This is a guest article by Dr Matt Pritchard. Matt is a science magician and Curator of Wonder. If you would like to hear more. Book your tickets to his next talk with this link.
Psychology of deception – Dr Matt Pritchard
Magicians are honest as we admit that we’re going to deceive you. Audiences voluntarily enter an unspoken pact with the performer that everything they see, hear and experience maybe deliberately distorted. The power of magic comes from the audience wrestling with the paradox of knowing what they’re witnessing is faked and yet their gut tells them these impossible acts are real. This cognitive dissonance can evoke a range of reactions from laughter to fear. However, daily we’re being involuntarily deceived by both human manipulation and quirks of how our minds work. Magicians can give a unique insight into this murky world.
A term magicians use a lot is misdirrection whereby we draw a spectator’s attention & perception, reasoning, and memory away from the sneaky stuff behind the illusions and towards the magical effect. It’s about controlling the spectator’s focus at all times. Does my bad spelling earlier of the word misdirection disturb or distract you? If so, then you’ve been misdirected but not in a helpful manner.
As a student of magic for the last 27 years I’ve learnt to deploy various misdirections or psychological tactics in my performances to create or enhance wonderment. I’ve also had a fascination in how these same principles can be used to deceive the mind offstage. From the battlefield through to the supermarket shelf. Let me give three examples featuring driving that highlights some of the deceptions our mind can experience:
- Attention and perception. In October 2011 I was working in Abu Dhabi when the Blackberry phone network suffered an international outage. For those few days the phones were useless and at the time the majority of the city’s inhabitants were without means of communicating electronically (and were pretty miserable). During this same period, in a city that’s plagued by excessive speed and bad driving, road accidents dropped by 40%. There was no distraction of focusing attention on a handset and not the road ahead. The combination of inattentional and change blindness when using a phone whilst driving has led to them being banned in the UK.
- Reasoning. When applying for a driving license one of the questions many citizens across the world face is whether you want to donate body organs to another person when you die. In Germany the percentage of the population on that list is 12%, across the border in Austria it’s 99%. Similar discrepancies occur in countries that would otherwise have a lot in common. The main factor behind this is the default option. Germany you have to opt in and Austria you have to opt out. Whilst retaining the citizens right to make a choice, changing the default option (or the ordering of a question) can dramatically influence the results. In the field of behavioural economics this is referred to as choice engineering. Something magicians know a lot about as they steer their spectators to make choices to match previously made predictions.
Memory. Imagine you’ve just witnessed a car accident. A police officer interviews you and asked how fast the car was going that crashed. A simple change of word can make a big difference to your memory of the event. Elizabeth Loftus, a pioneer of false memories and eye witness testimony, showed through experiment that using a phrase like “smashed into a tree” rather than “collided with the tree” can result in quite different speed estimates. It also affects whether the eye witness remembers seeing broken glass on the ground or not. During a good magic show a magician will be constantly influencing how an audience remembers the tricks; highlighting the effect and minimising the method.
If you would like to hear more from Matt Findler, you can book your tickets to his next talk with this link.