Psychology of Conjuring – Part 2

In Part 1 of this series we looked at how patter forms a link between ourselves and our magic on the one hand, and our spectators. If nothing else, patter justifies what we do. In everyday life there is normally no reason, for example, to thread a finger ring onto a pencil and then look at it! Only a child playing a make-believe game would do such a thing. But if the ring represents, say, Houdini, and the pencil, prison bars (or the two objects, and the magic done with them, illustrate particles in quantum physics, say) then we have a reason for doing something that in everyday life has no purpose (making a ring appear on a pencil). It would, in fact, make more sense to use special props – a magic wand and/or magic ring – as then we are demonstrating the special properties of those specific props, properties that borrowed rings and pencils do not have.

Thinking about these matters requires an understanding of psychology: not just our spectators but our own, because as magicians we can be conditioned to accept conditions of magic that lay people would instantly recognise as abnormal. Indeed, much of what we do involves making the abnormal seem normal, and to do so requires a deep understanding of how lay people think; of what the ‘everyday worldview’ normally is. Understanding this worldview helps us manipulate what people see and think. The term we use to describe this manipulation is misdirection.

Misdirection Basics

There are several types of misdirection which involve three levels of experience:

  • Temporal misdirection
  • Mental misdirection
  • Physical misdirection

Time misdirection

When we perform an effect, the method often takes place seconds or even minutes before the effect is revealed. We therefore use time as a tool for distancing the effect from the method. We call this time misdirection. Patter is often used to create time misdirection. A prime example is during the Cross-Cut F***e where we add a delay between crossing the halves and showing the f***e card. We use patter during and after a c*****l so as to allow any suspicion that their card might be in a certain position to subside and become forgotten.

Something we use to enhance time misdirection is the ‘moment of magic’. When we snap our fingers or ruffle the deck loudly, we plant the idea that the ‘secret action of the trick’ (the sleight of hand or the method) happened just then; not one minute ago or whenever it really happened.

Mental misdirection

Patter keeps the mind of the audience occupied and it acts as a cognitive framework through which they conceive and interpret the effect. It’s not just a distraction but an interesting distraction. Hence patter is a form of what we call mental misdirection. While they are processing our tale of quantum physics and trying to relate it to what they are seeing in front of them, they are distracted from thinking about our sleight of hand.

Note that the more interesting or meaningful the patter to a particular spectator, the greater its power to distract them. This is why tailoring patter to the audience is key to effective magic. An equivalent (but more powerful) process is when a swindler manipulates the emotions of their victim (‘You will gain/lose something valuable’) to block their rational mind from kicking in and overriding the emotional thought processes conjured up by the swindler.

Misdirection is the initiation of trains of thought. – Alan Alan

Patter is a limiting concept: we should think more in terms of interaction. A question may be mental misdirection as it sends people off into their own thoughts for a few moments to think of an answer. They may even look away – up, down, to the side and so on – creating a form of visual misdirection too.

Even our body language is misdirection. A relaxed manner throws people off the scent as well as (sometimes better than) an engaging patter theme. Talking and looking at someone during a shuffle or cut implies ‘I am not fully aware of what I’m doing with my hands’. This is one of the most powerful tools in magic. Conversely, body language may give the game away for even the most technically perfect sleight if we are too self-conscious, staring at our hands, or tense.

Visual misdirection

The third type of misdirection is physical or sensory. Sensory misdirection is mainly visual – making people look in the wrong place – but occasionally audial and sometimes even tactile. (‘The Seven Penny Trick’ from Bobo uses all three simultaneously.) Hence the third type of misdirection is called visual misdirection, but really sensory misdirection would be a more comprehensive term.

Visual misdirection is the form stereotypically associated with magic by lay people, but its reality is more like the aforementioned ‘Seven Pennies’ where attention on the last coin distracts from the penultimate coin, where the secret action happens. There is thus no heat on the coin that is stolen. (Heat is how we sometimes refer to unwanted attention. Shade is a term borrowed from card cheats that refers to the covering of a secret move through lack of attention.)

Aside from Harry Potter fans, people these days do not expect to see magic wands in use. But magicians still use wands, albeit covertly and in disguise. A pen, a coin, even a speck of dust being swept off the table becomes a form of wand when used to divert attention.

Divided attention

Another example of visual misdirection is in Vernon’s ‘Chinese Matches’ / Gardner’s ‘Passe Trick’ (aka ‘The Ten Count’ with sponge balls), where the object under the fingers comes into view when the hand closes, drawing attention away from the hand performing the secret pass. In the classic ‘Coin Across’ where a coin in one hand joins a coin in the other, the coin that doesn’t travel helps divide attention at the start between the two coins, thus taking heat off the coin that is secretly transferred. Picking up or turning over two objects with different hands at the same time (as in the Paul Curry Turnover Change) is another common form of dividing attention.

Dividing attention in this manner is a type of misdirection that can be ‘built into’ or choreographed into the actions of an effect, as opposed to merely relying on the performer distracting through interaction. Al Baker used this in his classic ‘Magical Filtration of Four Half Dollars’ (Bobo, p. 193): when one hand picks up its two coins, the other does the same while l***ing one of them.

Framing and telegraphing

If we tense up before a sleight or we frame (contextualise) the sleight wrongly by doing something unnatural or studied beforehand (or afterwards), this is called telegraphing the move. For example, we want to load a p*** ed card onto the card box but find we have put the box in the wrong place. We will have to move it first, framing the move badly and thus telegraphing the load that follows.

In Al Baker’s ‘Magical Filtration’, magicians have been unwittingly taught to telegraph the move by lining up the coins into a neat square before the pick-up actions. The square draws attention to itself, telegraphing that ‘something important is about to happen’. The correct method is to drop the pairs of coins on the table and leave them where they are, somewhat haphazard in two separate piles, just as they landed. We can now do the one-two pick-up actions with both hands (dividing attention), l***ing one of the coins in the usual way, but without forming a square.

Secret vs disguised

Certain sleights (Top Ch***e, Classic P**s, Top P**m) traditionally have no covering action. These secret sleights are done under misdirection. Disguised sleights are those done undercover of overt actions with less in the way of misdirection: Double L***, Double Un*****t, J** Shuffle and so on. Some magicians rely solely on covered sleights; indeed, it is possible never to use a secret sleight, but this also limits one’s capabilities.

Secret sleights are sometimes given covering actions – a loud riffle is added to a P**s or a shuffle is done to disguise a P**m. With covered or disguised sleights (when properly executed), the spectators can burn our hands (stare intently) and see nothing. Indeed, some covered sleights mislead by their very nature, especially if they are done in a way considered natural by the spectator: a f**** shuffle deceives due to its inherent nature of being a form of shuffle. How can we be ‘not shuffling while shuffling’?

Interactive misdirection

Interaction is one of the main forms of visual misdirection in addition to its cognitive function mentioned above. Simply by talking to someone you are distracting them from your hands. People quote John Ramsay as saying, ‘If you want someone to look at you, look at them’, and ‘If you want them to look at something, look at it yourself’. However this has become a sort of mantra applied mechanically, whereas it is merely descriptive of a much broader interaction with the spectators and objects. Without all the other pieces of the puzzle in place, it cannot work effectively.

True misdirection operates like the low-level buzz of an air-conditioning unit. It starts at the beginning of your show with the way you interact with people. If you start by staring at your hands, people will stare at your hands for the rest of your show, even when you look up at them and expect them to look at you. This is because they have become conditioned to do so. We have to start our misdirection from the get-go and actually train (condition) people to look at us when we look at them.

If we condition people to the assumption that ‘important things’ – the moments of magic – happen in a certain physical space or ‘bubble’, and that unimportant things – putting cards down, picking up a pen, putting something in a pocket and so on – happen outside of this bubble of attention, then our applications of Ramsayesque misdirection are much more likely to work.

But it isn’t enough to make people look in the wrong place; they mustn’t be aware that they have looked in the wrong place! We’re not playing ‘catch me if you can’. There’s a saying in magic: ‘If the audience suspects how a trick is done, even if incorrect, it’s as bad as their knowing.’ This is why we combine visual misdirection with time and mental misdirection, so that they ‘don’t know that they don’t know’.

L’art est de cacher l’art. – Joseph Joubert


Standard practice is to misdirect either before a move or during a move. But have you ever tried misdirecting just after a move? This can be effective, because if misdirection during a move is noticed, the move is blown; but if a move is suspected but the suspicion immediately overlaid by verbal/mental misdirection (such as a question, joke or introducing a theme), then the move and the suspicion become forgotten.

Overlaying effectively knocks a percept (something methodologically related) off the podium with another percept (something methodologically irrelevant), preventing the initial observation from entering short-term memory. An example in everyday life is where you’re about to say something in a conversation but the other person says something first; your attention gets distracted and your own thought gets forgotten.

The heart of misdirection

Understanding misdirection is really understanding psychology. In Part 3 of this series we shall look at principles of psychology as generally understood in that field, as applied to magic.

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