The Core of Every Trick

Sunday, March 25th, 2012

Magic is an art — as capable of beauty as music, painting or poetry— Teller says, but the core of every trick is a cold, cognitive experiment in perception:

Does the trick fool the audience? A magician’s data sample spans centuries, and his experiments have been replicated often enough to constitute near-certainty. Neuroscientists — well intentioned as they are — are gathering soil samples from the foot of a mountain that magicians have mapped and mined for centuries.

He shares a few principles magicians employ when they want to alter your perceptions:

  1. Exploit pattern recognition.
  2. Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth.
  3. It’s hard to think critically if you’re laughing.
  4. Keep the trickery outside the frame.
  5. To fool the mind, combine at least two tricks.
  6. Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself.
  7. If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely.

For instance:

I slip a queen of hearts in my right shoe, an ace of spades in my left and a three of clubs in my wallet. Then I manufacture an entire deck out of duplicates of those three cards. That takes 18 decks, which is costly and tedious (No. 2—More trouble than it’s worth).

When I cut the cards, I let you glimpse a few different faces. You conclude the deck contains 52 different cards (No. 1—Pattern recognition). You think you’ve made a choice, just as when you choose between two candidates preselected by entrenched political parties (No. 7—Choice is not freedom).

Now I wiggle the card to my shoe (No. 3—If you’re laughing…). When I lift whichever foot has your card, or invite you to take my wallet from my back pocket, I turn away (No. 4—Outside the frame) and swap the deck for a normal one from which I’d removed all three possible selections (No. 5—Combine two tricks). Then I set the deck down to tempt you to examine it later and notice your card missing (No. 6—The lie you tell yourself).

(Hat tip to Ross.)


  1. Alrenous says:

    I just figured out why I’m not impressed by magicians.

    Whenever I find out how a trick is done, it never changes how I think the world works. I mainly just learn again that I can be fooled, which is a bit of a no-brainer.

    This is why I listen to scientists at all. They have many tricks for detecting and rectifying foolage. As a bonus, they’re individually simple.

    So I guess it does verify something else: magic tricks unambiguously set off the science klaxons. But then, if they didn’t, it would just seem normal, not counter-intuitive at all, and wouldn’t make a very good trick. Which sadly means it isn’t a good test. Which means I need tricks that aren’t supposed to be seen as tricks, for testing.

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