I am very happy to announce the launch of a brand new feature here on Skepchick. Every month we will host an article by a guest writer, created just for us. Our very first guest writer is everyone’s favourite Quirkologist, Richard Wiseman, who is revealing the results of his latest experiment exclusively on Skepchick! Click ‘Read More’ for the article…
Magicians and the Paranormal: A survey
Prof Richard Wiseman
Magicians make their living by performing the impossible. Night after night they employ sophisticated sleight of hand and technological wizardry to make objects vanish into thin air, read minds, and generally defy the laws of physics. So, when it comes to the paranormal, you might expect them to be somewhat skeptical. Even a brief glance at the history books would confirm such expectations, with several well known magicians taking time out from their busy schedules to pour cold water on psychic claims. Around the turn of the last century, British magician John Nevil Maskelyne demonstrated how fraudulent mediums were fleecing a gullible public. In the 1920s, escapologist Harry Houdini gained a considerable reputation for investigating and exposing those who claimed to speak to the dead. More recently, James Randi has debunked several spoon benders and faith healers, while other modern-day magicians, including Penn and Teller, Chris Angel, and Derren Brown, have publicly declared their skepticism about matters paranormal.
Given this extensive record of debunking and doubt, you could be forgiven for thinking that all magicians are card-carrying skeptics. But is this really the case, or is the relationship between modern-day magicians and the paranormal more complex? To find out, I recently carried out a large-scale online survey into magiciansâ€™ beliefs about the paranormal. Over 400 magicians from across the world were kind enough to participate, and the respondents turned out to be an experienced bunch. Almost 60% of them had been involved in magic for over 16 years, and two thirds of them were either semi-professional or professional performers.
The survey asked respondents whether they believed in three of the most common forms of alleged psychic ability â€“ telepathy (mind to mind contact), precognition (predicting the future), and psychokinesis (using the mind to move or modify an object). The â€˜magicians are skepticsâ€™ hypothesis predicts that few would believe in genuine psychic phenomena. This is not the case. In fact, a quarter of respondents ticked the â€˜yesâ€™ box to at least one of the three questions. This is well below the current level of public belief in psychic ability (which is nearer the 50% level), but still surprisingly high, given that magicians are well aware of how easy it is to fake the miraculous.
The survey then asked respondents whether they believed that they had experienced any genuine paranormal phenomena. Again, the results were revealing, with one in four respondents indicating that this was the case. As one would expect, these were mostly the same individuals who had expressed paranormal belief. Even more surprising was the fact that about a third of both professional and semi-professional magicians noted that such experiences had taken place during a performance. These magicians reported a range of allegedly paranormal phenomena, including accurately guessing a spectatorâ€™s name or date of birth, mysteriously â€˜knowingâ€™ which playing card they had chosen from a deck, and having a strange sense of presence during a fake sÃ©ance. The majority of these experiences came from respondents who specialise in â€˜mentalismâ€™ – a type of magic in which the performer uses trickery to fake telepathic, mediumistic and psychic abilities. As such, these performers claim to have genuinely experienced the very phenomena that they set out to fake.
Of course, it is always possible that the answers given by some performers do not reflect their genuine beliefs and experiences (after all, this is a group that deceive for a living!). However, assuming that most people answered honestly, two very distinct cultures are operating in magic. On one side of the fence are those who are skeptical of psychic phenomena, and have not experienced anything that they consider to be paranormal. At least in my sample, this represents the majority of magicians. However, on the opposing side are a smaller, but still sizable, number of magicians who do believe in the reality of the paranormal, and report experiencing such phenomena during their performances. Of course, there is no way of knowing for sure whether any of the alleged psychic experiences were genuine, or whether magicians reporting such experiences were deceiving themselves. Proponents of the paranormal might argue that faking magical powers could act as a catalyst for genuine phenomena, and skeptics might point out that knowing how to produce doves or manipulate playing cards does not stop someone being overly impressed by the occasional chance coincidence.
Either way, when it comes to magicians and the paranormal, as is so often the case in magic, nothing is quite as it seems.
About Richard Wiseman
Professor Richard Wiseman started his working life as an award-winning professional magician, and was one of the youngest members of The Magic Circle. He then obtained a first class honours degree in Psychology from University College London and a doctorate in psychology from the University of Edinburgh.
For the past twelve years he has been the head of a research unit at the University of Hertfordshire, and in 2002 was awarded Britain’s first Professorship in the Public Understanding of Psychology. Prof Wiseman’s latest book, Quirkology, examines the curious psychology of everyday life, including laughter, lying, and love.