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Skepchick Guest Article #1 – Richard Wiseman

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

cardsMagicians 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 magicians’ 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 – telepathy (mind to mind contact), precognition (predicting the future), and psychokinesis (using the mind to move or modify an object). The ‘magicians are skeptics’ hypothesis predicts that few would believe in genuine psychic phenomena. This is not the case. In fact, a quarter of respondents ticked the ‘yes’ 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.

bent forksThe 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 spectator’s name or date of birth, mysteriously ‘knowing’ which playing card they had chosen from a deck, and having a strange sense of presence during a fake séance. The majority of these experiences came from respondents who specialise in ‘mentalism’ – 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.

For more information about the survey, and to download some of the data, click here.

Richard WisemanAbout 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.

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  1. I’m (I know I shouldn’t) assuming that the sample was non-random to begin with so performing a complete case analysis will only screw things up a little bit more but…

    “After removing incomplete data sets, this was
    reduced to 400 participants. ”

    …is kinda bad form.

    Fun and interesting anyways.

  2. I wonder if any of these magicians are just saying this to make their audiences happy. Were they anonymous in this survey? It’s hard to believe that people who are doing “fake” magic would actually believe that it was really.

    Well, I take that back. I have known several faith healers who really believe their BS, while many (if not most) are outright frauds.

    Interesting at any rate.

  3. If you think about how bad our natural bias is toward remembering hits and forgetting misses, it’s not hard to imagine magicians and mentalists fooling themselves into believing the occasional long odds coincidence was “paranormal.” It seems even more unsurprising if you consider that they’re out performing their act regularly and generally aren’t formally trained in prob and stat. They expect the outcomes in their act to follow something like a normal distribution, but their memory over the course of their career is actually recording an extreme value distribution. As you increase the number of samples, the expected value of these two distributions deviate wildly!

  4. I will see if I can get a reply from Richard about the questions raised so far! I believe the survey was anonymous though, yes.

    Why is it bad form to remove incomplete data sets?

  5. I am a magician, and I took the survey, and it was anonymous.

    And I’m absolutely floored by the results. Every magician I know knows that all the woo-woo stuff is pure BS. I wonder if there’s a correlation between the ‘seriousness’ of the magician and their belief. That is, I know the survey asked if you were a full-time, part-time, hobbyist, etc. (I may be misremembering). Are professionals likelier to believe than hobbyists?

  6. With any survey, there is the potential for bias introduced by self-selection. In other words, the people who choose to take the survey may be more likely to answer in a certain way than those who decline.

    Random sampling may or may not have been appropriate given the population available to survey. If that population is small, then there is nothing wrong with a complete population sample. The question is then whether or not this population is representative of all magicians in the United States.

    Zoltan has an excellent followup question. I too would love to hear Professor Wiseman’s answer.

  7. Zoltan’s question is a good one, and I am looking at the data now. We had 34% (N=136) of people describe themselves as amateur, 46% (N=183) as semi-prof, and 20% (N=81) as professional (that is, magic as their sole or main income).

    In terms of whether they said they had had a paranormal experience, there is a sig difference with the following %s of people saying yes: Amateur 19%, Semi-prof, 27%, and Prof 27%.

    Of the people that had reported a paranormal experience, those that said they have had at least one during a performance were as follows: Amateur 19%, Semi-prof 33%, Prof 31%.

    So, the bottom line is that the experiences are not concentrated in the amateur ranks, but are throughout the data.

  8. At first I thought the findings of the survey were odd, but then I realized there was no real reason the collective psychology of the cross-section shouldn’t mirror that of society as a whole; at least to a degree.

    Even though magicians are conditioned to see ordinary processes at work when “miracles” happen, there may be many who are unable to find wonder (a profound emotional connection) in those ordinary processes; or from other aspects of the real world. Perhaps those unfounded ideas they claim to believe address that emotional need.

    Don’t we encounter this phenomenon often where we don’t expect it? For example, some pilots believe UFOs are alien space craft, and some evolutionary biologists believe in god.

    Seems many people divorce their ordinarily rational minds from certain aspects of life at certain times, despite the level of rationality required for their jobs, not because they are predisposed to magical thinking, but simple because they are humans unable to satisfy an emotional need in other ways.

    Maybe that’s what’s going on here.

  9. Some of the experiences might be due to the law of large numbers. Magicians and mind readers are some of the very few people who are continually running ESP trials! Night after night they guess the value of selected cards, or ask spectators to make such guesses. It seems likely that they will occasionally encounter a genuinely rare coincidence, and (not realising the number of trials that they and their fellow performers are clocking up) might think that something strange is going on.

  10. It would also have been interesting to see what type of magic the participants do or have extensive knowledge of. I really have a hard time seeing a magician who does cold reading for a living being fooled by the likes of Sylvia Brown.

  11. “Magicians and mind readers are some of the very few people who are continually running ESP trials! Night after night they guess the value of selected cards, or ask spectators to make such guesses.”

    Wait…what that actually means is that the incidence of paranormal experiences amongst magicians is so high precisely because they’re doing ESP trials continually! They’re actually proving ESP is real! This is what parapsychology has been missing all these years…

    I’ll get my cape.

    A serious question: under what circumstances do magicians guess the value of selected cards? My understanding of magic is limited, but I thought nothing was left to chance.

  12. Think of any card you like.
    There are several performance plots in which a performer will trust to luck and see what happens. It might be as simple as guess a name or a thought of card. If the plot fails (and it usually does) then it is passed off as a joke, or there is an out. If it works, then you have a very strong effect. However, get a couple right in a row and you might start to think that weird stuff is really happening. Just out of interest, are you thinking of the four of clubs?

  13. That’s interesting, thanks! Guessing a name I can understand (unless the audience is Czech), but guessing a card seems like a weird long shot just for the chance of an effect, or a guaranteed slightly lame joke. I’d need to see it in context I guess. Or are there cards people are more likely to think of (hence your four of clubs)?

    No, I was thinking of the King of Hearts.

    Now what are YOU thinking of? ;)

  14. thanks for the article…very interesting.
    i’d be curious to see how the stats break down along regional lines. are magicians from certain traditions or parts of the world more likely than others to believe in paranormal phenomena?

  15. Rebecca. Thanks for your comment. The eleven of cups is not a real card and you know it.

    The cross-cultural question is interesting. I didn’t ask where respondents were from, but from the email addresses and names, it looks to me like most are from the US and UK. I suspect that the percentages would be very different in other parts of the world. I did a bit of research into gurus who claimed to produce miracles in India quite a few years ago, and one or two openly told me that they faked stuff, but quickly added that they did this because it helped bring on the real stuff!
    If I can dig out the footage then I might show it at TAM this year.

  16. Hi there!

    (first time respondent here, be gentle)

    The thing that amazes me about this survey is that magicians would even TRY to perform their tricks in public if there were a chance that members of the audience had psychic abilities!

    I’m an amateur magician. By “amateur”, I mean that I spend a lot of money on tricks, practice them, and then never have the guts to actually perform them in front of anybody. So I guess that’s “less than amateur”.

    The thing that I worry the most about performing magic is that I don’t have a very good poker face. I’m convinced that if ever dared to do a simple cup-and-balls routine, the audience would stare blankly at me and say: “But it’s in your hand, duh …”. I can’t even lie to people because I’m apparently very BAD at it. People see right through me.

    If I were actually a COMPETENT magician, and could flawlessly pull off a double lift or center tear with all the aplomb of a concert pianist playing “chopsticks”, wouldn’t you think that even a garden-variety psychic could destroy all of my hard work and practice just by muttering: “It’s up your sleeve. You’re very good, but I read your thoughts. You jogged the top of the deck and then slid it up your left sleeve. Good trick”?

    I need a lot more practice before I’m comfortable enough to perform in front of an audience. But if I ever believed that a single one of them might be a TELEPATH, I’d stick to impromptu soft-shoe routines. :)

  17. Richard, thanks for doing this article. As a Skeptic Mag subscriber, I also enjoyed your feature in last month’s issue.

    As many others, I was surprised to hear how a decent number of magicians believed a certain degree of supernatural forces. From your research and feedback, do you think most survey respondents answered your survey honestly? Perhaps they have randomly guessed correctly enough times to convince even themselves they have some kind of power?

    Or could they have fibbed a little bit to validate their profession?

  18. tkingdoll: Now what are YOU thinking of?


    Er… no. I mean I was thinking of a card. Really! I was totally thinking of a card. I swear. Yea. Um… with a number on it. Two? Yea. Two of… uh… clubs.

  19. I am a little confused about whether the questions were about their beliefs and thoughts or more about what they do as magicians? With things like general card tricks I don’t think they are just trying out some trick first on stage, but had practiced the trick plenty of times before with great success only to find they didn’t make that connection they expected.

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