The Science of Magic!

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I’m once again exhausted with talking about COVID-19 so let’s talk about magic! As you may or may not know, I used to be a magician. It was a truly wonderful and also horrible time in my life. I started out in high school as a juggler who did magic, and then in college I worked full-time at a magic shop demonstrating magic tricks, juggling supplies, puppets, yo-yos, and other stuff to tourists. THAT was the best job on the planet, but then I became the manager and it really all went to shit, where I had to count down registers and keep employees in line and deal with a thousand drunk tourists who thought they were clever, to the point where I now have a deep-seated hatred of anyone who thinks they are a magician. I also have a dislike of anyone who is actually a magician, but there is a big difference — the latter are people who make their money from magic who are only sometimes insufferable, and the former are men (always men) who think that they’re on the precipice of greatness because they read Expert at the Card Table but who will not ever actually quit their day job, and they are always insufferable. You will know how to spot the former by the way that they will always insist on showing you a trick, whether you are at a house party, having dinner in a fancy restaurant, or, regrettably, laying in bed trying to think of the most polite way to get him to leave.

So that’s my bias spelled out. I hate magic. Bah humbug.

But I do have to admit that I am still interested in magic and I’m particularly interested in the psychology behind it. A new study popped up on my radar (thanks to my pal Jennifer Ouellette) that I thought it’s worth talking about: Influencing choices with conversational primes: How a magic trick unconsciously influences card choices

This study comes to us from MAGIC Lab at Goldsmiths University of London. “MAGIC” in this case is a not-at-all unwieldy acronym standing for “Mind Attention & General Illusory Cognition.” The lab is composed of a team of psychologists who use magic tricks to study “consciousness, attention, perception, magical beliefs, deception, and free will.” This particular study was led by Alice Pailhès (peh-YES), who was inspired by the English illusionist Derren Brown. Brown has a trick in which he claims to be able to “prime” someone to choose the playing card he wants them to choose. For instance, to make them pick the three of diamonds (not a common choice for someone picking a card off the top of their head), he tells them to picture the card and make the color vivid and bright (suggesting red), then gesticulates in the shape of a diamond while telling them to imagine a screen, and finally he references “little numbers,” draws threes in the air, and says things three times. Having been dutifully “primed,” the audience member thinks of the three of diamonds, which Brown correctly guesses. Magic!

Pailhès decided to use that trick as the basis to examine whether or not it was actually possible to prime people in that way. I should say that I went into this deeply skeptical, because as you may be able to guess, the way I described Brown’s trick isn’t actually what’s happening. The fun of this type of magic is that the magician is telling you how he is doing the trick while he’s actually doing something else, so you think you got a cool explanation but in reality if you try to reproduce the trick you’ll find it’s impossible. It’s exactly the same as a mentalist who says they’re reading someone’s mind, but with a pseudo-scientific instead of fantastical sheen to it.

But even though Brown’s explanation for how he does that trick is not actually how he does the trick, that doesn’t mean that scientists can’t study whether or not that explanation could actually influence people in some way. So they tried it out, with Pailhès standing in as Derren Brown and doing all the things he says he did — the shapes in the air, the script, everything. They had some subjects watch her in person and others watch a video of her performing the instructions. Then they had the subjects write down the card they were imagining. They found that the plurality of people, 17.8% of subjects, chose the three of diamonds, which is an impressive number! With 52 cards in the deck, they’d have a 2% chance of choosing that completely at random, but of course humans aren’t random and tend to automatically go for the ace of spades or the ace, king, or queen of hearts more than any other card, so it’s an even more impressive number.

Also of interest is that the researchers asked the subjects why they picked the three of diamonds, and most subjects couldn’t explain why. The subjects who picked that card also reported feeling as though their choice was a free one, as much as the subjects who picked other cards.

That said, 72% of subjects, regardless of what card they picked, noticed at least one of the priming techniques. And if you notice a magician trying to influence you toward a particular choice and you’re a particular type of person, you will probably not pick the card they want you to pick. Because you’re an asshole. This suggests that maybe if the “magician” had been better and subtler, more people may have gone for the forced card.

Pailhès points out that the ability to subtly prime people without their notice can be applied to other areas, particularly criminal justice interviews between police and witnesses and suspects. And it’s true! We’ve seen study after study tell us that cops are constantly influencing people (both consciously and unconsciously) during interrogations in ways that can severely fuck up people’s lives, so it’s cool that a study on magic might end up adding to the discussion about how we should ethically conduct criminal justice investigations.

On a side note, while reading up on this research I learned that the MAGIC Lab has studied Derren Brown before, and it’s related to my previous video about him. I’ve been very critical of him because even though he’s a critical thinker and an advocate for science (in general), he’s definitely done his part to spread nonsensical thinking. For instance, most mentalists just pretend to have psychic powers but Brown instead pretended to have a crazy good way with manipulating people psychologically. He was a big factor in the resurgence of “neurolinguistic programming” in the early 2000s — NLP is a thoroughly debunked phenomenon in which advocates (like pick-up artists) pretend to be able to influence people using subtle priming.

So in my previous video, made back when Brown got a deal with Netflix, I was annoyed with Brown because he falsely claimed that one of his illusions was a scientific study on how people behave when they are anonymous in a crowd. His trick didn’t show anything about that, it wasn’t a scientific study in any sense of the phrase, and if anything his conclusion only muddled people’s understanding of real sociological research.

Sure enough, this previous MAGIC study supports what I thought: Brown’s illusions might be quite dangerous for the public’s understanding of psychology. Gustav Kuhn, Pailhès’ coauthor and the director of the MAGIC Lab, had a magician showed 90 different subjects (all undergrads in a psychology program) a coin trick in which the subject could put the coin in either hand and the magician would correctly guess which hand it was in. The magician was using a basic magic technique to figure it out but he told the subject that he was reading his “microexpressions” and priming him to pick one hand over the other. The “clear and somewhat unnerving” result was that these psychology students were significantly more likely to believe in the pseudoscientific psychological explanations compared to their beliefs prior to the demonstration. And by the way, the results were the same whether the magician identified himself as a magician or a psychologist. No matter his bona fides, people were just as likely to take him at his word.

The researchers point out that this has some bad implications for the spread of misinformation via “fake news,” like this recent “press conference” featuring a bunch of people in white coats talking about how masks don’t stop the spread of COVID-19. Ah shit, here I go again, talking about the ‘rona. You know what? Let’s end this video here and just pick that up tomorrow.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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