Illusions, points out Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller fame, are much less interesting than magic tricks. An illusion requires nothing of you as an audience member save for a pair of eyeballs with which to behold it. A magic trick, on the other hand, requires your active participation, careful scrutiny, and the whir of the clockwork of your mind theorising away. Illusions are automatic, but magic tricks don’t work unless you’re cognitively engaged and complicit in your own hoodwinking.
Whether it’s a card or disappearing trick, mentalism (a magic trick with a psychic flair), or a psychic reading purporting to have a preternatural insight into your past, present and future, all require the duped to collaborate in their own deception. As Teller, er, tells us, deception is a matter of good storytelling and ‘the strongest lie is the lie the audience tells itself’.
The magic show audience wants to be bamboozled as much as the grieving ex-Pomeranian owner wants to be reassured little Frou-Frou is floating on a cloud, chewing on equally fluffy slippers. Incidentally, having seen a psychic at the Camden market, I now have an irresistible urge to fulfil his prophecy of five kids by acquiring a herd of goats, but that’s a story for another time.
Masters of misdirection and manipulation, consummate dissemblers and exceptional equivocators, magicians, mentalists, and mediums have made a career out of exploiting the quirks of perception, attention, memory and decision-making to perplex and delight us in equal measure. Let’s find out how they pull it off.
My lovely assistant, Miss Direction
Linchpin of the magician’s bag of tricks is misdirection. Whether they’re instructing you to take a gander at their glamorous assistant or emphasising a wholly non-significant detail, magicians are exploiting the limitations of your attentional system.
There’s a reason attention is limited, it wouldn’t do for Caveman Grok to stare at the line of ants walking in front of him and not grok that there’s a stirring in the long grass behind him. Though incidentally, the longer Grok keeps staring at the long grass after it’s ceased rustling, the more creative he is likely to be—it’s a trade-off.
Latent inhibition is the mechanism by which we are able to suppress irrelevant information and divert attention away from stimuli previously exposed to in favour of new and potentially relevant (i.e. threatening or richly rewarding) events. If you pay undue attention to false alarms, you leave yourself vulnerable to actual threats in your environment. It’s clear why we evolved this way.
However, beyond survival—the various biological imperatives and the vying for social dominance they require—we desire much more from life, such as self-actualisation and creative expression. What others dismiss as trivial may be the unorthodox and brilliant solution to a perplexing problem. A burr stuck to a sock is a nuisance to be flicked away for some but the inspiration for the creation of Velcro fastenings in one curious and circumspect enough to examine it under a microscope.
Reduced latent inhibition is an example of an over-inclusive and highly associative cognitive style, facilitating the generation of novel ideas and surprising connections. As such it is linked to creativity. However, it’s also associated with a heightened risk of psychopathology; in the case of schizophrenia, undue attention is paid to self-generated stimuli, such as auditory and visual hallucinations, which are perceived as though having an external origin.
We have to make judgement calls about what is and is not relevant all the time. Even vision is not a passive activity; we choose the way we engage with a visual scene, our attention functioning as a roving spotlight of sorts. We focus on what we think is significant, in the process allotting little attention to anything on its periphery.
Suppose you’re focused on a video of people passing a ball back and forth, tasked with counting the number of passes. Highly amusing experiments show you’re apt to miss something as staggeringly obvious as a person in a gorilla suit walking through the scene. This is especially true if what you’re required to focus on is complex in nature meaning a high perceptual load. And while failure to notice an escaped gorilla strolling through a gymnasium is comical, the limits of attention are a far more serious consideration in the study of eyewitness testimony accuracy, or rather, lack thereof.
Temporary insensitivity to other stimuli while distracted by a cognitively demanding task is known as inattentional blindness. Magicians use this gap in attention to disappear coins, lighters, and handkerchiefs right from under your nose, and to sneak balls under cups. So do pickpockets now I come to think of it.
The important thing to remember is that misdirection is not the same thing as a distraction, rather it’s an action that cleverly draws attention away from the spider thread or angled mirrors by dressing up the irrelevant as relevant. Misdirection does not have to be confined to the visual sensory modality, either; for example, the clink of out-of-sight coins can be used to reinforce the idea that coins have been deposited into a tin bucket when they’ve actually been palmed and pocketed.
Thus, misdirection is the generation of any sort of false impression. If a magician hands you a die to inspect they imply its importance (even if the trick works regardless of the number you roll). If they hand you a deck of playing cards to shuffle, they may succeed in disabusing you of the notion that it’s gimmicked purely through their apparent willingness to furnish you with proof. When a magician sets out to deceive, beware of the trap you weave as you attempt to unravel the mysteries of his or her trick.
My lovely assistant has vanished into thin air
Most probably to a job where she isn’t constantly being sawed in half or freezing her tuchus off in sequined catsuits. Question is, was the assistant ever there to begin with, or was the mere suggestion of her enough for your mind to fill in the blanks?
We do a lot of filling in the blanks. Reality is not some one-to-one mapping, rather, guided by experience and expectation, our mind supplies the likely missing details according to the hypotheses it generates. Perception, memory, even your sense of a cohesive self are merely illusions of the highest order.
Amodal completion is the process by which we build a mental representation of a whole object even when our view of it is partially occluded. Thus, when an assistant climbs into a box we perceive her as whole and hale, from head to tip of glittery toe (even if that toe belongs to a mannequin or another limber assistant), due to Gestalt object grouping principles. In this specific case, our preference for complete shapes (the law of closure), and meaningful and/or familiar objects.
You’ll also see echoes of this duplicity in misleading product packaging, such that a portion of food as visible through a peek-a-boo window is suggested to be much larger than it really is, the rest presumed to be hidden away behind the packaging. So, to recap, I have now saved you from purse purloiners and shoddy salami salesmen. You can thank me by buying me a coffee.
My delicious orange has vanished into thin air
A magician can similarly suggest a non-existent object, for example through the clever draping of cloth, to be “disappeared”. Objects can also be hinted at through the magician’s behaviour, for example, if they were to mime throwing an orange into the air, their eyes following its imaginary trajectory, while covertly dropping it into their vest or pocket (known as a French drop), you’d be fooled into thinking it had gone into the aether. Thus, a disappearing trick is often merely a phantom vanish.
I hate card tricks; I think it should be socially acceptable to exclaim, ‘Ah, the Queens of Spades, how did you do it?’ the second they even think about reaching for their deck of cards, intent on burning down the wick of your brief and inestimably precious existence. However, card tricks have a lot to teach us about perception and decision-making, and so, I shall make a concession.
The hand is quicker than the eye
Although an image might seem stable (and it certainly lingers in the mind’s eye), it is constantly being replaced with each saccade, a type of rapid, flickering eye movement. Striking changes such as the replacement of objects and even people occurring within the space of this flicker can go unnoticed. This is known as change blindness and relates to our poor memory for visual scenes. (If you closed your eyes right now, would you be able to describe every object in front of you? I think not!)
Apart from the blink of an eye, this effect can be induced by the flicker of a screen, a cut or pan in a motion picture, a motion flicker, a flash of light—in short, anything which masks the transition between two visually distinct scenes. (Watch The Door Study for an amusing example of change blindness wherein people are switched out mid-conversation with their interlocutor being none the wiser.)
In many magic tricks, a sudden movement—something we pay attention to given the evolutionary advantages of promptly responding to an attack—seamlessly merges two disparate states. In the wave-change card trick, for instance, a playing card appears to change colour. In reality, the motion of rotating the card “masks the flick of the magician’s finger that rotates a hidden card to the forefront”.
Pick a card, this particular card
When asking you to choose a card, a
tedious bore at a party magician will attempt to psychologically influence your decision through visual or classical forcing. These methods are not the same as physical forcing wherein a card sticks slightly out of a fanned deck or a page in a book is held open by a coin wedged into the spine, giving it a subliminal salience—though those methods are used too.
But back to the sort of psychological trickery that gives us a sense of illusory control. If I asked you to select a card by plucking it yourself, I’d make sure to time it so the card I want you to choose is at your fingertips the precise moment you are reaching to select a card. This is known as classical forcing. (Now ask yourself, did you really want that particular brand of milk at the store or was it merely conveniently within reach?)
On the other hand, were I to riffle through a deck of cards in front of you and ask you to select one by taking a snapshot of it in your mind, you’re apt to choose the card I showed you last (known as the recency effect), and the one I subtly showed you the longest. That is, I would be using visual forcing to influence your decision.
Research shows we are wholly unaware of these manipulations and are adamant we made our choice of card freely. It seems that not only do we suffer from change blindness, but also from introspective blindness, lacking the insight to pinpoint the provenance of our choices and desires. Perhaps free will is the grandest illusion of all?
Think Swiss cheese and not Swiss watch
Cognitive scientists are interested in magic not only to deepen their understanding of attention, perception, memory, and the biases clouding our judgment but because they too rely on deception and confederates (who regrettably rarely don sparkly gowns).
Cognitive scientists Olson and Raz (2021) note that ‘social psychologists, placebo scientists, and consumer researchers’ are often required to mislead participants. Researchers receive little training in the art of, say, selling a placebo as a psychedelic drug (participants should be ‘blinded’ so that expectation keeps its sticky tendrils out of perception) or pretending two phases of an experiment are unrelated. This means hamfisted attempts at deception can backfire, potentially compromising the validity of the research.
Moreover, relying on a single deception is not enough; if it’s exposed, the jig is up. Whether in the lab or in the limelight, the best sort of subterfuge can be likened to a stack of Swiss cheese slices, all layered together. The Swiss cheese model originates in the theory of accident prevention wherein an accumulation of failures rather than a unitary cause is typically the culprit. Each holey slice on its lonesome is potentially easy to see through, but the totality of the misdirection and planted assumptions will catch out even the most suspicious of persons.
At last, as promised by the article’s subtitle*, you’re now well equipped to ruin magic tricks for small children. A strange compulsion, to be sure.
Learning about magic theory has been terrific fun as it relates to my top two interests: storytelling and cognitive science. Thanks for reading this excerpt of an abridged chapter from my upcoming book, Psychology for World Domination.
*Don’t mind me, just testing a theory regarding choice blindness.