Post No.: 0718
Many adults aren’t fooled by magic in the sense of believing that it’s real. However, the more religious or spiritual narrative presentations of magic tricks can convince some that the supernatural realm really does exist.
Deception, sleights of hand, hidden mechanical props, confederates, misdirection, forcing, priming, ‘what you see is all there is’, the placebo effect, planting false memories and change blindness are some of the ways how magic tricks can manage to fool us despite the true explanations for them often being in plain sight.
Magic is predicated upon invalid assumptions. A magician presents an act but (usually) obscures the fact that the original assumption (that no trickery will be used) is actually the conclusion that we’re meant to draw. In any case, it’s an invalid assumption because the magician certainly does use trickery in one form or another. A magician’s ‘proof’ consists of visual cues, with the audience surrendering to them and believing their very own eyes. They exploit the heuristic that ‘seeing is believing’.
Misdirection, or directing the audience’s attention onto one thing so that it’s not directed at another, is a common technique employed in magic tricks.
Ventriloquists are just like magicians in that they also misdirect the audience. They look at the dummy and make the dummy look at them when it ‘talks’. They act as if the dummy is alive. A huge part of the performance is about acting.
You’ll sometimes see more experienced magicians using one kind of misdirection as a cover up for another. They’ll make it look like they’re hiding something spatially when they could be hiding it temporally (‘time misdirection’ is misdirecting the audience into thinking that the sleight of hand occurred during a particular point in time, when it in fact had already occurred many moves earlier). Sometimes they ‘accidentally’ mess up the trick along one misdirection to fool us into believing that it was the method of secrecy that they are using for that trick. And the moments when they relax or do something nonchalantly, which causes us to relax our guards and concentrations too – that is probably when the key misdirection takes place.
Our eyes naturally pay high attention to moving objects so magic wands and conspicuous hand gestures serve to direct our eyes away from where the magician doesn’t want us to look. Our brains are, in trying to be efficient, constantly choosing what they believe are the most important aspects of our surroundings, and are thus paying scant attention to everything else. By making important actions seem unimportant, and by drawing our attentions onto where they want it placed (e.g. via composition or a more flamboyant action) – magicians can make key aspects of their performances ‘disappear’.
Misdirection is easy for a magician to pull off because of our poor ability to multitask and pay attention to multiple things simultaneously. We can look but not see, or listen but not hear. Most of us overestimate our ability to multitask. Take something as simple as walking if you’ve been doing it comfortably for decades – it’s so natural and easy that it doesn’t add any mental workload does it, we think? Well while walking – if you’re simultaneously asked to work out what 37 x 12 makes, you’ll likely need to slow down or even completely stop walking in order to place sufficient concentration onto figuring it out. But you’re just walking – something you’ve done ‘effortlessly’ for years!
This poor ability to multitask can be used to our advantage though, like when playing an immersive videogame as a mental distraction from an acute pain we’re experiencing (as long as the game isn’t something like trying to dance pad, speedrun, no-hit Elden Ring I suppose(!))
Forcing is like when magicians force a particular card onto a participant even though they’ll be thinking that they’ve made a free choice in picking any card. An example is, through sleight of hand, always handing over the card on the bottom of the deck no matter how the participant cuts the deck. Nudging is a way of manipulating decisions or behaviours without force. For instance, subtly guiding the eye, on a subconscious level, towards one particular card in the hope that the participant will choose that one.
Priming, or planting ideas, can be achieved by repeating or emphasising certain phrases or imagery in what seem like in a casual and non-deliberate way. So you might be encouraged to think of any card you like but the magician keeps priming the idea of a ‘two’ and a ‘diamond’ in your mind in their seemingly casual conversation. The effect of social priming is only small though (it’s not as large as scientists initially thought) but you can see how the technique could be used to sway particularly undecided voters, or to plant the idea of thirst to get more people who feel slightly parched to buy a drink in the cinema.
Equivoque in magic is about how a magician will get their own way no matter what the audience member apparently chooses or does, hence the ‘illusion of choice’. (Many neuroscientists and philosophers will go as far as to say that freedom is always merely an illusion and whenever we think we’re making totally unfettered and free choices, it’s only because we’re being tricked into thinking we are.)
Other psychological tricks magicians might use include implying ‘only the ignorant don’t understand or believe in the spiritual forces around us’ or ‘only special people can see it’. The fame or prestige of a furry magician can also lead to audience members expecting to be wowed by real magic, expecting to be hypnotised, and so on, which leads to more suggestibility or credulity.
Magicians are essentially master psychologists because they’re skilled in directing and misdirecting attention, and ultimately in making us believe what they want us to believe – which is that what we’re seeing is real magic!
The (typical) rules of magic are – to never reveal the secret to how a trick is done, to never repeat a trick, and to use attractive assistants as a distraction!
There’s so much that can be gleaned from magic tricks in order to perform short and long confidence tricks, or cons, on fraud victims – like the misdirections or distractions, priming or suggestions, the confidence and charm of the performer or fraudster, the use of stooges, shills, ropers, convincers, marks, fixers, insiders or coolers, and the sleight-of-hand or pick-pocketing techniques. So skilful con artists are essentially master psychologists too, including regarding knowing whom to best prey on.
Businesses and governments often use similar techniques too when they try to influence and modify our behaviours. They can present rigged choices and exploit the fact that they know most of us will behave in certain predictable ways. We may feel that we’re arriving at unfettered attitudes, decisions and actions – but like how a magician can get us to more times than not pull out the card the magician wants us to pull, marketers and politicians can persuade us to spend more or to support them.
Businesses might exploit the placebo effect to get us to become dependent on using their products, or the decoy effect to get us to buy more of something than we need. Governments might try to nudge us towards making healthier decisions, or promote a hawkish foreign policy to distract us from our own domestic strife (a ‘diversionary foreign policy’). Organised groups can spread disinformation campaigns in an attempt to prime us – repeat something ad nauseam and at least some people will start to accept it as true.
Magic tricks and illusions are especially convincing when conveyed with a meaningful and impactful story that’s personal to the audience, to explain the events they had just apparently witnessed – like a story about how an item was ‘spirited away’ for safekeeping by angels (rather than just concealed in the magician’s palm).
Magicians use the same type of structuring as storytellers – they tell a tail about magical properties via a patter or script. Modern patter is very straightforward and subsequently much more deceptively effective than the old ‘abracadabra’-style phrases. Words are used to introduce an illusion, often by setting a scene of nostalgic childhood, faraway lands, historical events, or by creating some other emotion in the audience. Words are usually used throughout a performance to enhance it with a fanciful story or to dramatise particular moments. And of course, words are used to misdirect, direct and hypnotise. In ambiguous situations, the magician’s words can induce people to accept one reality over another. By carefully selecting what’s said, a magician elicits certain perspectives and inhibits others.
We’ll then create narratives in our own minds to explain, to ourselves, what happened to the vanishing coin or whatever, to try to feel some closure and in turn make ourselves feel better (e.g. that there really are other realms around us). The coin disappears and, after being provided enough misdirecting clues, we work to formulate a story of what happened to it.
So if we believe in magic, or even if we don’t – after witnessing a trick, we form stories to attempt to explain what must’ve happened to make it work (e.g. it was benevolent ghosts moving things, or some sort of hidden pulley system). We’ll then present this story to others to try to get them to believe in the same story, perhaps with false memories and confirmation bias playing a part in refining this story in our own minds. Therefore we inadvertently fool ourselves with our own embellishments, then proceed to fool others. This is our story, but we may believe it’s the story.
This process really applies with every kind of thing we perceive that can have a narrative, like when trying to link causes to effects, assuming the motivations of other people, and when trying to make coherent sense of world events. We’re attending to stories – the stories we accept from others or the stories we generate ourselves – in everyday life.
Some research suggests that people who are currently having a tough time in their lives, are facing uncertainty, or had faced a lot of upset and uncertainty as children, have a greater likelihood of believing in the paranormal and thinking there’s a magical solution to their problems. Perhaps it affords them comfort? This would parallel the finding that people are more likely to be religious in harsher and more uncertain environments.
On the one paw, magicians do instil an idea of miraculous wonder. But if we believe their tricks are evidence of real preternatural powers then there should also arguably be a feeling of despondency due to these performers merely using their special gifts for the sake of light entertainment rather than for solving things like world hunger(!) If magic really exists then at least some magicians should be using their powers to solve some genuine world problems instead of garnering a few claps and bouquets! If horoscopes really worked then astrologers should’ve consistently predicted the coronavirus pandemic before late 2019!
…So magic involves understanding psychology and exploiting it through showmanship and performance. The best practitioners are like artists who suffuse magic, more than like conjurors who are trying to be artistic.
Performing magic is about transporting and moving the audience. A magical act must have a journey, a story with characters we care about, and drama. Magic doesn’t just leave people in bewilderment or with an intellectual puzzle to solve – it’s only magic if they feel it as magical. Magic touches the heart and soul more than the mind, with an emotionally satisfying experience.
Many of us know that magic relies on all kinds of deceptions. But we also watch movies and know they’re not real yet we go along for the ride and can be moved to tears and laughter by them. So at some level it appears that we (want to) perceive them as very real. They’re fake yet concurrently real.