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  • Writer's pictureMadison Hagler

The Psychology of Magic from Lab to Stage by Alice Pailhès & Gustav Kuhn

This is a fascinating new book by Vanishing Inc that explores the psychological reasoning behind magic. It is very academic and reads almost like a textbook, with data being the primary driving force and references throughout. It is unlike any magic book I’ve read. The book shares scientific data about all aspects of magic to give you guiding principles that will help make your magic more deceptive from a purely psychological aspect. While the authors do give some concrete examples, a potential buyer should note that it will take a lot of thought and some work to apply these principles. They should act as guideposts and help you make decisions on your act, but this book is not teaching you magic tricks or teaching you how to apply the knowledge. It is simply giving you the knowledge. What you do with it is entirely up to you.

The book begins with an Introduction that introduces Gustav and Alice and their background in magic and psychology. Both authors have outstanding credentials that make it clear they are writing this book from a place of passion. The Introduction also covers what is different about the book, which is primarily that this book is written specifically for magicians and studies the science of magic to explain why much of what we do works.

The book has two sections. Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 discuss the Science of Magic endeavor. Chapters 3-9 illustrate how different psychological principles can be applied to magic.

Chapter 1 is all about The Science of Magic Endeavor. This chapter gives you the framework from which the entire book is written. Gustav explains the tools used to evaluate magic, how to improve the traditional approach to advancing magic, how cognitive bias may affect the evaluation of magic tricks, the scientific approach to gathering data from the audience, using surveys to evaluate your magic, focus group and online studies, neuroscience tools such as eye tracking software, challenging your theory, and some basic lessons in research. Along the way, you will see some significant data on which force feels the freest to spectators, and you get a sample survey that you can use to evaluate your magic performance to help your show improve. This sample survey is really wonderful. I have seen this idea suggested in the past, but this full survey provides a lot of valuable information that would help ANY performer have a more successful show. This is one of the best evaluation methods we can use to gain valuable insight into how our audiences perceive the show. If you’re working on a new show, it should be mandatory to have an early audience complete this survey.

Chapter 2 is about Magic Theory: Definitions and Taxonomies. This chapter aims to provide clear definitions for what is being studied. It answers three questions:

What is magic?What is misdirection?

What is forcing?

It takes a deep dive into each question, examining how other magicians have explained it, examining various themes that continually appear in their answers, and then testing the various theories to see which definition rings true. The psychological approach to misdirection was particularly informative as it breaks down Misdirection into three types: Perceptual Misdirection, Memory Misdirection, and Reasoning Misdirection. These categories are then broken down further. This categorical examination of misdirection from a psychological perspective offers incredible value to the magician. It allows us to examine our routines and discover what types of misdirection we could add to make the routine more deceptive. 

Chapter 3 focuses on Blind Spots and How to Exploit Them. Amazingly, we all have multiple blind spots that we aren’t aware of. If magicians could gain awareness of these blind spots, they would be able to use them to their advantage. The first blind spot it examines is a physical blind spot. If you’ve ever done the thing where you draw a dot and a cross on a piece of paper and cause the x to vanish, you’ve experienced this blind spot. Next, it looks at a blind spot that causes us to have four hours of blindness every day. That’s a quarter of our conscious life! The next blind spot is a gradual blind spot that occurs outside of our rather small field of vision. Another blind spot makes people blind to the things they are looking at. The final blind spot is our inability to spot changes. The chapter also looks at what drives our attention and examines some different tools you can use to ensure the audience is looking where they need to look. This is all incredibly compelling stuff. I absolutely loved it. It’s very fascinating, and while some of the blind spots were known to me, I’ve never thought about how they could be applied to magic. If you can really use this information in your act, people will be incredibly fooled because they literally can’t see the moment the secret move happens.

Chapter 4 looks at Visual Illusions. Most of us know these as optical illusions. It begins with an explanation of how vision works and then looks at how we determine depth and size. It also explains how our eyes “fill in the gap,” which accounts for the deceptiveness of some classic illusions, such as the linking rings, rope magic, and multiplying billiard balls. It also examines how an incredible amount of objects can be hidden by utilizing this principle. The chapter also looks at the illusion of motion that our brains put together, and perhaps most amazingly, it examines that our eyes can see the future. This is not some outrageous claim, it is the truth. Our brain perceives our visual world at a tenth of a second lag, yet we don’t perceive this lag because our brain is predicting what we will see. Think about the magic implications of this. If you can use this knowledge to your advantage, you can create visual miracles using nothing more than humans’ own visual system. 

Chapter 5 examines Memory Illusions. It begins with a crash course in how memory works. Next, it examines how you can actually distort people’s memories, such as all of the mind-numbing Mandela Effects. Alice explains that we can do this with imagination, suggestion, misinformation, nonverbal suggestion, and presupposition. These tools allow you to genuinely affect how people remember a trick. This is what makes a spectator feel like they shuffled the deck when it was actually the magician. Becoming an expert in memory distortion allows you to genuinely alter the memory of your spectators so that they remember your magic as being even stronger than it actually was. 

Chapter 6 is A Path of Least Resistance: Decision Forces. This chapter looks at why people make the choices they make. It begins by explaining the two different types of thinking and how one system of thinking is perhaps more useful for us. It then moves on to look at the mental choices people make. It gives data on which cards are named most frequently and gives some tools you can use to help steer people toward a certain mental choice. Next up, it looks at physical choices. It examines the right-side bias, the middle bias, reachability, and how our ord choice can affect these physical choices. 

Chapter 7 is all about Illusions of Control: Outcome Forces. It presents several explanations for why some forces are so deceptive. Some examples are the illusion of apparent action causation, the illusion of control, and choice blindness. The chapter takes a deep dive into the Cross-Cut force and examines why it is one of the most deceptive card forces. Alice even took some of magicians’ classic explanations for why the cross-cut force works and put them to the test in various experiments and, amazingly, found that our “must-haves,” such as a time delay or misdirection are totally unnecessary to make the trick work. They even tried to “break” the illusion by making it extremely obvious; even so, it still fooled the wide majority of the people. It just goes to show that from a psychological perspective, the cross-cut is hard to top in terms of deceptiveness. The chapter also looks at equivoque and examines why it works so well. Their experiments found that it is most deceptive without any explanation at all–even if the choices are inconsistent. An amazing find for magicians who have tried to “explain the reasoning” for their equivoque for so long. The section on choice blindness is really fascinating. Essentially it involves having someone choose something, and then immediately giving them the opposite of their choice and asking them why they chose that item. Incredibly, people didn’t notice they were given the item they DIDN’T choose, and they even had rational explanations for why they chose the item that they didn’t choose in the first place. This is a really wild discovery. It would seem like a bold approach for a magician to use this, but perhaps with some thought, it could be used effectively because, from a psychological perspective, it is a tried and tested theory that holds true. 

Chapter 8 is on Framing Magic. This answers the question of whether the way you frame your magic has any impact on how it is perceived. It compares a magic performance, a mentalism performance, and a mystic performance and provides words that audiences use to describe these performances. It also examines how using different words to introduce an effect can have a huge impact on how that trick is perceived. It also looks at how the gender of the magician plays a role in how the magic is perceived. This chapter also provides information on whether or not disclaimers change the perception of the audience. 

Chapter 9 is the final chapter of the book. It seeks to answer the question Why Do We Enjoy Magic? It looks at it from an evolutionary perspective, as an escape from reality, what people enjoy about magic, what emotions magic elicits, and individual differences in the enjoyment of magic. This provides some great insight into what people like about magic, and what people dislike about magic. With some thought, you could use this information to properly frame specific tricks or routines in your show to avoid unwanted emotions and draw out positive emotions. 

Of course, the book ends with a Conclusion.

Again, this is one of the most unique magic books I’ve read, and I found it incredibly fascinating. All of the knowledge contained in this book is very helpful from a practical standpoint, and if it is applied to your act, it WILL generate a positive change. Using these principles will allow your magic to become more deceptive and more enjoyable. I wouldn’t recommend this for a beginner, but for the intermediate, semi-pro, or pro, this information is of immense value.

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