Using Magic to Understand the Mind

Contact: Jay Olson, 778.319.0778;

9 May 2012

Think of a playing card.

Got one?

Although it may have felt like a free choice of any card, researchers at the University of British Columbia think they might have the answer.

"Magicians know how to make tricks work, but rarely know why they work," says magician-turned-researcher Jay Olson from Simon Fraser University. He and fellow researchers Ronald Rensink and Alym Amlani from UBC collaborated to study why magic works in the mind.

Their study — which appears in the current edition of the journal Perception — investigates the psychology behind card tricks.

"We applied well-known rigorous techniques from psychology to understand how people perceive and treat playing cards," says Rensink. "To our knowledge, nobody has done this before." Their study examined how people perceive, remember, like, and choose particular cards, while testing some of magicians' intuitions.

"Only some of the intuitions about cards received support," Amlani says. For example, they found that when asked to name a playing card, most people choose one of four cards: the Ace of Spades, or the Ace, Queen, or King of Hearts. These results confirm similar patterns that magicians have noticed while performing.

They also found some unexpected results. For example, when asked to name a card, women chose the King of Hearts more than men did, and men chose the Queen of Hearts more than women did — although magicians often expect the opposite pattern. Also, asking people to 'visualise a card' rather than to 'name a card' leads people to choose the Ace of Hearts more often. These unexpected findings could lead to more investigation from both magicians and psychologists.

The next step is to apply these findings to principles of card magic, to learn more about the mind. One principle involves magicians influencing the audience's decisions without their awareness. "As psychologists we don't understand why this works," Amlani says. Studying how magicians influence choices could help psychologists understand decision making, with consequences for interface design and marketing.

Other tricks rely on the audience forgetting particular aspects of cards, such as their value or suit. Understanding how magicians help the audience forget could lead to a better understanding of memory.

This research can also help magicians improve their tricks. Knowing which cards people tend to choose or forget could help magicians perform more amazing tricks. In the future, understanding the psychology behind principles of card magic could allow magicians to use these techniques more efficiently.

"We hope this study will promote more collaboration between psychologists and magicians," Olson said. "This will help us learn more about magic from psychology, and more about psychology from magic."

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