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 holding large audiences.

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

For this, it is imperative to penetrate the person's mind and master the art of deceiving them without them realising. 

Scientists refer to this as hypnotism and it is a field of study that has held much fascination for them over the past five decades, but magicians have known of its existence for centuries, as is proved by texts written in the 16th century.  

The fact that the human mind can be coaxed into perceiving what appears to be extraordinary is what magicians have been banking on for centuries and is based on the following fundamentals:


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

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

Such is its importance that in their book titled ‘The Art of Magic,’ published in 1909, authors T. Nelson Downs and John Northern Hilliard emphasised 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 capitalised on for centuries and scientists have caught on to only recently.

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

For their part, scientists realised the existence of this trait through conducting an experiment whereby people turned out to be oblivious to something as obvious as differences in the people asking for directions.

Psychology and Magic - Forcing a choice

How do you push people into picking what you want them to choose without making it obvious? Ask magicians and they will reveal a method that has been a part of magic routines for centuries.

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 choose a card from those held by the magician, consider 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 the greater good, for example convincing people to choose healthier foods, save money for retirement and so on.

So high has the degree of interest in this behavioural pattern been that it earned Daniel Kahneman his Nobel Prize in 2002 for having written a book about the subject.

Inaccurate memory

Human beings often tend to have exaggerated memories and who could have grasped this fact and used it to their advantage other than the magicians?

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 clarifies 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 occurrence.

Psychology and Magic - 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 heckler with relish. In spite of the fact that the claim 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 centuries ago and manipulated to their advantage.

For more articles like Psychology and Magic, click here

  1. Free Magic Tricks and Illusions
  2. Magic Articles
  3. Psychology and Magic

Free Magic Tricks and Illusions Forum