factor. I went out for a coffee with a friend of mine’s, the CEO of quite a big organization and she wasn’t very happy. And she said, “oh, you understand about happiness stuff. How’d you make somebody happy?” So I start to explain, and she looks at a watch and says, “well, can you get on with it because I’m a bit busy.” And I said, “how long have you got? How long have you got?” She said, “I don’t know, about a minute.” And I thought, can I say something in a minute that’s meaningful about happiness? And I thought, that’s a good challenge. So I gave it a go and we came out with a couple of things. And then I thought, there’s loads of psychology that you could learn in a minute in terms of motivational relationships or persuasion or whatever it is.
I’ll gather it all together, that’s a fun thing. And then, so it’s for a long time, when I was working on that book, it was called 60 Seconds. I then go out to give a schools talk, and there’s a rather annoying young boy at the front of this talk. He’s not heckling me, but just isn’t enjoying the talk. And at one point, someone says, what are you working on? I said, “it’s a book about what you can learn in less than a minute. It’s called 60 seconds.” And this little boy says, “well, if it’s less than a minute, it should be called 59 Seconds.”
And I thought, thank goodness you came along a heckled boy, because that’s a much better title than the one I’ve got. So it was cool 59 Seconds. And then, the by line, which is, I think a little, changed a lot, just came to me, I was at the gym one day and it just like [inaudible 00:47:46] came there. So that became a theme. And it’s a good example. I mean, that literature was out there all the time. Anyone could have seen it and it just takes that reframing to go, oh my goodness, there’s something sitting right in front of us all the time. That’s kind of interesting. And yeah, that became, let’s say 59 Seconds.
Tim Ferriss: What about Paranormality? Because I mean, books are real investment of time and energy. How did you decide to dedicate time to that?
Richard Wiseman: Yeah, that one, I mean, I obviously carried out about 10 years of research into the paranormal. I think Paranormality as a title was my editor’s idea. And it was really driven by the fact that if you go to book stores, certainly over here in the UK and you go to the paranormal section, it’s all just believers stuff. That’s what sells, it’s Bigfoots true and UFOs exist and everyone’s psychic. And I thought, wouldn’t it be great to put out a popular book that actually did the same as teller did to you with the red bull trick, not just says these things aren’t true, but really goes into the psychology of it. Why do we have these experiences? Why do we see ghosts? Why do we think we’ve predicted the future? Why do we go to mediums? Why do we have seance phenomena and so on? If it’s not true, what’s going on. And so Paranormality is why we believe things aren’t true. And it’s quite a deep dive into the psychology of that based on, mostly on my own research.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any mass participation studies that you would have liked to, or would still like to carry out that you haven’t been able to for whatever reason?
Richard Wiseman: Not really, because I think if I had that idea, that killer idea, I’d go and do it. I mean, what’s great nowadays with the web and so on is you can do so many of these things, but we did the first, in fact, we did a remote viewing study on Twitter. We’re the first people to do an experiment on Twitter. And so I went-
Tim Ferriss: Out of your account, the at Richard Wiseman?
Richard Wiseman: Yeah. Yeah. Years ago. Years ago. Yeah. Oh, okay. Oh, okay. So, and we wrote it up. So I went to a remote location, then asked all my followers on Twitter to try and guess where I was and they sent in tweets and then we analyzed those and they weren’t particularly accurate. But that was the, I believe the first social media psychology mass participation experiment. We also did another one called the mind machine, which was a kiosk based thing, which we put into shopping malls and people could go up, they touched the screen and it run the ESP experiment, where they had to predict whether the computer was choosing heads or tails. And we took that round shopping malls in the UK. And again, it was about a million people took part in it. So yeah, they’re all kind of fun studies and they’re all in Paranormality.
Tim Ferriss: So certainly I suggest people check out the book, but if you wouldn’t mind, in broad strokes, what happened in those two experiments?
Richard Wiseman: Well, the Twitter one, they couldn’t figure out where I was and the mind machine, people guessed exactly at chance. So it wasn’t exactly overwhelming evidence that paranormal forces exist. So I’ve done that sort of thing. I’ve done loads of fake seances, which are so much fun and Victorian times they’d turn out the lights, they put luminous up dots objects, and they’d fly all over the room. And I found these books, Victorian books, which you got all the secrets in, and they’re often really simple. And I thought, I wonder if it would fall a modern day audience and we staged, endless fake seances of the country.
And yes, indeed it does fool people and so on. So we done lots of fun stuff, ghost hunting. We did ghost hunting at a royal palace here, we’re the first people to go into a royal palace and try and find a ghost. And we couldn’t find one surprise, surprise, but then we looked at people’s ghostly experiences in that royal palace, visitors as they came round, looking at another mass participation experiment and tried to figure out what sorts of people, what sorts of locations and so on. So yes, it’s a fun topic to be into.
Tim Ferriss: Were you hunting ghost with Geiger counter or Ghostbuster style, or what were you using?
Richard Wiseman: It’s strange, you should ask because I did have a weird experience. So this was at Hampton Court Palace, which is in London and a very famous royal palace. So we go in and we the first people invited into a royal palace to do ghost hunting. So lots of media retention, and there’s going to be a press conference. And there was a lot of press there, lots of international press. And the weirdest thing happened. And this has only happened to me once in my entire life. So I’m standing there and it’s a very busy day. And I thought before the press conference, I’ll go and get some fresh air.
So I walk out, a car drove past, a couple of teenagers in it and one of them threw an egg at me. Now that has never happened to me. This is the only time, as this egg hits me, it splatters. This is the only jacket I’ve got. So I go back into the press conference. It looks like ectoplasm down the jacket. And so the journalist, oh my goodness, you’ve already found a ghost like in ghost busters. I said, “no, no, no, someone’s just thrown an egg at me out outside.” It was all very weird. So yeah, so we did a little bit of the ghost busting thing and I went on with proton packs or whatever they’re called, but we did have thermal sensors and all that kind of stuff. But primarily is about the psychology of the situation.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned dreams earlier, you’re fascinated by dreaming. Why are you fascinated by dreaming?
Richard Wiseman: Because I can’t believe how much goes on in my head when I, I mean, think about it. Oh, all of our heads. We fall asleep and then you wake up eight hours later and you don’t remember a thing. You think, oh, I’ve been out of action for that time. And what we know is that people are going through a very predictable sleep cycle. There’s all sorts of repair going on to the brain and the body. And then about four or five times, you go into dream sleep and you have these really weird dreams. And what’s phenomenal is the research now showing us that these dreams are not random.
They are our minds working through anxieties and our worries and trying to either knock the edge off of some of those anxieties or problem solve. And what I find incredible is the number of times I have woken up with a solution to an experiment or an idea or a book fully formed in my head. The first thing in the morning, it’s happened to me, again and again, and often with magic, actually. So a friend of mine was doing a television show here, and I wasn’t really thinking about it when I woke up in the morning, boom, I got the entire item in my head, even down where the camera angles were and everything. And I just find that incredible, there’s so much going on offline, as it were.
Tim Ferriss: So I share this interest. I’m reading a book right now by Matt Walker, Why We Sleep. And for those who are curious, Matt is a very credible scientist. He really knows his neuroscience, fantastic book. It goes more into the why and how, and so specifics of sleep without a specific focus on dreaming. But I read a book when I was in college. So the very beginning, undergrad, I was neuroscience for a period of time, then couldn’t do the animal testing necessary to work in the lab I wanted to be part of which was with Barry Jacobs. Not saying I oppose it completely. I just couldn’t be hands on with it at the time.
And I read a book named, Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LaBerge, which I found to be very practical. And I don’t know if you have any thoughts on lucid dreaming, but it does seem like you can experimentally demonstrate that it exists just through IQing and tracking. And you can improve it as a trainable skill through journaling and waking up at odd hours and doing various things like, I think mnemonic induced lucid dreaming, mild is one acronym. Do you have any experience with, or thoughts on lucid dreamings?
Richard Wiseman: Unfortunately, no. I mean, I did a book called Sleep School, Night School, sorry. It could be good, if I remembered the title of my own book Night School and sleep deprivation, I haven’t slept well for years, no, Night School. And as I contacted Stephen in that, and he was very gracious talking about lucid dreaming, I really wish I could do it. It sounds phenomenal. I only had one lucid dream in my life, which I woke up and I was in a shopping mall. I mean, in the lucid dream. And I was only partially in control. I mean, good lucid dreamers can do whatever they were on. I was only partially in control. And I saw myself, felt myself going to a shop to buy a shirt and that was it. And I was so annoyed with my brain because I could have gone flying. I could have met a celebrity I’ve never met. I could have done all these amazing things. And instead my brilliantly creative brain did a thing that I’ve done many times in real life actually, really isn’t very interesting.
So that is that is my only experience with lucid dreaming. So I love dreaming and I found that very helpful. I just can’t get the lucid thing. I used to, I know it’s terrible. I used to have night terrors. I used to suffer from night terrors a lot, which if people don’t know, it’s where you sit up, you’ve got your eyes open. Normally it’s about 90 minutes into the night and you scream out and you think there’s a demonic entity there or something like that. And if you’re sleeping next to somebody else, this wakes them up and that they’re properly awake at that point. You yourself are still in deep sleep. And so you go straight back to sleep and they’re sitting up shaking, going, oh my goodness, what’s the problem. And they can’t get back to sleep at all. So it’s worse for them, that is for you. So yeah, I did, had a lot of those for a while, and that’s what got, really, me interested in sleep. I was thinking, what is going on in my little head that I should see these demonic entities? What’s quite good about having those is that if 90 minutes in you can’t sleep and you’re a bit bored, and you think, “Well, let’s make life a bit more interesting for my partner,” you can sit up and scream. They wake up, and then you go back to sleep and pretend you had a night terror.
Tim Ferriss: The upside of night terrors, by Richard Wiseman.
Richard Wiseman: That’s a great book title. The Upside of Night Terrors is a great book title.
Tim Ferriss: I do not frequently have nightmares, but I had a night terror a few nights ago, and I woke up screaming and scared the shit out of my girlfriend, who then stiff-armed me like a reverse clothesline to try to keep me down because she’s afraid of me lashing out and kicking her or punching her, because this happens every six months or so.
Richard Wiseman: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: It was a very, very exciting evening. I will say, on the lucid dreaming side, in my senior year of high school I got to the point where I could actually practice my sport at the time, which was… Let’s call it Olympic-style wrestling. In the US, it would be collegiate-style wrestling, with a coach I’d never met at the time, who was John Smith out of Oklahoma, who was very, very famous. But I was actually able to consistently practice a skill that transferred, that seemed to have some transference to the real world, which I found almost unbelievable. I’m sorry that you were buying a shirt, and it would be a bummer if I were to only end up doing my taxes when I induced lucidity.
Richard Wiseman: Exactly. But hold a second. This means that you can lucid dream.
Tim Ferriss: I can, yeah. I can lucid dream, but I will say that it is a very perishable skill. So, it got to the point, end of high school, and then transferring over to, say, sophomore year in college where I could… If I were journaling on a daily basis immediately upon waking, and if you don’t have any dream recall, trying to induce lucidity is pointless, largely. So, those two seemed to be closely correlated, or the development of one seems to be closely correlated to the other, where I could induce lucidity pretty consistently, at least once a night. It becomes easier during longer, extended REM periods, so let’s just say, or very early morning, which is why some of the techniques have you wake up around 4 AM and then do a few things and go back to bed. But if I don’t do the journaling, forget about it. Then it’s effectively nonexistent. But if I end up so exhausted [crosstalk]. Go ahead.
Richard Wiseman: I was going to say, so my noncreative mind sent me shirt shopping. I suspect you do far more interesting things in your lucid dreams. Other than practicing sport, what do you do?
Tim Ferriss: Oh, you can fly around and have sex with everybody. Those are kind of the two most common people are developing this. Those are where they usually self-indulge the most in the beginning. My experience was, in the very early stages, it was very similar to your shirt buying experience. You would have a glimpse of lucidity doing something really mundane, and then you would wake up or you would slip back into non-lucid sleep.
So it does seem to accrue. And there are… Hopefully, this doesn’t make me sound like a lunatic. I think it’s, for me at least, through direct experience, a very developable skill. You can begin to extend your periods of lucidity in using different techniques that seem to have some reliable effect. It is a skill that is of great interest to me, but it takes so much work on the journaling training side that it’s just generally not a super high priority.
Also waking up at four in the morning to increase the frequencies is not very appealing given that I already have insomnia. What else have you learned about sleep and improving sleep and why did you stop having night terrors, if you stopped?
Richard Wiseman: Well, I did. They are related a little bit to anxiety and also related to being in a warm room. So actually, if you sleep in an ice box, essentially, they pretty much go away. In terms of night terrors, because you mentioned your girlfriend there worried about you lashing out, I think received wisdom is not to touch the person who’s having the night terror because often they can interpret that as being the demonic entity attacking them, and they will lash out. So, keep your distance. But often, just say the person’s name gently will be sort of enough to bring them out –
Tim Ferriss: I’ll buy my girlfriend some headgear and a mouthpiece. She’ll be fine.
Richard Wiseman: So it’s that. In terms of the sleep stuff, it’s all sorts of things you can do to improve your quality of sleep. One of the biggest ones that came out of night school, which I didn’t know about out, was that if you’ve got kids who have recurrent nightmares and this goes for adults as well, but particularly with kids, where it’s the same nightmare every night. During the day, you get them to visualize the nightmare, but with a more positive ending. So if they’re being chased by a dragon, they visualize that. And then you go, “Maybe it’s a lonely dragon. It’s a friendly dragon. He just wants to be your friend.” And actually that’s got about a 90% hit rate within a very short period of time for reducing those recurring nightmares.
So there’s all this kind of simple stuff that’s out there. I think all the stuff about there’s the night of two halves and actually taking a break in the middle is what we used to do before electric light and so on. The paradoxical, if you’re trying to fall asleep, the paradoxical approach, which is you try and keep yourself awake. So you’re allowed to blink, but otherwise you have to keep your eyes open and you have to actively not fall asleep. That’s quite exhausting. And you end up falling asleep quicker. Again, based on all sorts of research. So yeah, Night School is a fun book to do.
Tim Ferriss: So then speaking to onset insomnia, which is something that I’ve suffered from for decades. And I go through periods of not having it be as acute an issue, but the initial falling asleep portion for people who don’t understand the terminology. So there’s the paradoxical approach of, I’ve never tried the keeping my eyes open part, that I haven’t tried.
Richard Wiseman: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: So I may try that.
Richard Wiseman: It’s great. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Ice box. I feel like I’ve got that pretty well dialed, use various devices to keep the bed cool. Any other suggestions?
Richard Wiseman: Well, there’s busying the mind if it’s based on anxiety. So just writing down those anxieties and worries often clears it before you go to bed. Counting backwards from a hundred and threes, fills working memory, basically. And that means those anxieties can’t get in. Engaging in sort of fantasy world so that when the dreams and sleep comes along, it’s a little bit more pleasant.
And if you are laying there for more than, this is particularly waking up during the night, say, 10 minutes, laying awake for more than 10 minutes, get out of bed and do something non-stimulating but physical like one of those adult coloring books, something like that. Do that for about 10 minutes, go back to bed. If you’re still laying there awake 10 minutes later, get out and do it again. And after a couple of those, you start to fall asleep because what happens is what you’re not doing is associating the bed with the anxiety of being awake. Otherwise, that becomes a stimulus response that the bed is a place where I’m anxious. So moving yourself out and occupying the mind and going back, again is another very effective technique.
Tim Ferriss: What is your perspective, it came up earlier in this conversation, of self-help books, self-development books. And I know this is a multifaceted question, maybe several questions disguised as one, the figures in self-development. Are there any people in that world you admire? Are you largely skeptical of most it? How do you relate to it?
Richard Wiseman: Well, I got into psychology partly through the magic, but also partly through Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People, and How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. It pains me to say it, because it’s another self-development author, but they are two of the greatest books ever written. And now of course they’re dated in terms of their language and so on, but the concepts in there are wonderful and very, very simple. I’m a bit fascinated by Carnegie. One of the things he did was to go around the country giving talks, and what you’ve got in those books are really the transcripts of the talks. So he didn’t write them until he’d given several hundred talks and was absolutely right, that this was the way to keep people’s attention and so on. So he’s wonderful.
He also did this great thing, which was to keep a diary called Damn Stupid Mistakes I’ve Made. And every day, he’d write… He’d look, think back on the day, and he’d think about the comment he wished he hadn’t made, or the mistake he’d wished he hadn’t done, write it down and then say, “Right, what will I do tomorrow to stop that happening again?” So it’s the opposite of positive journaling. So he had all these ideas, but the ideas in those books are so simple and so wonderful. And actually, now, we’re seeing the psychology to support many of them.
So I’m a big fan of Carnegie. And I think any self-development book, if it works for you, then great. My beef with a lot of them is that even the practitioners writing them don’t believe half this stuff, and there’s no evidential, no scientific underpinning of it. And yet you’re asking people who’ve got issues in their lives to go and make these changes with no evidence at all. So I always say, it’s a bit like if you’ve got a bad back, you go to the pharmacist and they say, “Here’s some green pills.” You go, “Is there evidence they work?” And they go, “Not so much, but just take them, see how it goes.” Well, this would be crazy. We wouldn’t put up with this for 10 seconds, but we put up with it within self-development. So my mantra is always, what is the scientific underpinning of these ideas?
Tim Ferriss: Although it sounds like there are also cases with the practitioners or with Dale Carnegie, where it takes a while for the science to catch up with the practitioners. So I suppose it takes a level of discernment and critical thinking to be able to trial and error on your own while also understanding and respecting the sort of scientific method and all that that reflects in terms of lobbying questions into the universe and trying to secure answers a la Francis Bacon, Carl Popper, and all that.
Richard Wiseman: You are right. Sometimes there’s not the science there. I guess I’m talking about when there is the science there and it doesn’t support it. But the other worry about them is that if they are not effective, people, well, they become very fatalistic. They go, “Well, I put all that effort into whatever it was, visualization or whatever, and it made no difference. There’s nothing I can do.” And so they could have a detrimental impact.
The reason I got into Carnegie, one, the thing is, because… I think it’s in Carnegie. I have to check now. When I was a teenager, he had this great tip for getting attractive people to sit next to you on the bus, which as a teenager it appealed to me immensely, was that you put your bag down next to you and as the person’s coming up the aisle, just as they reach where you are, you pick up your bag and move it onto your lap. And there’s a huge social pressure on them to come and sit in that seat. So I remember reading that when I was 17 or something. I think, “Oh my goodness, this psychology stuff is very powerful.”
Tim Ferriss: So building on your mention of Carnegie’s journaling, The Damn Stupid Mistakes I’ve made, or whatever it was, I want to ask you about the Luck Diary. Before we get to that, I just want to say that How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, is a book I’ve reread many times. I really recommend it to people if they feel like they suffer from anxiety or chronic worry. It’s a very practical book. What is The Luck Diary?
Richard Wiseman: The Luck Diary came out of the Luck Work, which came out of A Chance Happening, which was that we were interviewing people. It wasn’t my study, it was a colleague of mine’s study, about key moments in their lives, choosing certain partners and careers and so on. So I’m doing this interview for a colleague, really, about these things. And a couple of people I was interviewing kept mentioning luck, that they would say “I’m a really lucky person,” or “really unlucky person,” or whatever. At the time, I was studying paranormal belief, and I thought, that’s interesting because luck beliefs are a bit like paranormal stuff, but there’s been nothing done on them and they’re far more widespread, and so on. So I spent about 10 years looking at the psychology of luck and looking at the different ways in which lucky and unlucky people think and behave.
And then we did a series of studies where we tried to get people to change their luck, to think and behave like a lucky person, and The Luck Diary was part of that. That really came from the gratitude work that all our sensory systems, vision, everything, works on habituation. It responds to change. And so if you like the smell of coffee and you go into a coffee shop, it’ll smell great for five minutes, then there’s no change and you won’t smell it anymore. You have to leave the shop to come back in to smell it again.
The same goes with many of the good things in our lives, the things that make us happy: our health, our relationships, our family, our career. We get used to it, it vanishes. And that’s one of the reasons why you have this hedonistic treadmill. You need more and more and more to get that feeling back. What The Luck Diary does is it does that resetting. It says to you, “Every night, think about one thing for which you have a sense of gratitude, or one positive thing that happened today, or one negative thing that used to happen that’s no longer happening in your life.” And it resets that and focuses people’s attention on the positive, and in doing so changes their self-identity into a luckier person, which then kickstart all sorts of changes with their behavior. So it all came out of The Luck School work.
Tim Ferriss: I’d imagine it’s helping train your selective attention also by noting this each day, right? You look back and after a week you have seven examples, even if you generally have sort of a melancholic, negative filter that you might use. And I speak from experience with that. You start to see the counter-evidence accruing for different lens that you could use.
You mentioned something, and I may have misheard you, much earlier on and it’s just been on the back burner that I’ve wanted to ask about. Did you say earlier that you try not to have an idea before you walk in a room or something about that?
Richard Wiseman: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Something along those lines?
Richard Wiseman: It’s the opposite of what everyone says about idea generation, which is that I have found there is some… I really don’t recommend this to others, by the way, it just seems to work for me, that you know what the meeting is about. So let’s suppose there’s going to be a new TV show. You know, they want some ideas for a new game show. You can overthink it. And there is something about putting that on the back burner, letting it incubate. And then when you walk into that room, that’s, in my experience, when you have the best idea. Or when you wake up sometimes, but normally… So with the Laugh Lab, which is where it came up, it was only walking into the room I suddenly thought, we should find the world’s funniest joke. It’s a risky old strategy, but it has paid off for me time and again.
Tim Ferriss: Can you tell the world’s funniest joke? I can’t believe I dropped that baton. Is that something you can share on the podcast? Is that something you refer people to?
Richard Wiseman: Well, here’s the thing. I did that in the year 2000. So it’s, whatever it is, 20-something years of telling the world’s funniest joke.
First of all, it’s not the world’s funniest joke. It’s the world’s blandest joke because it’s the joke that appeal to most people. Second, we took out all the rude jokes, which are far funnier than the more polite ones. And third, I told it so many times that what I say to people is, it is all over the web, go and have a look, and then you can read it and not laugh in your own time because if I tell it to you, there’ll be such social pressure on you to laugh that I’ll just feel really kind of awkward about the entire thing. So it involves two hunters in a wood. That’s all I’m prepared to say at this point.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. People can search your name, funniest joke, two hunters.
Richard Wiseman: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I imagine that’ll be specific enough to get them on the right track.
Richard Wiseman: Oh, that will do it. That will do it, yes.
Tim Ferriss: Do you feel certain facets of your work could be applied in schools, for instance? Or education in any way?
Richard Wiseman: Yeah, I’m quite passionate about this. It’s phenomenal, isn’t it, that we teach kids so much stuff that is so unbelievably useless to them in the rest of their lives and we don’t teach them anything that is actually kind of useful in terms of the psychology. So you think, well, we know all this stuff about resilience and relationships and happiness and all these important topics. And yet, it’s still, certainly in the UK, a very fact-based curriculum to do with geography and history and all this sort of thing. Not to say that we shouldn’t be teaching that stuff, of course we should.
But there’s all these life skills which for the most part we don’t teach kids. And I think the challenge is finding a vehicle for it. Some of my work at the moment is looking at teaching kids magic because actually magic tricks teach many of these things. You’ve got to learn to practice, you’ve got to learn to follow instructions, you’ve got to perform, which means thinking about the audience and so on. You’ve got to deal with negative feedback. You’ll be getting a lot of that as a magician. And so that being a vehicle for it, I think is quite helpful. But yeah, absolutely this stuff needs to be out there in schools.
Tim Ferriss: Have you tried that, or would you try it in the form of a seminar or a once-weekly experiment, kind of Dale Carnegie style, workshopping some of these things?
Richard Wiseman: Yeah. I think teaming up with effective teachers. I’ve never done teaching, so I’m sure there’s all sorts of things that one could learn, but absolutely. And I think it’d be a question of finding that vehicle because I think you’ve got to do something that connects. I think as adults, we understand how important those skills are. I’m not certain children do, but if you could find that vehicle, that framing, that wraparound, that engaged them. I think it’d be wonderful.
Tim Ferriss: I’d like to just read a short paragraph from a piece in the New Yorker, which says “Wiseman, whose careers ranged from professional magician to professor of the public understanding of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire.” Hertford-shire?
Richard Wiseman: Hertfordshire, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: We talked about this before we record it, I can’t get it. “Delights in demystifying magic and other mind deceptions. Of all the tricks he demystified during the evening, the audience’s favorite was called The Yale Goal Study.” And I was wondering if you could describe that, describe The Yale Goal Study. Why you think that was a favorite?
Richard Wiseman: Yeah. So that’s The Yale Motivation Study, which is this wonderful thing, which is that the researchers go, apparently from Yale… I think it’s Harvard, actually. Maybe Harvard or Yale. I can’t remember which one. University researchers go to a school. They ask kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Only about 3% of the kids know what they want to be. They return 20-something years later and track them down. And that 3%, in terms of income of the entire cohort, they represent about 70, 80% of the income. I.e., it’s a really good idea to focus young in terms of financial wellbeing later on. So I read that. Great sticking to 59 seconds, wonderful. Better track down the reference, though. I always try to get to original sources and papers. Couldn’t find it. I asked my colleagues who work in those kind of areas. They had ever read that paper.
Eventually, I figured out and other people figured out, it’s never been run. It’s a complete myth. It’s all over the web. It’s in many self-development books. It’s in lots of talks. It doesn’t exist. There is no evidence that focusing that young has that kind of impact financially. And that’s what I mean about the importance of asking for that evidence. It’s astonishing.
Tim Ferriss: What makes it all the more astonishing is how specific the description is, of this supposed Yale Goal Study, right? 1953, team of researchers interview… I’m shortening here, but interviewed graduating seniors, asking them blah, blah, blah, did they have specific goals? And then they tracked them down however, 20 years later, and the 3% who had specified their goals had accumulated more personal wealth than the other 97% combined. I mean, it’s very specific.
Richard Wiseman: Yes. And the reason why it’s odd is that’s a longitudinal study. And so tracking down that group of kids is not going to be easy. That’s going to be a well known paper, and it’s very difficult to track cohorts over that kind of time period. So I thought, oh, it’ll be two seconds work to find it. And then you go, oh my goodness. That’s, it’s just not out there.
Tim Ferriss: Well, you know what happens too, very often, more and more so these days with technology, is you have these sort of recursive self-reinforcing myths. For instance, I’ll give an example, there’s this effect, it’s called the Wikipedia Echo Effect. So let’s just say someone puts this example in fill-in-the-blank media outlet. They don’t have fact checkers and they don’t really want to do the heavy lifting of trying to ascertain whether it’s true or not. They just assume it’s true because it’s all over the internet. And then somebody puts that into Wikipedia with a citation, and then you can see how suddenly there’s this snowball effect of citation, but there’s actually no original work that proves or demonstrates any clear evidence for this. So you find also a lot of factual inaccuracies on Wikipedia that become self-perpetuating in that way because as soon as there’s one citation, then it encourages other outlets to use the same material and on and on we go on the merry-go-round.
Richard Wiseman: Yeah, track down, if you can, those original sources. I mean, often studies do exist and you find out that what… It’s like the description of it has been passed on from one person to another, and it’s been sharpened up over time. So by the end, you get this wonderful study, but when you look back at the original, there was nothing like the study that you’re reading about, even if that study did exist. So, absolutely, yeah, that’s the importance of going back to original sources.
Tim Ferriss: So let me take a look at, I’m pulling it up right now, one of my favorite quotes, which is from the physicist Richard Feynman, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” I bring that up because of several things. The first is you mentioned a lot of these folks who are purportedly using psychic powers or able to reduce psy phenomena, are not fakes in the sense that they disbelieve what they’re doing. They believe what they’re doing. Another way, though, that we could look at an example, maybe an example of fooling oneself, is the construction or reconstruction of memory. Could you speak to the malleability of people’s testimonies? I’m just wondering if you have other examples that you can pull from. And certainly in police investigations, you see this constantly. Cinematically, Rashomon is a pretty good example, but I’d love to hear you explore that in any way that makes sense. It just seems that memory is less reliable perhaps than people would think at first glance.
Richard Wiseman: Yeah. I think both observation and memory. So the impression that we get is that we are good observers. We wouldn’t miss something big in front of us, happening right in front of us. And second, our memories are pretty accurate. And if you learn anything about cognitive psychology at all, it’s that both those things are just simply not true. So there’s all these studies into what’s called unintentional blindness where big things happen right in front of you, and the Dan Simon’s basketball video for folks that know I’m talking about, is a wonderful example of it. I did a thing called the Color Changing Card Trick on YouTube, it was the first Quirkology video we did, actually, where you don’t notice all these changes that are happening around you.
So the way in which observation actually works is that it’s incredibly clever. If you were taking all the information coming at you all the time, you just need a brain the size of the planet. So your brain focuses on what it thinks is the most important thing. And then if other stuff changes, you don’t spot that. So we are very selective observers, is the first part.
And second, when it comes to memory, it’s not like replaying a film or a videotape. Instead, you have these kind of fragments and you try and create a narrative around it. And the place I see that most frequently is actually when people describe magic tricks. So you perform a magic trick, they then tell their friends what’s happened. It’s nothing like the thing they’ve just seen. And in fact, the problem is their friends that’ll show me. And now you’re about to do something which was completely different to the description they’ve just had from their other friend.
So, yeah, we create this narrative. Often, if we were being interviewed by somebody, they can suggest details to us. I did some studies on paranormal key bending, where you put a bent key down on the table and the psychic says, look, you can see it’s still bending. And around about 40% of people say they can see the key’s still bending. With the seance work, again, about 40, 50% of people would go with the suggestions of the medium, “Oh my goodness, the table’s levitating now.” And they’d come out and swear they saw the table levitate. So our memory is very malleable. As we try and remember fragments and create a plausible kind of story. That’s how it all works.
And of course, what’s terrifying is that often within the legal system, that’s not realized by jurors and they go, “Well, it’s a very confident witness there. They wouldn’t have missed something big in front of them, or they must be remembering what happened there.” There’s no evidence that’s the case.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It’s terrifying. It’s totally terrifying, which, thankfully there are initiatives, I think it’s called the Innocence Project, which is focused on sort of DNA-based exoneration. I’m sure somebody in the responses to this podcast will fact check that if necessary, but it is both deeply interesting because of the sort of cognitive reconstruction that can go on and the power of suggestibility to see the fallibility of observation and memory, and it’s deeply, deeply troubling, also, when you think about some of the ramifications. See, I’m sorry, you were going to say something?
Richard Wiseman: I was just going to say that, and what’s funny about it is, we all suffer from this kind of uniqueness bias. We think, oh, it’s other people that aren’t observant. It’s other people that don’t remember stuff. And I’ve done loads of these studies. I still find it hard to get into my head, that would be me thinking, the table levitated or the key bend. So, we all like to think it’s everybody else’s problem. It’s us as much as them. We are all very, very similar in that regard.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any scientists, researchers, investigators, however you want to look at it, who you consider smart and largely rational who study, I hesitate to even use the terms, because obviously the connotations are so negative, but psi phenomena or meta-analyses of such or touch on any edge of that, because I’d just be curious to know if there are any folks who come to mind where you’re like, yeah, I actually respect these people. I think they’re smart. And yet they risk career suicide by digging into these things.
Richard Wiseman: Well, the reason I’m laughing is that, one room that way is professor Caroline Watt, who is my partner, who runs the Edinburgh parapsychology unit at Edinburgh university. So she’s a parapsychologist. And as far as I know, I can go and check, but as far as I know, she’s a fairly reliable and honest researcher. So it’s interesting because I’m very skeptical and Caroline’s a bit more open and we’ve been together for 20 something years and we don’t actually discuss the topic very much. We sort of get on living rather than argue endlessly about whether psi exists. So, I think Caroline would have to be on my list. But I think I see most of the people interested in it are straightforward. It’s a bit like the psychics, there’s all sorts of problems that can creep into experiments where you end up fooling yourself.
You don’t need to be dishonest. You just end up doing an experiment that’s not very well controlled and you want to get a positive result. And that’s what you see in your data. And that’s happening in psychology as well. And what’s happening within mainstream psychology is there’s all sorts of checks and balances coming in place now that weren’t there even five years ago, and a thing called preregistration, which is where you write down how you’re going to analyze your data before you’ve collected it. And we’re seeing some of those effects starting to fade away. Exactly the same is happening in parapsychology. And so Daryl Bem, who we mentioned right at the start, he, to his credit ran two very large scale studies into that idea that people could look into the future, preregistered them, so he couldn’t do, sort of sniff around in his data, null effects. Nothing there at all. So this is a challenging time, I think for parapsychology and for psychology.
Tim Ferriss: So if, let’s just say I happened to be in the UK and I said, let’s grab a couple bottles of wine. And was it Carolyn or Caroline? I never know.
Richard Wiseman: Caroline, Caroline.
Tim Ferriss: Caroline. So let’s say Caroline joined us and we all split a couple bottles of wine and I said, all right, Caroline, what is Richard missing or what are his biases? Why do you think you guys are so seemingly on opposite ends of the spectrum here? What would she say? Do you think? Obviously you’re not speaking for her, but just speculating.
Richard Wiseman: Well, I could go and ask her. What would she say? It depends whether I’m sitting there or not. I think if I’m sitting there, she would tell you there’s no biases at all and I’m a lovely, lovely, lovely person.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. It’s a one on one. It’s a one on one.
Richard Wiseman: It’s a one on one. You still want the three bottles of wine between the two of you, then I think she would say that she’s genuinely curious about some of these anomalies in the data. I don’t think she’s totally, I can’t speak for her, but I don’t think she’s convinced that psi exists. I think she’s just curious and wants to see more well controlled research. So to that end, she’s one of the people that set up a pre-registration within parapsychology. So a place where you can say, this is what I intend to do, this is how I’m going to analyze my data. And you give that all over, those details over before you run your study. That’s part of her work. So I think she’d fall into the, I’m curious, category rather than I’m convinced by the existence of psi.
Tim Ferriss: I just wanted to underscore how important, if people aren’t familiar with the concept of preregistration, how incredibly important this is for all of science. I had a follow up question about that. Why do you think there are these people who dedicate, understanding that yes, partially it could be due to curiosity, but are willing to peg their careers to something that is so difficult to prove in a lab or demonstrate in a lab, I shouldn’t even say prove, right? Just to show a significant effect in a properly controlled trial of any type. Why do you think they do that?
Richard Wiseman: Oh, I know many of them very well. I was in the field for sort of 10, 15 years. The answer is because they’ve normally had an inexplicable experience, that something has happened to them, and with paranormal experiences, if you believe they’re genuinely paranormal, my goodness, this might be the most important experience of your entire life. You saw into the future. You had a telepathic communication with somebody many miles away. This is life changing stuff, because if that’s true, our fundamental assumptions about the entire universe are completely wrong. And so, yes, they’re often into the science, but they’re driven by that some sort of personal experience. It’s not to say they’re bad scientists because of it, but I think that’s what keeps them going. It’s that notion there’s going to be a breakthrough and we are going to finally understand this intangible thing that is psi.
Tim Ferriss: So let me jump to an area where I don’t believe they use psi phenomena quite as much, and that is NASA, to my knowledge. So the Apollo moon landings, I’m reading here that you’ve studied the psychology used by the mission controllers involved in those moon landings. How did you end up looking at that? And why did you find it compelling?
Richard Wiseman: Well, again, so many things happen on a chance basis. So I go to a party which is quite a rare occurrence for me, for reasons that are probably apparent now having chatted to you for quite a long time. So I’m invited to a party, I end up in a kitchen, I’m speaking to a friend of mine, Helen Keen, who’s really into space stuff. And at the time it was the 50th anniversaries of landing on the moon. And she was talking about the amazing technology that came off of the Apollo missions. And I said, well, has anyone looked at the amazing psychology that came off it? Because at the time putting somebody on the moon was pretty, it’s the closest thing you could get to an impossible event by the end of the decade, within sort of eight years or so of it being announced as a goal.
And she said, oh no, I don’t think so, but you have to speak to the mission controllers. They sat at the heart of the operation at NASA. And I said, well, how would I do that? And she said, well, you can speak to my friend, Craig. He’s fanatical about NASA, he’s befriended most of them. So I spoke to Craig, who then kindly put me in touch with the mission controllers. As I say, the people that sat at the heart of this mission. And they’re a astonishing group of people that basically achieved the impossible. And what is remarkable about them is, whereas the astronauts are a very particular type of person, incredible selection procedure and so on, the mission controllers are almost the opposite. They, at the time were incredibly young, average age about 21 when they start. I mean, unbelievable.
Tim Ferriss: That’s young.
Richard Wiseman: Even when Neil Armstrong walks on the moon, average age in mission control, 28. It’s unbelievable. Second, they’re the first in their families to go to university. They are not from the Ivy League Universities. They’re mainly from rural backgrounds across America. And the reason for that is they really wanted a group of people who were passionate, because they knew what—that were, one of them, Jerry Bostick, “so young, they didn’t know it couldn’t be done”. And so they went in with this spirit of, of course we can do it. And also they’re team players, they’re problem solvers. They don’t want to be individual stars and everyone I spoke to was extremely modest and humble about their contribution, but they were pulled together as a team and they would solve any problem that was thrown at them.
And so I really got into this mode of trying to understand the mindset that put us on the moon, because I think it’s one of our greatest achievements. Pretty much seen as impossible and yet these folks sat at the heart of it. Obviously hundreds of thousands of people involved in putting it all together, but these were the people at the heart of it. And that was astonishing. And so yeah, I did Shoot for the Moon or Moonshots, it’s called in America, which unpacks the psychology of that.
Tim Ferriss: Who is now I’m looking at, for those who can’t see any visual here, I’m looking behind you and you have a number of things on top of your bookshelf, who is the, it looks like a gentleman in a black and white photo behind you?
Richard Wiseman: I have absolutely no idea.
Tim Ferriss: This is just like masterpiece theater.
Richard Wiseman: Yeah. The reason it’s there is a magician friend came to stay with me, I would think a year ago, something like that. He goes to a antique shop and he sees the picture that’s sitting up there. And he comes back and he says, Richard, put that on your mantle piece behind you. And I said why? And he said, because when you’re doing Zoom calls, people will ask who it is.
Tim Ferriss: Well, you got me. Just like moving the handbag, I sat down next to you. You got me.
Richard Wiseman: Yeah, no, don’t feel bad. It’s almost everyone asks who is, I’ve absolutely no idea. I think it’s an acrobatic dancer. It’s a lovely, lovely picture. But I wish I could say a wonderful story about it, but I can’t.
Tim Ferriss: Well, it seems like you’re giving people three options to hang themselves. So I’m going to ask about what looks like a door knocker. What is that in the middle? Is there a-
Richard Wiseman: That is a very, very expensive, I’m giving away some secrets here, magic prop.
So on a good day, not the minute, but on a good day, it knocks on its own.
And we used it in a lot of the seances. And now when kids come around the house, I tell them that the house is haunted, which might be the case actually, it’s quite an old house, haunted. And that occasionally the ghost will make their presence known by knocking on this. And I turn my back and this knocks and the kids go, oh my goodness, it knocked. I say, no, it didn’t. It’s just your imagination. And then that goes on for maybe 20, 30 minutes. And then the kids say, who’s the picture next to it? I go, I have no idea who that is.
Tim Ferriss: Well, at least I’m going in the opposite direction from the kids, but still on the same page. Makes me feel good, child at heart, as I continually say. So just a few more questions, Richard. I really appreciate you taking the time. So this question sometimes is a dead-end and I’ll take the blame if that’s the case, but let’s say you had a billboard, metaphorically speaking, you could put any message, any quote, any photograph, anything at all on it to get the attention of billions of people. What might you put on that billboard?
Richard Wiseman: I think, off the top of my head, this is a terrible answer, I would go back to Carnegie, I would go back to simplicity and I would just put the word smile. That’s it. Or maybe something that would make them smile. Because it’s phenomenal, this is what Carnegie says, what smiling does. You know? It’s reciprocated by the other person and they feel good when they’re around you and so on. And right now, obviously it’s a very stressful time for lots of people in lots of ways. So I think I’d just go with something unbelievably simple like that. And then if it didn’t work out and people went, oh, that’s a really bland thing to say, I would blame it on Carnegie.
Tim Ferriss: Always have an exit strategy. Good advice. So, besides your own books, are there any books that you gift often or recommend often to other people?
Richard Wiseman: No. You don’t even get my books as a gift. You got to pay full price for them. No, no, no. Again, in terms of self development stuff, I go with Carnegie. I just think it’s very hard to beat. I think, I suppose more generally, I don’t actually, because I read so much for work, I don’t read very much for pleasure at all. I mean, this room is just full of books and they’re all nonfiction psychology books for the most part because that’s what I read. So I don’t read that much outside of that. I would say in terms of, say films or something like that, I mean, James Randi’s, Honest Liar, is a great, great documentary. And that was a lot of fun to work on.
I knew Randi very, very well and many, many fun, we were both giving talks together in Italy and I was standing outside the venue and Randi came up and he said, oh, Richard, I’ve got some stories to tell you, I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. And he told me all these wonderful stories, all very funny about testing psychics and so on. And he said, thank you very much for listening. And I said, okay. And then he walked on stage and he told all the same stories with exactly the same beats and the wording. I realized I’d just been a rehearsal space for him. I miss Randi, he was so charismatic and so much fun to be around. So, that’s great. And what else do I like in terms of film? Man on Wire, Man on Wire.
Tim Ferriss: Brilliant.
Richard Wiseman: It has to be one of the greatest documentaries ever made because it’s that same thing we get back to the Apollo mission controllers, which is how do you achieve the impossible? How do you even have the idea of creating the impossible? Let alone going about and doing it. And my goodness, if there’s any inspirational film for me, it’s that one.
Tim Ferriss: Man on wire. Yeah. I will also say, this won’t give away any detail, but we’ve been talking about at different points in this conversation, you’ve been mentioning, charlatans frauds of different types, whether they’re doing it knowingly or unknowingly. And if it’s a fake seance, perhaps the damage might be minimal, but there are charlatans out there who do a lot of damage. And there are a few case studies and showcases of that in An Honest Liar. And I thought it was not just really compelling material and an amazing story with lots of twists and turns, definitely folks should watch the trailer, but also a service in a way, to make people just a bit more, not cynical, but skeptical of what is immediately presented before them, because some charlatans do a tremendous, tremendous amount of damage.
Richard Wiseman: Yeah. I mean, and the flip side of that, which Randi recognized as well, is of course there are people out there claiming psychic stuff who actually do quite a lot of good. I mean, going along and talking about your problems and issues with somebody’s empathic and cares and so on is no bad thing. If you’ve lost a loved one, it’s so human to want to be in touch with them. And if you’re sending them one last message and that makes you feel better via a medium, who am I to be critical? So it is, one has to have a nuanced approach to this, as you say, absolutely, there are frauds and charlatans who do not care one jot about the emotional or physical wellbeing of their audiences. And they’re just in it for the fame and money. Equally, there are other people who probably are not faking it in that way, who care deeply about the people in front of them. So it’s a complicated area.
Tim Ferriss: I’ll give one just tech insight for folks who may be tempted to work with mediums. And if you feel so inclined, go crazy. But I was watching this snippet of a TV show of some celebrity medium, and the claim was, my producers don’t let me know anything about these people at all, da, da, da, except for, I get to see a photograph. That’s it, just a photograph. And I just want to point out to people that one of the things you can do with a photograph is you can take that photograph and do a reverse Google image search, and find social profiles of someone, and then gather information that way. So just be aware of that, so that if you decide to work with someone and you really want to stress test them, having them start with a blank slate, do not provide any images.
Any other documentaries that come to mind? I’m on the market for new documentaries. Could be television series. There’s one I’m interested in watching, I haven’t watched it yet. So it might be terrible for anyone listening, but it’s called Bad Vegan. And it’s about a restaurateur who is seduced into marrying a con artist who claims he can make her dog immortal and it’s supposed to be just spectacular television. Has all the ingredients necessary. But do any other documentaries, could be about magicians, could be about anything at all, or TV shows come to mind for you?
Richard Wiseman: Well, Richard Turner’s documentary is wonderful. I think you mentioned it.
Tim Ferriss: Dealt.
Richard Wiseman: Earlier on, is great. I’ve watched a whole lot of documentaries about magic and they’re all kind of fun and give you, I mean, we have this kind of idea that show business is so glossy and great because all we see is just that moment on stage when it all looks wonderful. And in fact, it’s one of the hardest ways to make a living and it’s terrible in all sorts of ways. There’s several documentaries on magic that give that out. I enjoyed, there was one about Cirque du Soleil and the selection process on Cirque du Soleil.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, amazing.
Richard Wiseman: Which I really enjoyed recently. Just in terms of the sheer, that hard work that goes into that. When I was, oh, far too young, 16, 17, I did flying trapeze. And so, I mean, I say I did it. I went to 10 lessons to do it. And A, it’s extremely difficult, I’ve got to say. And B, I learned a lot, because it’s so obviously dangerous that none of us messed around and none of us, thank goodness, got injured. Next in was clown school. And they’d all bundle in and they sort of push each other over. And actually it’s really easy to like chip an elbow or something, if you don’t know what you’re doing. So every week it was the clowns that got injured and never the flying trapeze people. Hugely satisfying.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I will find the title of the Cirque du Soleil selection process documentary. And I’ll put that in the show notes for folks, so you’ll be able to find that in the show notes.
Richard Wiseman: I think it’s Ring on Fire or something like that.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. And to your point on show business, every time I watch a television special or a documentary that is based on a live show and they mention that the sheer volume of shows, it always is mind blowing and mind numbing on a certain level. I remember watching Miracle by Derren Brown, which I think is fantastic. And for people interested, I think it’s a fair description to say that Derren gets on stage says, I’ve no special powers but I’ve studied the techniques of preachers and so on around the country, around the world, and I’m going to give you demonstrations of faith healing.
And there’s a lot more to it. It’s a spectacular show. I’ve seen it twice, but in the beginning it says something just like in and of itself, this show was performed 578 times in such and such a theater. And that, now why do you think someone like Derren, I don’t know Derren personally, we’ve had a few exchanges, but, or anyone does that? It just seems so physically and mentally punishing to do. To even approach that. Is there anything that you’ve seen as patterns in personality or anything that leads people to do that?
Richard Wiseman: It’s a very interesting question, isn’t it? Because, yeah, you have to go out and do the same thing every single night. I mean, it’s even worse, I suspect, for actors. Because at least Derren’s got some kind of freedom in what he says and how he interacts with people and so on. My guess would be that it’s just an enormous adrenaline rush to see that standing ovation which, every time I’ve seen Derren he gets and like all the other Vegas performers do. To change your question slightly, what I find fascinating is how you keep it fresh. Because there’s nothing worse than watching a performer that’s dialing it in, because you need to feel, this is the first time it’s been done, it’s being done for you.
And I spoke to a couple of performers about that and one of the techniques that one of them, I probably shouldn’t mention the name, but one of them used, very experienced performer, was to stand in the wings and to go, there’ll come a time when I’m too old to do this, or I’m not physically able to, or the audiences don’t want to see me anymore. And I’ll be very, very sad because I won’t be able to do it. And they let that moment sink in and then they go, not tonight though, and out they go.
And it’s a wonderful example of what we were talking about before, of not getting that habituation get to you. It’s saying, this is going to go at some point. So make tonight count. It’s one of my favorites and I mean, I give talks, I don’t form like that, but the Luck Talk, I’ve given hundreds and hundreds of times, and I’ll often do that in the wings just to go, at some point people won’t want to hear this talk. Not tonight though.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, that is fantastic. I really, really love that. Well, Richard, this has been very fun. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. Is there anything else that you would like to mention? Any closing comments, any complaints you’d like to lodge? Any requests to my audience? Anything, anything at all?
Richard Wiseman: No, you’ve made it such a joy. Thank you very much. I suppose, if anything, back at all this stuff we’ve been talking about, I think the one thing that underlies it all is a fascination with the impossible. Whether it’s paranormal, whether it’s magic, whether it’s what the Apollo folks did, whether it’s luck, trying to change people’s lives, I’m just fascinated by how we do something that we, ourselves or others considered to be impossible. And you know the moment you do it, everyone else goes, oh, that was obvious. Of course you could do that. And I think that’s been the driving force through all this work, if there is one. But no, thank you very much. And thank you for making it such a joy.
Tim Ferriss: Oh my pleasure. Hopefully we have a round two and maybe we’ll even get to that three bottle of wine dinner at some point. On Twitter @richardwiseman. Is your YouTube channel also Richard Wiseman? Or does it go by a different handle?
Richard Wiseman: No, the YouTube channel is Quirkology.
Tim Ferriss: Quirkology.
Richard Wiseman: As in quirky psychology.
Tim Ferriss: All right. And we will link to all these things in the show notes, everybody listening, we will have links to all references, everything that we discussed at tim.blog/podcast as per usual. And until next time. Thank you for tuning in. All right.
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