Whether they realize it or not, most magicians are also cunning psychologists. A study published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology delved into just how powerful an audience’s expectations are in making your misdirection work.
The research led by Goldsmiths, University of London, ran tests based on the Theory of False Solution, where a magician intentionally presents viewers with a possible, but incorrect, answer to how their trick is done. Participants in the study were shown one of three variants of a card trick. Those who were not shown a false solution were more likely to sleuth out the real answer to the trick (87.5%) than those who saw a false solution, even after the performer proved to them that it was a false solution (60%). Co-author Dr. Gustav Khun had this to say about the results:
Our findings show that being exposed to a false solution can continue to prevent people from reasoning their way to the right answer even after they recognise this false solution is impossible. It’s as if, having made the effort to construct a solution, people become stuck on it and less able to ‘think outside the box’ and come up with a new solution that abandons their original assumptions.
Those are some impressive results. Perhaps it’s why the greats like Penn and Teller love to, ahem, “explain” their tricks, as with this nail gun piece: