Psychology of Magic

When you type in ‘magic’ on YouTube, you get about 1,780,000 results. Results of people who want to see magic tricks, who know that they are being deceived, that they are being tricked, and yet want to continue watching these magic tricks.

Some of the possible effects stage magic attempts to produce are production (pulling a bunny out of a hat), vanishing (making the bunny disappear), transformation (turning into bunny into a pigeon), restoration (cutting the bunny in half and then restore it to its original state) and penetration (making the bunny pass through a solid brick wall) to name a few. A number of magic principles were discussed during the Magic of Consciousness symposium during the 11th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness. Some of these are:

  • An action is a motion that has purpose. For example, even when the magician pushes his glasses up his nose, we might just assume that he did so because his glasses were too big for his face. But it just might be transferring an object from somewhere into his mouth in order to hide it.
  • Never do the same trick twice. When a magic trick is repeatedly seen, then there is a higher chance that the audience will be able to deduce the trick.

Now, being fairly intelligent and worldly wise we know that magicians don’t really perform any ‘magic’ but it’s just clever sleight of hand. But what is it that these magicians do that ensures that no one can ever figure out their trick? Primarily magicians use a combination of illusions, psychological misdirection and mental forcing.

Magic, stripped of all its mysteriousness can be called creating illusions. Illusions can be divided into visual and optic illusions.

Both visual and optical illusions are caused by the manipulation of devices but cognitive illusions allow the magician to trick the audience without the use of props.

Psychological misdirection is the process by which the conjurer distracts the audience by making them look somewhere else while he performs his secret move. A very effective way to misdirect the audience is to ask them to guess the way the magician will trick them. Once the audience has a ‘solution’, they are much less likely to pick up the clues that crop up as to how it’s really done. They will be looking for clues to confirm their own theory. Finally when the magician shows that their solution is incorrect, the audience is even more baffled. A very common magic trick is the vanishing ball trick where the magician is throwing a ball in the air repeatedly and then catching it. And suddenly, while throwing the ball up in the air, the ball disappears. In reality, the magician palms the ball but he still looks upwards as though expecting to see the ball in flight. This acts as a cue for the audience also to look up. Dr Gustav Kuhn studied this trick and two thirds of the observers even reported seeing the ball actually moving upwards when the magician looked up.

Psychological misdirection uses the principle of inattenional blindness or perceptual blindness. In an early study, participants were shown a clip of a game of basketball between teams wearing black and white t shirts and were asked to count the number of passes the white team made and ignore the black team altogether. After 30 seconds, a woman carrying an umbrella walked across the display remaining visible for four seconds. Under these conditions, only 21% of the observers reported seeing the woman (Neisser and Dube, 1978). Later, in 1999, this experiment was replicated by Simon and Chabris and they found that 44% of the participants missed the ‘umbrella woman’. Then, when the unexpected object was replaced with a person in a gorilla suit, even more, 73% of the participants missed it!

Pritha Sengupta

Pritha Sengupta


IRIANS- The Neuroscience Institute


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