When magic tricks work, it’s because they build us up to expect certain things, and then violate those expectations in spectacular ways. That’s why they’re such a useful lens for better understanding human perception. A recently published article in Frontiers in Psychology about a non-trick “trick” — hang in there — provides a really interesting example.
As Christopher Ingraham explains in the Washington Post, researchers Matthew Tompkins and Andy Woods, both of the University of Oxford, and Anne Aimola Davies, of the Australian National University, had participants watch a series of videos in which Tompkins, who as Ingraham notes has been a “semiprofessional magician since age 14,” performed some simple magic tricks, and some others where he did non-magical stuff (to keep the participants on their toes).
In the final video, Tompkins … doesn’t actually actually do anything at all: He makes a motion as though he is about to disappear something, but at no point is an object even visible in his hand. There’s clearly no trick going on.
The respondents were asked to write a description of what had happened in each video, as well as to rate how surprising, impossible, and magical they found each trick. Despite the fact that in the above video Tompkins didn’t actually disappear anything, since the study’s participants had been primed by the previous videos to expect to see a magic trick, a third of them reported that they had.
Ingraham explains what this means:
Of course, a 32 percent success rate isn’t exactly a grand slam when it comes to magic tricks. No performer wants to do a routine that two-thirds of the audience aren’t going to fall for. “You wouldn’t design a trick like that for a magic show,” Tompkins said in an interview.
Still, the success rate is strikingly high considering that the videos were silent, meaning Tompkins wasn’t able to talk, distract viewers, or otherwise plant ideas about the trick in their minds. And the questionnaires viewers filled out didn’t contain any leading information that could have prompted people to “remember” phenomena they didn’t actually see.
In other words: Priming people’s expectations can be a really, really powerful way to affect how they perceive the world. Just ask a magician.