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The Psychology of Magic

Pick a card, any card. Make sure you remember it; write it down if you need to.

Got it? Good.

Now imagine that you are strolling across a college campus when a person holding a map, and looking quite lost, approaches you for directions. You gladly help and begin to diagnose the traveler’s confusion. Just as you start explaining the correct route two people carrying a big wooden door abruptly walk right between you and the lost traveler. How rude. They pass by and you finish giving directions. Here’s the question: would you notice if another person replaced the original traveler?

The psychology of magic is about moments like this – moments when your attention is momentarily altered to make an obvious change not so obvious. The scenario I just described was actually conducted (the lost traveler was actually a confederate) by a group of researchers who found that 50 percent of people didn’t notice the swap even though the two “travelers” differed in height and age and in some cases gender and race. (You can watch a video of this here.) They also found that when asked if they would notice a change nearly 95 percent of undergraduates answered yes. How can we be so wrong about our attention and awareness?

The brain, in all its abilities, is easily tricked. You think you see unequal lines, but they are the same length. You think you see two different colors, but they are the same. You think you are conscious of your surroundings, but the pickpocket swiftly snatches your wallet in front of your eyes. Magicians feast on our perceptual shortcomings. The now well-known invisible gorilla experiment illustrates this all too well. In the original experiment participants watched two small teams – a team dressed in white and a team dressed in black – pass around two basketballs in a small hallway. The task of the participant was simple enough: count how many times the white team passed the basketball. Many get it right – 15 times – but most of them fail to see a person dressed in a full gorilla costume walk into the middle of the two teams, bump his chest a few times, and walk off. When your attention is focused, what’s on the periphery is ignored. (Here is the video.)

The “door” experiment and the “invisible gorilla” test describe two sobering truths about our brains: we often don’t notice changes between what was in view moments before and what is in view now and we experience far less of our visual world than we think we do.

It is not difficult to imagine how magicians take advantage of these perceptual flubs. For example, here’s a trick performed by Apollo Robbins (aka “The Gentlemen Thief”) and described in the wonderful book Sleights of Mind. The authors explain:

[Apollo will] pull a quarter from your breast pocket and ask, “Is this yours?” You know full well that it’s not yours (who keeps quarters in their breast pocket?). But you can’t help it, you inspect George Washington’s face as if you might find your initials engraved on his forehead. “What year is the coin?” Apollo asks. And you dutifully try to make it out, but the letters are too small and blurry, so you reach for your reading glasses… in your breast pocket. They are missing. “Try these glasses,” Apollo kindly offers as he hands you the glasses off his face. Your own glasses, as it turns out. While you were busy attending to the quarter, which you knew didn’t actually come from your pocket, Apollo’s hands absconded with those glasses literally right under your nose while you suppressed all visual motion surrounding the quarter.

Here is a video of Apollo doing a more impressive version of this trick (cut to 2:10). Watch closely.

How does he do it? Like the researchers behind the invisible gorilla experiment Apollo understands that attention can be localized to a frame – a small window of space created to focus attention. Maneuvers outside of the frame are rarely noticed; this is how he manages to place a quarter on someone’s shoulder without having them notice. “Magicians…” the authors explain, “thoroughly manage attention at all times. People tend to think of misdirection as the art of making someone look to the left while some fast move is pulled on the right, but Apollo says it is more about force-focusing your spotlight of attention to a particular place and at a particular time.”

I hope you remembered which card you picked because as you’ve been reading this post I’ve been busy reading your mind. Take a look below, is your card missing? I’ve removed the card you picked from the lineup.

How did I do it? Hopefully you read (and looked) closely.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. In case you’re interested, here’s the original video from our “door” study (the link you had was to something Derron Brown did some years later):

    -Dan Simons

    December 21, 2011
    • sammcnerney #


      Thanks for the link. I’ve been trying to find the original video for a few days; couldn’t track it down so I just put in Derren’s.

      I’m a big fan by the way. Loved TIG – wonderful read.

      December 21, 2011

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