While world-famous magicians Penn & Teller might not seem to have much of a connection to psychology, magic is a topic of much psychological research.
Specifically, cognitive psychologists, neuropsychologists, and others have extensively studied the processes that are exploited by magicians – cognition and perception among them.
Furthermore, psychologists aren’t just interested in why illusions can be so effective but have sought to understand the underlying sensory processes that make illusions possible in the first place.
Magic tricks like those in Penn & Teller’s shows depend mostly on vision and playing tricks on the visual systems of members of the audience. However, perceptual processes go well beyond vision and include hearing, taste, smell, touch, pain, movement, and balance.
What’s more, what we see, touch, smell, and so forth isn’t just a matter of sensory receptors receiving stimuli. Rather, it is a highly complex process in which our brains must make sense of the information it’s receiving.
This is where magic and illusions work to make us perceive what magicians like Penn & Teller want us to perceive.
So, what can Penn & Teller teach us about psychology?
Misdirection is a Powerful Psychological Force
One of the primary tools in a magician’s bag of tricks is simple misdirection.
On its face, misdirection is a seemingly straightforward process. For example, when Penn & Teller are doing a trick for an audience, they guide the attention of the audience to a place where they want the audience to look, often by simply pointing at something or by making a grand gesture in its general direction. One of the most effective forms of misdirection for a magician is eye movements – if they look up, the audience will too, and while they’re doing so, the magician can do something at waist-level without anyone noticing.
Doing so grabs the attention of the audience – humans naturally attend to movement – and essentially forces them to fixate on the object, like a rabbit being pulled out of a hat.
But that misdirection and resulting visual fixation is a guise because it distracts our attention from the movements the magician has to make in order for it to appear as though the rabbit appeared out of thin air.
As simple as that seems, psychological misdirection is a far finer process than that.
Take confirmation bias as a perfect example.
In psychology, confirmation bias refers to the tendency for people to interpret information in such a way as to confirm their preconceived notions.
Magicians often exploit this tendency by suggesting – erroneously – how a trick might be done. Doing so is much like physically pointing at an object. The magician purposefully directs the audience’s attention to one possible solution, and while the audience is busy looking for reasons that their theory is correct, the magician can go about his or her business, complete the trick, and leave the audience wondering how in the world the trick was done (and not done in the way they thought it would be).
This is a good illustration of how magicians like Penn & Teller use both physiological and psychological processes to pull off their tricks. They use physical gestures to misdirect the audience and also exploit psychological tendencies to make the outcomes of their tricks seem fantastical, if not impossible.
Suggestibility and Psychological Forcing Can Be Used to Direct the Outcome of a Trick
One of the most classic magic tricks is having an audience member pick a card from a deck so the magician can “guess” what card they selected.
And while some magicians will use stacked decks – like one comprised only of the king of hearts – many prefer to put the psychological principle of suggestibility to work for them.
If you watch a magician doing this “pick a card, any card” trick, pay attention to what they say to the audience member tasked with making the choice. You’ll find that they often make a big deal out of how the person has free will to choose whatever card they want.
But the truth of the matter is that while the magician is touting free choice, they’re simultaneously doing two other things. First, the magician is purposefully exposing the audience member to the card they want them to pick, and second, they’re subtly pressuring the audience member to make their choice. “You must hurry and make your choice” is an example of this.
So, while everyone thinks the audience member is freely choosing the card, suggestibility is hard at work to influence the outcome of the selection.
In other words, this is all just another kind of misdirection. By constantly reinforcing the idea of free choice, magicians make audiences suggestible to the notion that they do indeed have free will when the exact opposite is true. This is a concept called psychological forcing, and magicians excel at it. In fact, magicians often get far better results when they employ this process than psychologists do in research trials!
Magicians Exploit Gaps in the Cognitive Process
While it might seem like our perceptual processes are instantaneous, there is actually a slight gap – around one-tenth of a second – between something happening and our brain completing its analysis of what happened. This is the time it takes for information to be transmitted from sensory receptors to the brain for interpretation.
But our brains try to get around this gap by predicting what will happen. That is, before stimuli are even processed in the brain, the brain’s structures are trying to figure out what will happen. Magicians like Penn & Teller exploit this.
An excellent example of this is the trick in which a coin appears to move from one hand to the other when it’s simply been trapped in the palm of the hand facing away from the audience. Since our brains are trying to predict what will happen, we perceive the movement of the coin from one hand to the next and are in complete surprise when it’s revealed that the receiving hand is empty.
This trick falls under the umbrella of cognitive illusions. By directing our attention to one object, as described earlier, magicians can carry out all sorts of tasks “hidden in plain sight.”
In fact, cognitive illusions are so powerful that large-scale events can go unnoticed.
In a classic psychological study by Simons & Chabris (1999), researchers revealed that when subjects’ attention was directed at an object (called focused attention), they failed to perceive or remember objects outside their focused attention. To drive home the point, the researchers had a man dressed in a gorilla suit walk directly through the subjects’ field of vision, and he did so completely unnoticed.
The point is that Penn & Teller and other magicians around the world have built their acts based in large part on their ability to manipulate how people perceive what they’re doing. Those perceptions are strongly influenced by both simple and complex psychological processes that are better understood today by examining how they’re put to work in magic tricks.
B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming
M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming
B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts
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