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Psychology and Magic

Psychology and Magic Loop-Holes That Magicians Pre-Empted Prior To Scientists



Magic has always been associated with the mind irrespective of whether it was displayed in the ancient courts of Pharaohs and queens or is enacted in the modern realms of television and grand auditoriums packed with people.

Likewise, a magical performance has triggered a feeling of anticipation and amazement amongst spectators but for the magician it is a challenge wherein success is determined by how well he can control the minds of viewers.

For this, it is imperative to crawl within someone’s thoughts and master the art of twisting them without the other person realizing.

Scientists refer to this as hypnotism and it is a field of study that has held a lot of fascination for

them over the past five decades but magicians have known of its existence since centuries, as is

proved by texts as old as having been written in the 16th human mind can be coaxed into perceiving what appears to be extraordinary is what magicians have been banking on since ages and is based on the following fundamentals –

Distraction – Effective distraction has long since played an instrumental role in successful rendition of magic tricks and forms of the core of a magician’s training.

Referred to as ‘sleight of hand’, this maneuver is used to draw the attention of the audience away from the secret gesture that is crucial to lead the trick to completion.

Such is its importance that in their book titled ‘The Art of Magic’ that was published in 1909, authors T. Nelson Downs and John Northern Hilliard emphasized that any dearth in fluency would be enough to give away the magician.

Science has caught on to this concept fairly recently and having termed the phenomenon as ‘visual cognition’, researchers, particularly those related to the field of psychology, have been experimenting with it as a means of drawing attention away from whatever needs to be hidden.

Blind to differences – Inability of human beings to discern between shapes and features is another point that magicians have capitalized on since ages and scientists have caught on to only recently.

In magic, performers rely on this inability of viewers to distinguish between nearly similar shapes like clubs and spades of the same denomination while conducting tricks.

On their part, scientists realized the existence of this trait through an experiment wherein people turned out to be oblivious to something as obvious as difference in the person asking for directions.

Forcing a choice – How do you push people into picking what you want them to choose without making it obvious? Ask a magician and he will reveal a method that has been a part of centuries-old legacy for him.

Although the earliest publication propounding this concept has been dated to circa 1584 and goes by the title ‘The discoverie of Witchcraft’ authored by Reginald Scot, there are enough indications that this power of persuasion existed before that.

Thus, every time you take your pick from amongst the cards held by the magician, introspect as to whether you might have been gently pushed to opt for it.

Academia took notice of this psychology only during the last decade of the twentieth century and has since employed its potential for what is perceived as greater good, for example convincing people to choose healthier foods, saving money for retirement and so on.

So high has the degree of interest in this behavioral pattern been that it earned Daniel Kahneman his Nobel Prize in 2002 from having written a book on it.

Inaccurate memory – Human beings tend to have exaggerated memories and who could have grasped this fact and used it to his advantage but the magician?


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Psychology and magic

Psychology and magic

This psychological loop-hole was best summed up in a 1918 publication of Magic Circular –

“It is to an audience’s lapse of memory that we owe half of the wondrous accounts of things that never happen but which enhance our reputation nevertheless.”

In a nutshell it elucidates why magicians encourage exaggerated memories – it is with the intention of appearing larger than life in front of an audience and drawing them in for another performance at another point in time.

Psychologists, on the other hand, refer to this as reconstructive memory and its significance has been noticed in scenes following a major event like a crime or an accident wherein witnesses have been found to exaggerate if questioned immediately after the happening.

Undeserved acknowledgement – No other performer knows better than a magician how capable a spectator is when it comes to interrupting a perfectly smooth performance and spoiling the mood by playing the whistle-blower with relish. In spite of the fact that the assumption that is announced is often wrong, it will still have created a doubt in the minds of the audience and taken away the glamour element of the performance.

Frank Keil and Leonid Rozenblit refer to this as ‘illusion of explanatory depth’ in psychology’s jargon wherein human beings are ignorant of how incomplete their theories are and like to believe that their understanding is far greater than it actually is.


So for the scientists it would suffice to say ‘better late than never’ when it comes to diagnosing human nature like magicians have done hundreds of years ago and manipulating it to their advantage.


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