Psychology of Conjuring – Part 3

In the first two parts of this series (Part 1 and Part 2) we looked at patter and misdirection in terms of their psychological impact on spectators. Using patter is so much more than reciting words (when performing informally we don’t usually recite anything at all): we have to use the right words in the right way, both to connect with people and misdirect them effectively. The subtlety and complexity of this task comes to light when we acknowledge that everyone we perform for, and every situation, is different. The more one is aware of this difference, the harder it is to produce satisfactory results, but the better those results will be. This is why at top levels in any art form we have the pained and self-loathing artist, whereas at the bottom, anything goes and everyone is happy doing a slapdash job. Probably the best approach for the everyday magician is the middle path: concerned and interested, but not obsessive about getting it right.

In this final part we study some of the underlying psychological concepts that lie at the heart of performing magic.

Psychology Basics

As is always the case with psychology, nothing is truly mechanical or sure, but certain general rules or concepts of magical psychology obtain at least as much as any general observations about human nature. Types of psychological manipulation employed by magicians include the following (there may not be exact parallels between magicians’ psychology and its academic and clinical equivalents):

  • Attention – controlling for purposes of misdirection
  • Behaviour – taking advantage of how people generally act; using the ‘behaviour breeds behaviour’ principle, etc
  • Conditioning – training people to act and react in certain ways or make certain assumptions
  • Cognition – manipulating how people view our magic, including what they think they see, how they interpret it, and even how they feel about it
  • Emotion – mainly triggering amazement and amusement but also arousing intellectual interest backed up by emotion (eg, ‘Would you like to know how that was done?’)
  • Memory – making people remember, not what happened but what we want them to remember as happening
  • Mood – deliberately maintaining or changing the mood of the moment


We have seen previously how patter is used to create cognitive smokescreens. For example, if we use Riffle St***ing to arrange cards, we might talk about some little-known principle of mathematics; whereas if we do use mathematics to arrange cards, we might claim to use ‘shuffle tracking’ or some clever manipulative method. In other words, if there were only three basic methods in magic we would use a form of triangulation, or always referring to one of the other two alternative methods.

Even someone’s perceived status creates assumptions and cognitive smokescreens. This is why a beginner who has taken the time to master a decent trick might fool an experienced magician, who is assuming that some other, much easier method is used.

As well as cognitive psychology we also use conditioning. For example, the first time you meet someone or visit somewhere, you scrutinise and soak up information. The second time around you barely take in half the information you did before. This is because you are conditioned to accept ‘the same as before’, even if it is now slightly different. This is why in magic we often use a genuine action as a lead-in to a later, illusory one. The coin really goes across the first time so that later, when it doesn’t, the spectator has been conditioned to accept that it is really there; they therefore scrutinise the actions less closely. This is why the real action and fake must match closely, otherwise the conditioning will be broken.


Similarly, we execute methodological actions – real and fake – within our usual spectrum of everyday bodily actions, movements, and mannerisms (our personal body language); we don’t suddenly do things out of character or manner. This sort of personalised movement is called being natural, or naturalness. Avoiding generically unusual actions (those that would seem unnatural for anybody) is also referred to as naturalness. Again, if we have to do something unnatural, we may introduce the overt action (sans sleight or secret move) earlier on so that people get used (conditioned) to it. For example, shuffling a deck of cards face up instead of the more usual face-down.

A part of naturalness is justification. If we need to put the cap back onto a pen or we pat our pockets looking for something, these are quite natural actions, and we use these to hide certain sleights. Magicians are rarely furtive: the beginner wants to be sneaky and look at a card quickly when people aren’t looking. An expert makes the gl****e right out in the open under covered of a justified action. Maybe humans and other animals are visually drawn to fast-moving objects as a survival tool? Regardless, we try to be slow and gentle where possible rather than fast and furtive. And we save magiciany movements and gestures for the moment of magic, not when we are executing the method.


Assumptions and expectations can be manipulated quite easily for specific purposes. In everyday life, in unexpected situations, one might not be sure if one can smell cooking or drains. A simple comment by someone just before would sway our expectations and affect our experience (liking or disliking the smell), regardless of whether the comment was true or false. In magic we might start with a weak trick or gag or puzzle which lowers people’s expectations; because they have lowered their guard, we have room to manoeuvre for a sleight or a more intricate effect.

Expectation clouds the experience – Proverb

I have always used Ken de Courcy’s ‘Nothing to do Match Trick’ as a lead-in to ‘Chinese Matches’ (Vernon). Not only does the puzzle-trick help distract from the sleight of hand (‘There’s no need to watch closely, it’s only a puzzle’, thinks the spectator) but the stronger effect has even more impact when expectations have been lowered, due to the juxtaposition of low expectation / high outcome.


The presenter of YouTube channel Free Magic Live (Joshua Jayaweera) stresses that if you pretend to fail at an effect first (he uses the slightly corny line ‘I’m not that good!’) you are lowering expectations and creating a relaxed moment during which the dirty work (eg, fork b**d, coin d**ch, top ch***e etc) takes place. This relaxed moment is called an off-beat and is one of the main forms of misdirection. A popular form of off-beat is pretending an effect has gone wrong. Don’t be misled by the term ‘beat’ (as in a steady, mechanical rhythm). There is no mechanicalness involved. A beat is an emphasis and an off-beat, a relaxation.

Another form of off-beat is in a routine at the end of a phase such as in ‘Coins Across’. In a routine like this the method and effect approximately alternate: beat, off-beat, beat, off-beat. During the relaxation, the secret work is done. Magicians unaware of this principle mistakenly execute the method on the beat: they show four coins and say ‘Watch!’, throw them into the other hand, and then make the coin travel. The correct way is to throw the coins first and move some object or remove a speck of dust from the mat as if you haven’t started yet; and then say ‘Watch!’ as the hands close, the moment of magic is made, and the coin travels on the beat.

Still another type is pretending to have finished an effect. We pause and relax; then moments later ‘decide to show them again’, like a comedian pretending to ad lib a line. The little moment of ‘closure’ breaks the spectator’s attention just enough to make the repeat deceptive. (Examples: ‘Devant Pennies’, ‘Las Vegas Leaper’.)


Borrowing a term from social sciences, which in turn vaguely references the way paintings are framed and how the frame affects our perception of the artwork, framing refers to how we manipulate people’s cognitive interpretation of an effect. A pick-a-card-and-find-it trick can be framed through patter and presentation as a gambling demonstration, mind-reading, pure magic, luck, fortune-telling, astrology, numerology, psychokinesis – you name it (ref. comment above about triangulation).

(Occasionally you might hear a magician say that you or some magician are ‘framing the move’, as in telegraphing it through body language or poor choreography. This is another kind of framing, referred to in Part 2.)

The design [of a picture frame] must effect a transition from the existing physical location… into the illusionistic realm of the painting. – William Bailey


Humour is a potent tool. In everyday life it is not always used just to make people laugh. It can reduce tension such as in a job interview, build rapport, emphasise an argument, insult or mock, create or diffuse negative situations. In magic it is often used to create an off-beat.

In ‘Sympathetic Coins’ we fall into the same trap as in Al Baker’s ‘Filtration’ mentioned in Part 2: lining up the coins into a square draws attention to itself. So we might start with a gag sequence (very old, shown to me by Piet Forton) to reduce tension and make the square seem less important: we cover the inner two coins, then the outer two with the cards, saying ‘If I cover the inner two coins you can see the outer two. If I cover the outer two we can see the inner two. Do you know what they call that?’ The spectator says ‘No’. We explain that this is ‘logic’.

We then cover the left and right pairs saying ‘if we cover the left we can see the right, and if we cover the right we can see the left. Do you know what they call that?’ The spectator says ‘Logic?’ We reply, ‘No, politics’. They laugh as we do the st**l. The laughter doesn’t just cover the st**l but reduces tension and focus. The time element also means that they now accept the square with less scrutiny having become familiar with it (conditioned). (We may not like this type of patter, but we can use other patter to achieve the same results.)


Whether a group is merry, subdued or lighthearted, it may be advantageous to deliberately avoid changing the mood. In itself this creates misdirection by rapport, just as a card cheat avoids altering the feel or vibe of a poker game. We’ve all had the experience of being in a group, and when one more person joins the group the whole mood changes due to some intangible psychological alchemy, like a drop of ink colouring a glass of water. The mood lightens or becomes sombre, say. Sometimes, possibly when a certain mood is low key, it can be good to lift the mood with something lighthearted. It is all about reading the situation and using intuition to judge the best course of action.

Through conditioning and the behaviour-breeds-behaviour concept, we can create desired (or undesired) responses in both action and mood in our audience. If we are loud and challenging, this may open doors for the audience to be the same. If we want to create boundaries and stop people grabbing our props, we can do this both with a deliberate intention to calm the mood and by being very deliberate in our instructions. ‘Give the cards one riffle shuffle and a single cut’ is quite different from ‘hey, just shuffle them up however you like’, appealing to the ‘good side’ of someone’s character. Throughout the performance we can draw mini boundaries: a pen laid across a tabled prediction is as good as a sign that says ‘Keep off’.

(In the old days, magicians would keep their audience on edge and under control through sarcasm and condescension (‘Hold your hand out… no, the clean one’). This form of mood- and behaviour-control is now passé.)


This is one of many forms of attention control. Much more can be said on this but to give one example: when David Blaine counts 10 cards at the start of ‘Las Vegas Leaper’ and then adds three and gets the spectator to count again, it is tedious for them to do so; they want to get the counting over with and so they do not scrutinise the cards closely.


How do we stop people from examining our tricks or asking awkward questions, or from asking us to repeat our tricks? One way is through routining. By making a coin vanish, reappear, change, and then vanish completely, we are satisfying people’s desire to ‘see that again’ while also distracting them from working out how it’s done; while they are occupied with trick #2 they are effectively prevented from analysing trick #1. Once the routine is over, they are faced with a mixture of memories which soon become a blur and eventually form a single, composite memory of magic, possibly punctuated by one or two high points.

Routining often involves methods which cancel each other out. We may deliberately employ a f**ce, then a k** card, and finally a c*****l (triangulation again). At the end of the routine the spectator is unable to remember the actual procedure for each effect; they create a composite memory in a similar way that a group of people creates a composite impression when we first meet them (eg, one drunk person in a group creates a perception of a ‘group of drunks’, and similarly, ‘all jazz music sounds the same’).


Most magic happens in the memory. A coin vanish registers as magic because we remember the coin going into the hand seconds before. Even with the ‘Raven Coin Vanish’ or ‘Linking Rings’ there is a before and after, albeit initially separated by the blink of an eye. Only with certain visual effects (mainly levitations) does the effect take place over an extended period in the here-and-now. Because magic happens in the memory, what spectators remember is vital to the overall effect. This is why we distract with patter and use misdirection, so that people remember the ‘colour’ and overlook the ‘grey’. When we create an off-beat and do the secret move, they are distracted. In their memory it is as if this moment never happened. We call this memory modification (though experienced performers know that lay people often self-inflict this phenomenon unaided).

Generally, in card magic, selection and return processes with chosen cards should be grey; revelations should be filled with colour. That’s an over-generalisation – each effect should have certain unique points in grey and colour – but the grey and colour should be applied with regard to our understanding of human nature, not according to clever theories. Some tricks break this rule to their detriment, applying colour in the wrong places: a clever procedure used to convince people that the cards are shuffled, say, becomes a strong memory of a long-winded and slightly suspect procedure. It may be better to create a fake memory of ‘shuffling normally’ through verbally fabricating a recap of what supposedly happened, prior to the denouement: ‘And remember, you shuffled the deck’ (actually they only cut after the magician shuffled). These fabrications work best if they involve artificially linking actual memories such as the spectator shuffling in an earlier trick.

Think of Robert Harbin’s ‘Zig Zag Lady’ illusion or the classic forms of ‘Sawing a Woman in Half’. These illusions work because the eye is drawn to the brightly painted woodwork, while the sections painted black are unseen. These principles can act as metaphors for the parts of our close-up effects we want to be remembered and the parts we don’t.


When we go to the theatre or cinema, we know we are going to be ‘lied to’ in a manner of speaking (the people on stage are not real characters doing real-life actions) and unless it is a particularly poor film or play, we let ourselves become mildly hypnotised by the story; we become involved with the characters to the extent that we actually laugh and cry with them.

When we do magic informally we are performing for people who are not only ‘outside the theatre’ but mentally and physically in their own world. The phenomenon known as the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ that takes place at the cinema does not operate anywhere near as strongly in magic unless we work hard to set the scene. This is a strange area. When we ask ‘Do you play poker?’, are we really asking them that question or are we just saying patter? This is both a philosophical and practical matter worth thinking about by all magicians.

Meet TIM

The standard way of describing this whole process of getting people to unknowingly suspend their disbelief is ‘use patter and presentation’. But this terminology has become so commonplace in magic as to all but lose its meaning. That’s why I want to introduce you to a friend of mine called TIM: talk-interact-misdirect.

Talk-interact-misdirect is how I describe the process of engaging with people from the moment we meet them, to the end of our informal show. When we c*****l a chosen card we use TIM. We introduce the theme of the effect while (naturally) looking at the spectators. By ignoring our hands we are making the (methodologically) important seem unimportant, and the unimportant (the patter) seem important. But we must also use TIM before the start of the effect, and after it is over; otherwise TIM will be exposed as a decoy when he suddenly rears his head and then ducks down again.

The whole tapestry

There isn’t really any such thing when performing as ‘patter, misdirection and psychology’. These are all reductive terms which describe a much broader, interconnected reality. They are separate strands of an intricate tapestry of deception. In this analysis it has been impossible to talk about one of these strands without bringing the others into play. If nothing else this should be a clue as to how the overall process operates. Think of a hologram inside a clear cube; when you break a piece off the cube, inside each piece is a complete holographic image.

The danger for the newcomer is to try and take all the separate bits and pieces and glue them together into what always ends up as a distorted form of the true whole. The student may even cherry-pick the bits that seem easy or memorable. But pulling a fly apart and gluing it back together does not result in a fly (living or dead).

The good news is that there is a much easier way. While one should soak up information such as given here, don’t try to learn and apply it too self-consciously. Instead of analysing separate elements, one should do two things: first, watch other magicians and try to perceive on a general level the whole tapestry. In this tapestry, body language, sleights, and language (verbal and non-verbal) come together as one, and yet you can still make out separate elements if you know what to look for.

Forget TIM

I’m not suggesting everyone start thinking about TIM rather than patter and presentation. The point is to communicate something to you, the reader, which in operation happens naturally and spontaneously without thinking about it. TIM or whatever equivalent you want to use only exists here on the written page; in practice it doesn’t exist and isn’t thought about.

Watch people interact in everyday life. They aren’t thinking ‘I should move my right hand then shake my head like this’. The actor on stage and the magician both have to go through this at the creative or learning stage of their choreography, but in performance these actions are automatic and yet performed consciously.

Inverse application

This brings us to the second thing on our to-do list: instead of thinking about magic and trying to work out how you normally do and say things, do it the other way around. In everyday life, when you are mid-conversation or in some other interaction, observe yourself and for a second or two, mentally break off and think ‘Could I use this type of interaction for magic?’ For example, when you have someone’s attention you may realise that this attention-control could be used when p**ming a card. Mentally taste this interaction and see when and where it happens again. Eventually you will become familiar with it and how it comes about.

Summary and plan of action

  1. Watch other magicians and learn the fundamental concepts of psychology and misdirection on a subconscious, holistic level; but be careful not to imitate.
  2. Observe yourself in everyday life and see how attention and other types of psychology work, and visualise yourself performing or executing moves in certain situations; eventually you will be able to trigger those situations when performing.
  3. Keep referring back to basic explanations of psychology and misdirection such as given here until you start to connect what you know inwardly with what you think you know from the written page. It will then make sense and come to life.

Magic is difficult. We are meant to focus on the effect and ignore the method, even though internally (to begin with) we are focused on the method and almost want to ignore the effect. But in time we will assimilate both the magic and the psychology required to get it over effectively. When this happens we will have become what might be referred to as being our own magician.

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