The psychology of swindling

It's only an illusionIn the current issue of Smithsonian magazine, Teller (of the professional duo, Penn & Teller) reveals some secrets of his art.

First he talks about the world of neuroscience and perception, into which he’s often invited as a speaker.  And he makes the point that when it comes to experimenting with human perception, neuroscientists are amateurs compared with magicians.

I recall his partner Penn Gillette saying once that they were not magicians.  They were tricksters, swindlers.  His point was that nothing in their act was magical.  They’re not exempt from the laws of physics. Instead, as magicians have done for thousands of years, they rely on trickery, on quirks of perceptions.

It’s well worth reading the original (link in the first paragraph, above) to enjoy Teller’s style and to take in the details he provides for points like these:

  • Exploit pattern recognition.  Our brains constantly seek patterns, especially when there isn’t one.  That’s why the night sky has constellations, but an evenly spaced series of dots seems to have no pattern at all.
  • Distract with laughter. What Teller’s really talking about here is a kind of cognitive overload–if you’re watching the performance and laughing at the comedy, you’re likelier to miss some small detail.  I think the same thing applies when a training exercise is sufficiently engrossing–people don’t care as much about elegant presentation and high-end graphics if the exercises feels like interesting, useful work.
  • Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself.  Here, he’s talking about allowing the audience (or the learner) to reach their own conclusions, make their own judgments, even if as the “designer” he knows these will be erroneous.  For a magic act, that means the audience is all the more mystified by the effect–thus, success.  When it comes to learning, the learner is comparing a conclusion she arrived at with new data that conflicts with that conclusion.  That, gentle reader, is where the learning starts.

He goes on; you don’t need me to repeat it here.  I found the article engaging enough that I wanted to see more, and came across a 2008 article in Nature Reviews – Neuroscience.   In Attention and awareness in stage magic: turning tricks into research, Teller and several coauthors study magic tricks so that “neuroscientists can learn powerful methods to manipulate attention and awareness in the lab.”

If you’re doubtful, take a look at this demonstration by one of the coauthors, pickpocket Apollo Robbins.

I think it’s worth the 16 minutes.  Watch carefully during the first two-thirds, when (I’m not giving away much here) Robbins actually picks the pockets of a volunteer who’s pretty sure that’s what’s going to happen.  You’ll find the subsequent explanation all the more compelling.

“If I’m here (standing alongside the mark), and I want to split his attention… I’ll bring my chin up into his personal space. His head will whip up to my face, and he won’t focus on that movement (of my hands).”

5 thoughts on “The psychology of swindling

  1. I watched it twice before writing the post, Julie, and I still couldn’t see half the time when he put the coin onto a shoulder or took it off.

    It’s closely connected to what Teller says in his article about making the cost of the effect seem way, way too high. Endless hours invested in design, practice, process improvement.

  2. I’m always nattering on about the deep level of front-end work involved in creating meaningful learning. As you say, Dave, this guy sunk a lot of costs to the front end to create a seamless and wonderful sequence. I’m with Julie – this is what I want my learning to be like.

  3. Janet, there’s obviously an element of showmanship here. What he does, he does for effect (at least now). There’s a second level that I think goes along with your comment. It’s what poet Robert Francis said about his own poem, Hallelujah, which is a sestina:

    “If you drape thirty-nine iron chains around your arms and shoulders and then do a dance, the whole point of the dance will be to seem light and effortless.”

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