Smoke & Mirrors: The Role of Misdirection in Magic


Image credit: Pixabay; used under Creative Commons.

For many of us, magic is a mystery. Even though we know a coin can’t possibly vanish into thin air, we’re made to believe as if it does. A magician’s act can be so convincing that, for a few minutes at least, it seems anything is possible.

The key to the magician’s act is misdirection. When your attention isn’t focused on something, you don’t notice it.  It’s not necessarily that you don’t see it. Your eyes still receive all the visual input, but your brain hones in only on certain parts of your environment, what seems important, filtering out unnecessary input so that you’re not overloaded with too much information.

This phenomenon is called inattentional blindness.

Normally, inattentional blindness helps you retain your concentration and focus on the things that matter. In a magic act, however, the magician misdirects you, leading your focus away from what’s happening right before your eyes.

For example, a magician tells you to carefully watch her right hand as she makes a coin she took from her left hand vanish. You dutifully watch the right hand.

But your careful attention to the right hand means you miss the fact that the coin never left her left hand.

The same thing can happen even on an extreme scale. Take a look at Richard Wiseman’s Color Changing Card Trick:

He transforms the backs of almost every card in a deck from blue to red right in front of you.

On top of that (before Wiseman’s revelation in the video), a lot of the scene – including the background and magicians’ clothing – had also changed colors. But you probably didn’t even notice that. Your brain was too busy paying attention to the cards.

Whether it’s banter, a bright-colored curtain, or simply suggesting you “look this way” (but not that), these smoke and mirrors aren’t just for show. They are an integral part of guiding your attention away from the most important actions. The more high-contrast, surprising or entertaining an element is, the more salient it probably is to the trick mechanics.

A magic trick is truly a feat in calculated performance art. It might look like the magician has dealt her entire hand, but instead of the cards, she’s really playing you.




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