Canadian researchers have combined the age-old art of magic and psychological science to show how context can sway the decisions people make, even though they may feel that they are choosing freely — a finding with potential implications even for daily decision-making.
Although magicians have astounded audiences for centuries there has been little systematic study of the psychological factors that make magic tricks work.
“We began with a principle of magic that we didn’t fully understand: how magicians influence audiences to choose a particular card without their awareness,” said Jay Olson, lead author of a new study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.
“We found that people tend to choose options that are more salient or attention-grabbing, but they don’t know why they chose them,” said Olson, a graduate student in psychiatry at McGill University’s.
The research was conducted in two stages. In the first, Olson (who is also a professional magician) approached 118 people on streets and university campuses and asked them to choose a card by glancing at one as he flipped through a deck of playing cards.
The entire riffle took around half a second, but Olson used a technique to make one of the cards — the “target card” — more prominent than the rest.
Some 98 percent of participants chose the target card; but nine in 10 reported feeling they had a free choice. Many concocted explanations for their decisions: one, for example, claimed she chose the target card (the 10 of Hearts) because “hearts are a common symbol and the red stood out.”
In the second stage, the researchers created a simple computer-based version of the riffle by presenting a series of 26 images of cards sequentially on a screen. Researchers asked participants to silently choose a card, then enter it after each of 28 different trials.
Overall, participants chose the target card on 30 percent of the trials.
Although “reasonably high,” this rate was much lower than in the first study, “possibly because many of the social and situational factors central to magic tricks were absent” from the conventional laboratory conditions in which this stage was carried out, said co-author Dr. Ronald Rensink, a professor of psychology and computer science at the University of British Columbia.
“In a magic performance, for instance, spectators may be influenced by the personality of the magician, expectations created by the setup, and pressure to choose a card quickly,” he said.
“Magic provides an unusual lens to examine and unravel behavior and the processing of higher brain functions,” said co-author Amir Raz, Ph.D.
“This study joins a nascent wave of experiments that binds the magical arts to the principles of psychological and neural sciences. Such a marriage has the potential to elucidate fundamental aspects of behavioral science as well as advance the art of conjuring.”
Source: McGill University