On the Psychology of Magic

fooling houdiniNot long ago, I had the pleasure of reading Fooling Houdini, by Alex Stone. It is a marvelous book, part memoir about how his obsession with magic pulled him away from his career in physics, but also a wonderful explanation of the psychology of how magic works its wonders. Get rid of all those images you have in your head about nerdy guys in capes performing at your children’s birthday parties. Stone doesn’t deny that magic is a nerdy pastime: “Like physics, magic is all about nerds playing god with the universe.” At one point of the book he even points out that at many magic conventions, there are more guys with mullet haircuts then there are women. But the dominant image of a magician you will develop after reading this book is of someone extremely skilled at playing with the limits of human perception.

A good magician understands the psychology of belief. People will not believe something is remarkable if it looks too easy. Stone learned this lesson from one of his mentors, who made an analogy between magic and juggling:

World-class jugglers know to drop at least once during a performance, because it makes their act appear all the more difficult, drumming up suspense for the finale and driving home the message that they’re operating at the extreme edge of human potential.

For this reason, a real expert at card tricks won’t make it look like he is an expert at handling cards. He will shuffle the deck in what looks like a haphazard manner. He might drop some cards once in a while. But this feigned clumsiness is part of what makes the end result of his tricks that much more impressive.

As Stone points out, “Magic tricks can fool you even after you know the secret, because they exploit perceptual mechanisms that are etched into our brains.” For those who work in close contact with their audience, it is crucial to understand how people react to proximity, and to touch:

“Minor tactile cues can exert a measurable influence on our judgment, our perception of people and places, our decisions and social behaviors, even our willingness to part with cash. Waiters and waitresses who casually touch customers on the hand or shoulder for a second or even less at the end of a meal earn bigger tips and boost their restaurants’ ratings, as measured by exit surveys. A friendly pat on the shoulder from a broker makes clients less risk-averse. The chance that a grocery store shopper will agree to sample a new treat increases by 28 percent when the product demonstrator touches them lightly on the upper arm during the request. Shoppers who’ve been touched leave the store later, spend more, and rate the store more favorably on average. A slight, unobtrusive tap on the arm makes random strangers more willing to participate in mall intercept interviews and street surveys and predisposes them to bum you a smoke or comply with marketing requests. By promoting group cohesion, interpersonal touch also improves the performance of sports teams and enriches family life.”

See this concept demonstrated masterfully in a video featuring the world’s most entertaining pickpocket, Apollo Robbins.

If you want a better understanding of magic, and more importantly human nature, read Alex Stone’s book.

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