Magic or Psychology? Making Something That Doesn't Exist Disappear

Could magicians make you believe that you saw a non-existent object disappear? A team of experimental psychologists at Oxford University in the U.K. developed their own magic trick to find out.

Dr. Matthew Tompkins led the study. He said the founding fathers of psychology were keenly interested in understanding how magicians could manipulate people’s perceptions. Despite this initial interest, magic has been largely ignored by contemporary psychologists until relatively recently.

Much of sleight of hand magic is about misdirecting people about the location of an object. This ability to manipulate the mind is a new focus of psychological research.

“We wanted to go further and see whether magicians’ misdirection techniques could be used to induce the misperception of ‘phantom’ objects — could a magician make us ‘see’ something that was never there,” said Tompkins.

For the experiment, 420 volunteers watched a series of five silent videos, each showing part of a magic act. Immediately afterwards, they were asked to describe what they had seen and rate how surprising, impossible, and magical it had been.

In the first four videos the magician would do something with an object, with the third video deliberately showing a non-magical action to check that people could distinguish whether something was or was not a magic trick and were not seeing a trick simply because they expected one. The first, second, and fourth videos showed magic tricks.

The volunteers were split into five groups, each of which saw a series of video with a different object — a coin, a ball, a poker chip, a silk handkerchief, or a crayon.

In the fifth video, the magician mimed making an object disappear. However, no object was ever shown in that video.

Nevertheless, 32 percent of people were convinced they had seen something disappear, with 11 percent naming the non-existent object. When asked to rate the trick, those who had not reported an object gave low scores for surprise, impossibility and magic. However, those who believed they had seen something gave higher scores, and those who could name the object gave the highest scores.

Matthew said, “We think what may be happening is that people are effectively confusing their expectations with a true sensory experience. They expect to see another video with a crayon or a coin, for example, and this expectation is so vivid that it can actually be mistaken for a real object.

“The science of magic is a fascinating area, and there are important practical applications. For example, our work builds upon previous studies that have shown how eyewitness testimony can vary from the facts. In understanding how people can be fooled, we can gain better understanding of how our minds construct our conscious experiences.”

The paper is published online by Frontiers in Psychology (doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00950).
“>University of Oxford