Mental Magic and Psychology

I say, Thank God Penn & Teller reveal the workings of their magic tricks. We’re all used to it now, but when they first got going they caused a lot of angst and delicate hand-wringing among the brotherhood. No one will watch magic if they know how the tricks work! went the standard lamentation.

But it wasn’t shouted too loudly. Sympathy for secrecy wasn’t exactly on the wane when the boys showed up, but complaints against violations were reflexive more than strident.

Penn & TellerThis is because magic had fallen into the doldrums. There were a plethora of exaggerated hand-waving silent acts. These consisted of a magician who would purposefully stride across the stage, gesturing like a ballet dancer at his change cabinet—whoosh, whoosh, whoosh—swirl the thing round once or twice, and out would pop a bikinied gorilla, all set to bad, loud music. The only difference between acts were their magicians’ costumes—and those weren’t too dissimilar either.

Penn & Teller forced illusionists to change their thinking, or at least to develop fresh material. Silent acts are still with us, but not to the same extent (yes, I know Teller doesn’t talk).

And it was Penn & Teller, and later Fox’s Masked Magician, that proved the old belief wrong. Knowing how the tricks were done did not lessen people’s enjoyment of them. I’d say it was also empirically demonstrated that nobody can remember how illusions work. Or that even if they do, they can’t follow the trick as it’s happening.

Jonah Lehrer at Wired picks up this theme of Penn & Teller’s brand of magic (which is linked from the indispensable Arts & Letters Daily—a site which you should know by now is necessary reading).

Psychologists, presumably having bored themselves with ritalin studies, are starting to wonder how it is illusionists can fool people so easily, so they have engaged the help of Teller and others to find out. They came to the right people: you’d be surprised how much of the conjuring literature is devoted to psychology and how little to the mechanics of the tricks.

“The magic show is a competition,” [Teller] says. “The audience is trying to figure you out. They aren’t suspending their disbelief—they’re trying to expose you as a scam artist.” This is what makes magic so difficult: The magician must sell people a lie even as they know they’re being lied to. Unless the illusion feels more real than the truth, there is no magic.

One pickpocket in the study shows how he can filch wallets when he uses misdirection, but only if he waves his hand in an arc but not if he moves it in a straight line. I can vouch for this.

Once at Tannen’s, the famous Manhattan magic shop, I saw a clerk (all clerks there are magicians; I’m sorry I can’t recall his name) demonstrate a card trick to a patron. Cards were moving left and right; it was hard to keep up. But that wasn’t the trick. The clerk first showed a move and then asked the patron to mimic it. While the patron was doing this the clerk would steal an item from the patron’s person.

First his watch, then a pen from his pocket, finally the glasses right off his head! Understand that this was happening right in the moment. The clerk would grab the patron’s wrist to “show a move” and then steal the watch. The glasses were hilarious: he just reached out and took them while jabbering about the cards. The guy never noticed.

The clerk put the watch on his own hand, the pen in his own pocket, then the glasses on his own face. When the card “trick” was over, the patron nodded his head that he understood the card moves and began to walk away. It was only then he realized he couldn’t see too well.

After Penn & Teller, the field started taking advantage of more psychological methods and moving into different areas, especially with the younger breed coming up: guys like David Blaine, Chris Angel, Derren Brown, The Amazing Jonathan, and so on.

Mental and bizarre magic—psychic readings, ESP, psychokinesis, ghosts and hauntings, etc.—have become more vibrant. Some practitioners took, and are taking, the ideas too far and are trying to become the next Uri Geller (see the second book on the left). But there’s no arguing that mentalism feels like real magic, like producing a rabbit from a hat must have done four hundred years ago.

For example, I often do a trick using a Si Stebbins deck. The moves are trivial, but I tell my mark that I’m doing a psychological experiment. I ask them their favorite color or what word immediately comes into their mind. After that, I “guess” their card, sometimes purposely making small mistakes. Everybody instantly forgets about the cards and starts discussing the questions I asked. “Oh, you knew it was a black card because I told you my favorite color was blue, which is dark” and on an on. People are extraordinarily inventive coming up with spurious explanations. Nobody guesses the deck is gaffed, nobody tries to guess how the trick was done because they don’t believe one was done.

No matter what theories the psychologists glean from conjurers, I don’t think it will stop people from coming to magic shows.


  1. Bernie

    Interesting and says an awful lot about the human condition. What really caught my eye was the Teller quotation. It is one of those multi-purpose statements that provocatively describes key aspects of the human condition and, more specifically, reactions to explicit attempts to influence or persuade. I have recycled it without permission to focus on politicians. One could, of course, substitute salesman, cleric, lawyer, or teacher!

    The core assertion:

    “The magic show is a competition,” [Teller] says. “The audience is trying to figure you out. They aren’t suspending their disbelief—they’re trying to expose you as a scam artist.” This is what makes magic so difficult: The magician must sell people a lie even as they know they’re being lied to. Unless the illusion feels more real than the truth, there is no magic.”


    “Politics are a competition,” [Teller] says. “The voters are trying to figure you out. They aren’t suspending their disbelief—they’re trying to expose you as a scam artist.” This is what makes politics so difficult: The politician must sell people a lie even as they know they’re being lied to. Unless the illusion feels more real than the truth, there are no politics.”

    Of course most magicians are far more skillful, artful and competent than most politicians. It takes real skill to be a politician like Ted Kennedy or a really dumb electorate/audience.

    One could easily substitute that unmasked magician Bernie Madoff into the above quotation!

  2. stan

    Ummmm. I don’t think anyone could observe this past election campaign and conclude that a whole lot of voters (and the news media) were not actively suspending their disbelief. In fact, there are some interesting studies showing that people actively suppress negative info about their parties or candidates and get a rush when they do.

  3. costanza

    For a more manic brand of magic, consider The Amazing Johnathan.

  4. Joy

    “Coming to magic shows”!
    Do you have a fez as well as a fedora? Only I’ll need to know which to look out for; you can’t be switching about willy nilly. Then there’s the morterboard and the baseball cap.
    Puts me in mind of a Tommy Cooper sketch, with loads of hats.

    Here’s the bottle and glass sketch at the end of this clip.

    Spoon jar jar spoon. Magic doesn’t have to be serious, we all know we’re being had but Tommy had a way of making the tricks funny just for the sake of laughter.
    Bet your suit doesn’t fit as well as Tommy’s!

  5. DAV

    My ex had a way of making money disappear. It was entertaining at first but she repeated the trick so often it became tiresome.

  6. Joe Triscari

    Have you observed a strong positive correlation between statisticians and amateur magicians? I know Persi Diaconis was a professional magician before he became interested in statistics (and how many shuffles it takes to randomize a deck of cards).

    This post makes me wonder if it’s a broader phenomena.

  7. Always interesting posts, Matt. At first read had some of the same thoughts as Bernie. Don’t quite understand Stan’s point, as it looked to my tired eyes like millions of voters suspended something this past year, but it might just be I’m easily confused by syntax shifts. More like me being a “Lawrence Welk” type numbers guy.

  8. Scumop

    One of the most cool aspects of Penn and Teller is they use their knowledge of human behaviour, obfuscation and trickery to help debunk all kinds of charlatans.

    Most people, even scientists, do not have the kind of skill it takes to see through and explain the Uri Gellers, Sylvia Brownes, and other assorted hucksters in the “alternative” (evidence-free as opposed to evidence-based) medicine fields.

    They have a pretty good live show too.

  9. Rob R

    Penn & Teller have a “video” on youtube in which they examine some of the conjuring involved in the AGW alarmist arguments. A very versitile pair.

  10. Bernie

    Rob R:
    Please! Sorry

  11. Joy

    Sorry Bernie,

    “This video has been removed due to copyright claim by CBS Broadcasting Inc.”

    For anyone who missed it, it was rubbish!

  12. harold

    I can understand why magicians feel upset when tricks are explained, they have
    invested a lot of time in their craft and now apparently secrets of the trade are
    handed out for free. I think that often these “explanations” add a new layer of
    misdirection. I remember totally accepting Derren Brown’s explanation for his +1 in
    the chess simultaneous exhibition. It was only when I read that the “weak” player
    had a rating of 2200 that I started to wonder about the nuts and bolts …

    It strikes me that magicians like Randi, Teller, Martin Gardner, and Raymond
    Smullyan look so young for their age. I believe that they have got hold of one of
    the Mysteries of Life. Is it, that they look at the world in a naïve way, while the
    rest of us take the wonders of our existence for a matter of fact? Is it, that they
    can cheat and deceive without feeling guilt? Or is it, that they condense (or is it
    expand?) time with their magic?

    Earlier this year (thanks to this blog), I saw the following clip with Randi,
    Laurie, and Fry:
    I thought nothing of it at the time, later I read the following quotes by Randi on
    the internet:
    “Back in 1991, I taped a series for Granada TV at their Manchester studios. It was
    titled, “James Randi – Psychic Investigator.” For one episode, I invited the very
    popular TV stars Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie to participate. These are both very
    level-headed guys who deride the paranormal and the supernatural in much the same
    way that I do.”
    “We all three – Fry, Laurie, and I – stayed at the Manchester Holiday Inn while
    producing the series.”
    Then I looked at the clip again, and although the message was simple (Astrologers
    make vague statements), reality was not. Jonathan Cainer clearly oversteps the rules
    (not talking about Brigg’s Dress Code here), by not presenting his celestial
    calculations, but instead tuning in to Stephen Fry (or visa versa). And Randi
    downplays the specific “professorial” specification by a (IMO fraudulent) hand
    count: 15 in the whole room, “maybe a few more.. quite a few actually”. I counted 3
    hands in the area in front of the podium …

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