There might be piles of op-eds bemoaning the dwindling attention spans of the digital age, but magicians know better. They know that humans’ ability to see and observe has always been a fragile thing, a thing that’s easy to manipulate or to fail completely. Magic historian David Britland delves into some of the more incredible examples of this phenomenon in his One Weird Trick blog.
For instance, he’s got the story of Harry Blackstone, a magician who was so good at misdirection he could distract an audience while a donkey was moved into position to be the trick’s big reveal. Nobody would see the donkey, even though the animal was in plain view on the stage, until Blackstone wanted them to.
On the more academic side, he also shares a research experiment by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris of Harvard that put humans’ selective blindness to the test in a similar fashion. Instead of a donkey, the professors had people watch a group of people passing a ball so intently that many of the participants completely ignored the cameo by someone in a gorilla suit.
Check out the full post for more examples of selective inattention in action. Or if you still need more on the science of misdirection, you can read about it in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology or in The Guardian. Or just watch your favorite magician doing their thing.
It’s always a treat to see the new generation of magicians getting recognized for their skills. David Frank, a high school sophomore from the New York City area, used his experience with magic to help secure second place at the Long Island Psychology Fair.
Frank conducted his research, formally titled “A Table Magician’s Greatest Trick: Affecting a Patron’s Tipping Habits Without Them Knowing,” during his weekly performances as a table magician at a local restaurant.
“I wanted to see what I could do to increase the size of my tips and how many people were actually leaving me tips,” Frank told Patch. “So, I started researching and came across the concept of reciprocity.”
By performing the scientifically-backed magic for his patrons, his research found an “80% increase in gratuity,” according to the article.
A smart kid with smart moves; that’s a winning combination.
We missed this one back when it aired around Christmastime, but the BBC 4 science/geek podcast the Infinite Monkey Cage did a deep dive on the psychology of magic. Hosts Brian Cox and Robin Ince gathered illusionist Andy Nyman, psychology professor and magician Richard Wiseman, comedian Diane Morgan, and theology professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou to chat about magic on stage. Together, they discuss about the difference between magicians and quack paranormalists, the history of myths and miracles in religion (apparently demons don’t like corners?), skeptics, and more. You can check it out at the podcast’s official page on BBC 4, or have a listen via the YouTube mirror embedded above.
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:
We all know that when we agree to see a magician perform, we’re effectively giving our consent to be lied to. But what is the psychology behind our love of being fooled? Why do we lie to one another, even when we know it’s wrong? And how do we find the truth when misinformation is easier than ever to spread?
These questions and many more will be asked and (hopefully) answered at an upcoming day-long conference at Emory University this Friday. Entitled “The Lying Conference”, the university has assembled a wide variety of experts from an array of professions, including psychology, journalism, theater, and magic. Each one will give presentations on the science, history, and art of lying, and how it applies to our lives in the 21st century.
“Lying is kind of a hot topic right now, with all the buzz about fake news and accusations of cover-ups and deception,” Emory development psychologist and lead organizer Philippe Rochat states on the University’s event page. “When we talk about lying, what we are indirectly trying to understand is, what is the truth? It can be a profound question.”
Talks will begin at 8:30 am and last until 6:30 pm, and include topics such as “Little liars: How children learn to tell lies?” presented by developmental psychologist Kang Lee, “What Happened to The News? – Technology, Politics and the Vanishing Truth” presented by CNN international anchor Jonathan Mann, and “The Science of Magic and the Art of Deception” presented by magician and author Alex Stone.
The event is free and open to the public, though registration for the event is requested, and can be done on the conference’s Eventbrite page. For more information, please contact Natalie Eldred at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 404-727-6199.
“People are really naive when it comes to deception. Really, really naive. Unbelievably naive,” says Dr. Amir Raz during this lecture on the Psychology of Magic from 2011 at McGill University. Now the Canada Research Chair in the Cognitive Neuroscience of Attention, Dr. Raz was a genuine magician once upon a time, and has remained fascinated by the intersection of his two passions.
During his lecture, Dr. Raz begins to dissect how magicians rely on distraction and misdirection to accomplish their goal of fooling the audience. He and a pair of volunteers take turns attempting to throw cards into the audience, and though his young assistants never quite master it, he’s able to do it consistently. That card-tossing becomes quite important later in the lecture.
He also discusses the “noise” that magicians use to obfuscate the method of whatever trick they’re doing, illustrating his example with a bit of mentalism. It’s an entertaining breakdown of the many pieces of performance that go into selling a trick. The second half of the lecture is below.