Wake Up and Smell the Gravy

You would think that there aren’t many safer bets in life than buying Fortnum & Mason tea for relatives at Christmas. I sent some via airmail to my uncle in Greece in early December. When it arrived (mid-January) he sent a note saying ‘I will think of Prince George every time I drink the Christening Tea’. I wonder how many other customers made the same mistake as they rushed around looking for gifts. The teller probably thought ‘Here comes another one…’ while saluting me in the customary Fortnum’s manner and relieving me of a tenner for a box of teabags. I believe this is called KYC (know your customer). The customer may still be king in Fortnum’s, but the king has no clothes on.

The unwitting experiment in cognitive psychology is only half finished, as I sent the same teabags to my aunt in Canada. I cannot guess what her reaction will be (reactions are anything but predictable in our family). I’m guessing they will arrive in a couple of weeks, so watch this space.

Illusory world

At the resort where my uncle lives, in wintertime the assistants in the local supermarket address him in Greek (to which he responds in kind more or less fluently, unlike many expats). But come summertime when the place is busy with tourists, the assistants instinctively address him in English!

What’s happening? Somehow he gets lumped together with the majority depending on season. Maybe he owns an overtly Greek winter coat? It’s almost like a real-life form of Necker cube or the well-known duck/rabbit illusion where the picture suddenly and uncontrollably flips as you stare at it.

‘Mr Fanichet [said] that the problem for Eurostar was that it was seen as French by the British government and as British by the French, meaning it had been difficult to secure bail-out cash.’ – The Sun

Personal matrix

Many if not most people do not question their senses most of the time. What we see, hear, feel or believe is what we ‘get’ in the sense of comprehending everyday experiences. We occasionally acknowledge any notable blips in our personal matrix as mistakes, but ‘generally speaking I know that what I experience is first-hand reality, so no need to question it’. Clearly, then, psychologists are wasting their time studying the human mind.

Those time-wasters, along with certain similarly ineffectual contemplatives, state that the polar opposite is in fact true: that what we experience is nearly always a mixture of what is actually out there and what we imagine, think, feel, believe or misperceive as out there. The subsequent picture is therefore warped. The study of this warping is called cognitive psychology.

In magic, two of the hardest concepts to understand and make use of are two sides of the same coin: misdirection and psychology. Academic or theoretical descriptions are never enough; they give us mere shadows of reality. We need real-life examples. As magicians and ordinary people we need to feel psychology in our bones. It can often be easier to understand something by comparing it with equivalences, so we can increase our understanding of both psychology and misdirection by seeing how their common factors operate in varying realms.

Plain old confusion

Without putting too fine a point on it, cognitive psychology makes idiots of us all. In studying the subject, however, we must never make the mistake of thinking we are somehow one-up on those who have never approached it; chief among self-deceptions is the idea we are immune to them just because we read about them once or twice. They always come in unexpected forms anyway, which is why they are hard to spot. But when we do it can be disconcerting, like seeing somebody without their spectacles for the first time. This is why we avoid thinking about them for very long.

I wanted to include a quote in this article about God being an Englishman, as it illustrates two clear forms of cognitive bias. I soon ran into trouble however. It seems the full quote is ‘Most Englishmen are convinced that God is an Englishman, probably educated at Eton.’ – EM Delafield. But I very nearly attributed the quote to somebody with a very similar name – RF Delderfield – who wrote a book called – wait for it – God is an Englishman! I’d never heard of either of them before and I’m still not sure I’ve got it right. Whenever I see mention of the 19th-century explorer Sir Richard Burton, the actor’s face always pops into my head. It was Ouspensky or Gurdjieff who referred to this tendency as idiotic association.

I’m only half watching you

Not only does cognitive psychology help us deceive more effectively, it helps us overcome something that even many expert magicians suffer from: a fear of performing. The trembling hands, pumping heart and shallow breathing of the neophyte giving their first magic shows – not to mention experienced magicians who never get over stage fright – are to a great extent triggered by the assumption that every move they make is being scrutinised by a sort of infallible super-computer / eye in the sky; ie, their spectators.

The idea that others see us as we really are (they undoubtedly do see us differently) is fed by the same assumptions about our own perceptions. As soon as we face the fallibility in ourselves we realise others have the same fallibility. The irony is that the feeling of self-consciousness engendered by false beliefs becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – self-consciousness somehow induces scrutiny and becomes a vicious circle. After all, if we are gazing at our navel it’s not surprising that other people are staring at it too.

The way to break the circle is to understand how such assumptions are largely unfounded, and this can come about through not only understanding cognitive psychology but learning how to take advantage of it.

Hall of mirrors

What exactly is cognitive psychology (I’d like to call it CP, except the ‘P’ is silent)? The field covers a very wide range, but generally it involves the way we experience the world and how we process that experience. We only half see or experience the world and fill in the other half with assumptions or other distorting factors. These assumptions may be triggered by external factors, internal biases or a mixture. Of course, the ‘two halves’ are in reality mixed so that what we experience is, in a manner of speaking, like a hall of mirrors.

The cognitive smokescreens come in many forms: physical, psychological, emotional. Our mood, beliefs, biases, health and so on affect how we experience reality and distort it. Seeing the world through rose-tinted spectacles is a common expression of one form of this mechanism. Sour grapes is another. Pessimists of course see the world differently from optimists.

Knowledge of CP goes back a long way. The New Testament gives the analogy of removing the plank of wood covering our own eyes before removing the splinter in someone else’s.

‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ – St Paul

Jarring experiences

I once went to an academic lecture and approached the trestle table outside the hall, at which sat a middle-aged woman in glasses checking tickets. As I looked at her face it visibly morphed in front of my eyes into… my aunt. It was like some TV special effect. I had no idea she would be there, and when I first saw her I interpreted her face as someone else’s. The actual skin and shape of her face visually morphed as if someone was sliding a button in Photoshop. A clearer demonstration of CP you could not ask for.

What of course happened was that the image in my mind of ‘someone else’ melted away as the realisation of who it really was melted into view. I once had a somewhat similar experience dabbling in Zen meditation: after about 15 minutes of nothing, the floor melted away revealing the darkness below. (I never tried that one again.)

On a less dramatic but nonetheless jarring-to-the-senses (in this case taste buds) level, I’m sure I’m not the only one to have mistaken a glass jar of Bisto gravy granules in the kitchen cupboard for a jar of Kenco instant coffee. What was normally acceptable to the taste buds got spat out into the sink in disgust. The object itself was the same as it always was. It was the context that was wrong.

Rose-tinted eardrums

Who could forget the Red Mountain coffee adverts from the 80s where a cheeky dinner-party hostess serves up instant coffee after a series of vocalised sound effects emanating from her in the kitchen, mimicking a steam espresso maker. In magic we manipulate the visual and belief aspects of CP in a similar way. A gambling theme, say, gives an effect an actual flavour, and everything within the effect is interpreted by the spectator through this cognitive distortion. We use acting and interaction to enhance the distortion, in the same way a salesman chats you up to soften the realisation that you are parting with hard-earned money.

This smokescreen half blocks out reality, except that the smoke is not discerned as such. Paradoxically it is ‘invisible smoke’ which nonetheless distorts our vision without our detecting it (which is the point). Imagination is one form of invisible smoke as we saw with the face-warp experience.

Too much information

Another is, not so much confusion as too much information. You can’t easily think of two things at once unless you deliberately use different parts of the mind (eg, visually imagining something while using verbal thoughts for something else; you can remember a whole phone number by imagining, say, 07970 visually and mentally/verbally reciting 848 425. You can also memorise the last six numbers as ‘At 8.48 in the morning it will be £4.25’. You could retain the whole number for several hours in this manner, whereas the string of individual digits soon gets forgotten).

Unless one is trained to think like this, the brain very often just gives up. In magic, being asked to hold out your hand and hold a card a particular way while being told to remember another card, within the context of an effect-theme about testing their reflexes or suchlike, is giving a spectator multiple things to think about. Not only can people not attempt to perceive and process what may be really taking place behind the matrix, but their processing faculties will be effectively switched off. They simply tune everything out except what they are immediately being told to do. As you can see, the fallacious idea that spectators can always see what we’re up to is starting to crumble.

‘Conjuring makes too heavy a demand upon the faculties of the spectators to admit of being unduly prolonged.’ – Robert-Houdin

Inverting reality

One wonders how much this principle is used outside of magic such as in the realms of social engineering (in its original sense) or business. The Necker cube could likewise be an interesting analogy for all manner of entities – governments, accountancy and law firms, the media, you name it – whose ostensible reason for existing may well be the polar opposite of their reality: ensuring tax is paid and laws are followed, or evading them via clever loopholes and massaging the figures? Are news outlets meant to objectively report, or do they warp mundane events or statements into provocative stories via the written equivalent of Photoshop? Is their job to deliver news or to filter it, to effectively keep news away from us?

In magic, the same inversion principle is used: our spectators believe the narrative while what really happens bubbles away beneath the surface. If you ever lack confidence in the way magic deceives people, just remember how people are fooled in everyday life. The difference is of course that we are overtly fooling them, and that’s the challenge we face. Every art, craft or science has hurdles to clear. But it doesn’t nullify the principles of psychology.

Spectators’ belief that their perceptions are ‘basically correct’ is enough of a starting point for us, just as a horror or romantic film affects people who know they are watching fiction. Unlike the movie we have the advantage of live rapport as well as using conditioning and cognitive psychology to switch their critical brain off (aka suspending their disbelief). That’s why we need to be on top of the psychology aspect, and why understanding how it works in other areas will help beyond mere theory.

Manufactured news

Many years ago I watched some pop band being interviewed, and a reporter asked a seemingly innocuous (leading) question: ‘Can you ever see the band splitting up at some point down the line?’ (or words to that effect). ‘Well… I mean… I suppose at some point it could get to that stage’ was the spluttered response. What else could anyone say to such a question? Bang! Headlines next day said ‘Band XYZ consider split!’

As someone pointed out in the Express website comments section recently, the headline ‘Ireland urges EU to scrap Brexit deal rules’ becomes, in the sub-heading, ‘Irish Government officials have raised concerns with the European Commission’. Later on in the article these concerns become ‘technical inquiries with counterparts in the European Commission.’ The further down you go, the more the headline gets watered down.


As anyone who tries to negotiate the Express website will know, this verbal photoshopping is par for the course. Another example taken at random from today’s front page is ‘Kamala Harris “hates” Boris Johnson…’, which immediately becomes ‘Kamala Harris is not a fan of Boris Johnson’. An unknown source is then quoted as ‘appearing to suggest that’ she hates him. You can see the button sliding down the scale again.

But here’s the catch: the initial headline drops an emotive bowling ball into a large tub of cigarette ash, throwing up a smokescreen that remains airborne for the duration of the article’s reading. The headline triggers a combination of emotions and biases that remain active until attention is shifted to another story. It’s not so much interest in news as a rewarding dopamine fix that people are addicted to.

Of course it’s not just the Express. All news outlets warp the story according to their own biases, and once you become aware of the mechanism it becomes almost a game. Indeed, there’s probably no such thing as reporting: every story has to have a message consistent with the organisation’s overall bias or underlying motives. So these stories are not untrue, but they’re not true either. They are a form of what Frank R Wallace referred to as neo-cheating, or cheating that may be detected but never proven. When you’re caught with Aces up your sleeve there is no out; but no one can ever prove you were deliberately spotting cards during a shuffle.

If you have a morbid sense of humour, type ww3 site:www.express.co.uk into Google. You’ll get 77,000+ hits! When World War 3 does start, no one will believe it…

Not cricket

Poker-playing duo Phil Ivey and Kelly Sun took neo-cheating to a bizarre extreme when they ripped off Crockfords and a number of other casinos a number of years ago. Their technique was a lesson in cognitive psychology; although you would have to have been pretty dim to fall for their scam, and it’s a wonder they got away with it so many times.

One imagines the croupier yawning, rolling their eyes and chewing gum with their mouth open as the nice lady asked for all her lucky cards to be turned end for end. Was the eye in the sky playing solitaire? No self-respecting magician would attempt such a brazen method in even the most convoluted kitchen-table card trick. The judge was right not to grant their winnings which were had neither fairly nor squarely – but they did get their stake money back, which is testament to the power of neo-cheating: detectable but not provable. Nonetheless you have to like the judge: he ‘confessed early on during the trial that he was a bridge player’ (Eliot Jacobson).

Wind-up merchant

There’s a fine line between a warped story and an outright fake one. A professional parent (if that’s the right phrase) called Shona Sibary always seems to be in the news. Type her name into Google News and you’ll be amazed at what comes up. At first sight she comes across as a random person unwittingly blurting out something controversial, and your average newspaper reader won’t remember her name or face from one story to the next. But it all starts to fall into place when you realise she is a Daily Mail writer; what we call in the trade a stooge (which concept funnily enough is frowned upon by most magicians).

The lesson for us as magicians is the automatic response of readers. In the comments section of the latest instalment of her virtual-reality soap, people are saying things such as (quote) ‘Simple solution tell her to do one and not let her back in see how smug she is then [sic]’ etc. (The Sun, comments). People are triggered, which is the colloquial way of saying their conditioning has been activated, in this case by what seems to be real but isn’t; like when you set a fire alarm off with the toaster.

If you know who or what she really is you can’t help but laugh at the whole thing. There are even stock images of her available. People laugh at magic, and rightly so, because having one’s cognitive matrix played around with is a funny experience. But there is also pleasure in knowing how it’s done; sometimes even a sort of Bond-villain type pleasure. Some call this ‘duping delight’, which is maybe what the Shona Sibarys of this world get out of it other than a nice little earner on the side.

‘The sensory-perceptual awareness of an adult does not consist of mere sense data (as it did in his infancy), but of automatized integrations that combine sense data with a vast context of conceptual knowledge.’ – Ayn Rand

Smart dithering

One of the most effective and devious forms of neo-cheating is the feigned-incompetence concept, aka ‘accidentally on purpose’. Who in everyday life is more innocent-looking than the blundering buffoon? In magic, when the spectator believes you have made a mistake, changed your mind or forgotten to do something, their guard will be down. A student of Armando Lucero told me his methodology ‘is almost all fidgets’.

Forgiving or overlooking mistakes is almost hardwired into us. When I hit Joan Collins on the side of her head with a plate many years ago during my employment as an event extra, true Brit that she was she immediately said sorry. This is why method acting (covert acting, not theatrical ‘playing a magician’ acting) is of such importance in magic. Just one example will have to suffice here: Frank Garcia’s ‘Oops’ con—- (Super Subtle Card Miracles). If you’re not sure how to do it, just study yourself in everyday life and see how you react when you make a genuine mistake. Mentally file this away and then imitate it when performing.

Statistical bunching

One of the classic tools of deception in the outer world is the stock library photo. Who could forget the ‘45 minutes from attack’ (or ‘doom’ depending on newspaper) headline accompanied by carefully selected library photos of scud missiles? Another classic was the ‘guilty-looking Princess Di looking over her shoulder before speeding away’ car shot – in reality she was simply reaching for her seatbelt. Popular at the moment are photos of crowded parks taken vertically down pathways with a telephoto lens; everybody looks like they’re crammed together. Plus the recycled Getty images of last-year’s empty supermarket shelves…

Of course taking photos from the side without a lens leaves you with poorly composed shots of stray people dotted here and there (the prosaic reality); which is why you can’t prove it any more than you can prove someone was riffle-stacking or edge-sorting high cards. None of this should be viewed as cynicism, incidentally. Cynicism is only a stage in understanding. First you believe everything; then you believe nothing; then you develop a sense of when to believe and when not to, neither gullible nor cynical. The aim is to understand how bias operates so as to have even a small chance of spotting it both internally and externally.

Three-sided die

Very often in life, a part is mistaken for the whole and even the part itself is misrepresented. Have you ever seen a three-sided die? Think about that carefully before answering. The question of course should be, have you ever seen a six-sided one, because we can never see more than three sides at any one time. The closest we get is putting the die next to a mirror and using peripheral vision (and even that is an illusion as we are counting one of the sides twice).

Some gamblers have taken advantage of this through what is called a mis-spotted die: one with the same three numbers repeated twice on its six sides. Regardless of who was right or wrong, Lord Sumption stated it clearly in an argument with Piers Morgan recently: ‘What you’re doing is taking part of my words and throwing them back as if they were the whole’ (Express).

The illusion of free choice can resemble this in that we have made up our minds already in many instances, sometimes without even realising it, regardless of the number of seeming options available. Think about how you make choices when going for a coffee or into a supermarket. Some forms of the Classic F—– (eg, Marlo’s ‘Cincinnati’ variant from Card Finesse) involve this factor: the card seen projecting before the choice seems obvious to us, but for the spectator it becomes their unwitting target. Heba Haba Al’s version of the Classic F—- also relied on this.

‘[A] large body of published research has shown that our “higher order” cognitive processes such as beliefs, desires, and motivations can exert significant top-down influences on basic perceptual processes, altering our basic visual perception.’ – Alexandra Michel

Parallel universe

Many people will have had the experience of flying back to the UK (insert own country) after an absorbing or relaxing trip and, as you read your free Telegraph on the plane, you feel as if an enormous newsreel, an alternative reality even, has been playing out non-stop while you were away, churning out the same old same-old, and it somehow all seems unreal and that none of it matters. Maybe on some level it doesn’t. Paradoxically, as you walk into Boots and buy a £1 egg sandwich for breakfast, it all feels reassuringly normal, and it’s the holiday and the glowing suntan that suddenly become the fantastic, the unreal experience. Which one is it? Did the Necker cube just flip again?

The real reason people meditate on mountaintops, instigated centuries before international flights became possible, is not to get away from it all or abandon life, but to clear the mind so as to return to the world and experience it more vividly. Nowadays a good holiday does the same. Even a magic trick gives people a miniature holiday from everyday life and is a form of therapy even.

The bad, the good and the excellent

This is why we must take on board the importance of presentation and interaction when performing, as it is these elements which provide us with mental and visual misdirection which play a vital role in creating the ‘mental holiday’. What exactly are these? They are the smokescreen, the patter, the distraction, elements the purist sleight-of-hand exponent often doesn’t appreciate. It is never enough to assume that the mechanical method by itself is enough to create deception, no matter how well executed.

When I was small my mother had a piano book for beginners. On the first page was a cartoon of a bow-tied pianist sitting at the piano in three different poses: in the first he was hunched forward over the keys with the phrase ‘Bad pianist’ next to it. The next drawing had the figure sitting upright at the keys – this was a good pianist. The third drawing had the pianist leaning back, away from the keys, shoulders splayed, in an overtly grandiose manner – this was a great pianist!

Of course this was a caricature, but in magic we have real-life equivalents:

  • Bad magician: uses lots of misdirection to cover poorly executed sleights.
  • Good magician: uses well-executed sleights and occasional misdirection according to the dictates of the learned routine.
  • Great magician: uses perfectly-executed sleights and organic misdirection according to the dictates of both the routine and actual circumstances.

Six of one

There has long been a controversy between two types of magician: the ‘I work for a living’ pro who very often (but certainly not always) uses lots of misdirection and personality, but minimal skill; and the armchair sleightster who (very often) doesn’t know how to perform. They both scorn one other, but both are guilty of focusing only on the other’s shortcomings while believing their own strengths are sufficient.

The spanner in the works for amateurs is the annoying fact that the pros are often right. While it can never be right to justify sloppy technique per se, nonetheless when you perform professionally, the performing environment is often such that people are not scrutinising in the way they do watching an amateur at the kitchen table. The amateur can get their own back by saying ‘You perform the same tricks over and over for drunk people in dark places’, which is often true; and which is why both parties are ultimately right – and wrong.

Thankfully there are plenty of pros who are highly skilled, and plenty of amateurs who can entertain a room full of strangers. Unsurprisingly, these types of magician have nothing but mutual respect for one another and don’t see much difference between themselves.

‘Whenever you point a finger at somebody, three of your fingers are pointing at you.’ – Jon Racherbaumer (quoting a Chinese proverb)

No one looking?

There is an apocryphal story about Larry Jennings, that he once executed a T– Ch—- in front of a layman who he realised was not looking at his hands. So he switched the card back again, waited until they were looking, then did the switch again (invisibly, of course).

Unlike a pianist or painter whose skills, if not always wholly appreciated, are at least manifest to a great extent, in magic we suffer from ‘saint syndrome’ in that our spectators will never actually know how good we are. We are like the solitary dervish in an oasis, spending hours inscribing an intricate design into the damp sand, making a short prayer of dedication, and then smoothing the whole design over, never to be seen by another human eye.

19 – 1 = 20

I first saw this conundrum in a kids’ book of tricks and jokes (Peter Eldin’s The Trickster’s Handbook) when I was at school. It’s a good example of how looking at things differently rather than through intellectual computation can provide a solution. The solution has nothing to do with maths and everything to do with cognitive psychology.

Good luck finding the answer…

One thought on “Wake Up and Smell the Gravy

  1. NEWSFLASH: The Sun, 31 Jan / 01 Feb 2021, ‘PARKING MAD: Fake car park attendant at Bristol Zoo “swindled visitors out of money for TWENTY YEARS”.’ ‘At the time, Bristol Zoo believed the man was working for the council, while the local authority believed he worked for the zoo.’ Someone used to run the same scam outside bars in Islington. A man approaches a group saying ‘How many of you are there… okay I can give you a good deal: entry for the lot of you for fifteen quid.’ You all pay up, enter the bar, and think nothing more of it. But he had nothing to do with the bar. Once again it’s the power of people in white coats, high-vis jackets or, in this case, bouncers’ trench-coats. People with clipboards come a close second.

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