Home > Attention > Abracadabra! – The Connection between Magic Tricks and Attention

Abracadabra! – The Connection between Magic Tricks and Attention

Imagine that you go to a magic show.  You spend the $10 entry fee at the entrance of the theater.  You sit down among the throng of eager audience members waiting to see the dazzling, awe-inspiring tricks that will not just bend your mind’s perception, but also the very laws of nature.  Eventually, the magician takes the stage, and everybody including yourself suddenly becomes silent and still in anticipation.  Then, he starts to perform tricks ranging from pulling rabbits out of hats to hoops that magically can become bound and unbound together at the flick of the wrist.  Before you know it, the show is almost over, but the magician has prepared for the audience a grand finale involving two mysterious doors.  What happens next cannot be described with words as eloquently as this following clip:

Afterwards, the crowd including yourself becomes thunderous with applause over the impossible feat done before your eyes.  Though if you had known that the illusion had been done with the use of trapdoors and a double, then you wouldn’t be nearly as impressed, but rather you would feel cheated out of your money’s worth.  But every trick you had just seen had to have a logical reason behind it, because magic is done through science and not through paranormal means.  Along these lines, one of the tools in a magician’s arsenal involves the manipulation of the audience’s attention called misdirection.  Basically, misdirection is a technique utilized to direct the audience’s attention to an object or event that leads the audience to a misunderstanding of the mechanics behind the trick.  Misdirection can actually be explained in more psychologically terms, because of its connection to the three-network model of attention.


Therefore, before a more science-grounded definition can be given for misdirection.  The model is comprised of three, mostly independent networks labeled initially as selection, capacity, and alertness by Michael Posner in 1971, but as time has gone on its been modified into the trinity of alerting, orienting, and executive attention networks.  Alerting is the ability to maintain a high-level of mental readiness or in other words stay alert, while orienting is the capability to select which incoming information to be focused on whether or not one voluntary selects that information.  Lastly, executive attention is the process by which conflicts between two or more attentional cues resolve.  For example in the Stroop task as shown on the side, the participants had to state the physical color of words in a list.  As you can see, the second list takes longer to respond to, because the two attentional cues of reading the word and seeing the color result in two different responses depending on which cue you respond to.  The executive attention network deals with situation like these where conflict occurs.

So how does misdirection connect to this model of attention?  Misdirection takes advantage of the independence between the alerting and orienting networks as proposed in the research article entitled The Applied Cognitive Psychology of Attention: A Step Closer to Understanding Magic Tricks.  The hypothesis for the experiment illustrated in the article was that even if the one’s alerting network determines the timing of the critical event to a magic trick, they probably still wouldn’t understand how the trick was performed due to the magician being able to redirect the orienting network to something irrelevant to the trick (this is the influence of misdirection).  However the experimenters speculated that determining the timing led to a higher chance of figuring out the method to the trick.

As written in the article, the experimenters designed an online survey to test this hypothesis where the participants watched a video of a magic trick involving the disappearance of a pen, and filled out questions related to the trick.  The questions comprised mostly of three different types.  At the beginning and end of the survey, the participants had to provide their own explanation to the trick accompanied with a confidence score from 1-5 of how confident they were about their explanation.  The middle of the survey had a question where the participants guessed the timing of when the pen left the magician’s hands (the critical event), and others where the participants check-marked the objects or concepts utilized in the trick.

The results reflected the experimenters’ hypothesis in that only 11% of the participants who identified the correct timing of the critical event  could provide the correct explanation towards the trick, but the participants who could identify the right timing had a significantly increased  chance of stating the correct method behind the trick.  This result suggests how independent the alerting and orienting networks of attention  are, because even the participants who had a high enough level of alertness to detect when the pen disappears from the magician’s hands  cannot identify how due to the magician’s use of misdirection to reorient attention to another irrelevant object or event.

Also, the results showed the effect that confirmation bias could have had on the subjects’ answers.  Confirmation bias is essentially when  someone takes information that reinforces a preconceived notion, while ignoring any competing information, which results in an accidentally  bias towards that preconceived notion.  The experimenters demonstrated that those with a higher confidence score for their initial explanation were significantly less likely to revise their explanation at the end of the questionnaire.  Therefore, this significant result indicates that the questions in the middle portion of the survey were used to reinforce their original explanation (their preconceived notion) rather than provide insight into alternate solutions that could explain the trick.  This demonstrates that the audience could have an influence on the effectiveness of the magic trick.

In conclusion, magic serves typically as a means for entertainment, but it illustrates how our attention can be used against us.  As suggested by the researchers, this could lead to better ways to utilize deception in future research, which could also then lead to new insight into the workings of the mind.  Also, studies done on the flaws in our attention could, in the long-run, result in new technologies that would avoid altogether these attentional pitfalls.


For more scientific reading on the Stroop task, click here

For the research article that this blog post is based on, click here


Demacheva, I., Ladouceur, M., Steinberg, E., Pogossova, G., & Raz, A. (2012). The applied cognitive psychology of attention: A step closer to understanding magic tricks. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 26(4), 541-549. doi:10.1002/acp.2825

Raz, A., & Buhle, J. (2006). Typologies of attentional networks. Nature Reviews Neuroscience7(5), 367-379. doi:10.1038/nrn1903

Images/Clips are retrieved from:



https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTBjCrH4eBg (Although this is a link to a video, there is an image from this clip found through searching “disappearing pen trick” on Google images)


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  1. Zhichun Yu
    December 7th, 2015 at 23:45 | #1

    Really cool post connecting psychological concepts to magic tricks! Magicians are really people who apply all kinds of psychological concepts to trick people’s mind without their notice. What the audience has seen is what the magician wants them to see. The attention model introduced in this post breaks down attention as a three individual connecting sub-systems. We only talked about whether paying attention in class, but not whether paying attention to the right place. Independent alerting and orienting processes help explain situation, especially novel ones where people are paying full attention, but fail to notice particular things because they are not directing their attention to the proper target.
    Orienting process can be manipulated by others. In the video clip, the magician threw out the hat before he stepped into the door. The purpose of this was not only to create some dramatic effect when the double caught the hat, but also to orient audience’s attention to the flying hat, so that they could not notice how the magician went under the stage. Implications of manipulated orienting can be seen in many commercial advertisements. They use people’s automatic process of directing attention to salient event (in the case of the magic show: the flying hat), to highlight the features they want the audience to know and make other features unnoticeable.

  2. December 11th, 2015 at 17:48 | #2

    I find the relationship between magic tricks and the cognitive processes they trigger super interesting. Put simply, when observing someone doing a magic trick, we are trying to understand and make sense of something that simply doesn’t make sense. Our brains have an understanding of how the world works, and often the tricks involved in magic shows go directly against our brain’s logical thinking towards the nature and laws of the world we live in. In other words, we have the ability to distinguish between actions that are possible and impossible, as we have learned the laws of our world. This is a reason why I think children often believe that the cause behind such tricks are in fact magic, not illusion and deception; as children haven’t fully developed their understand of the rules and laws that exist around them.

    On top of this, you talked a lot about how misdirection often plays a part in magic tricks, and how in order to effectively pull a trick off the magician must direct people’s attention in a specific way that allows for important aspects of the trick to go unnoticed. The first thing that comes to mind when reading this, is the concept of in inattentional blindness. Keeping this in mind, in a magic show when people’s attention is misdirected, it causes them to be less aware of other things going on around them, especially if the source of the misdirection requires the audience’s complete and uninterrupted attention. By effectively drawing the audience’s attention onto a specific stimuli, other aspects of the trick can take place without being noticed, even if they are readily observable and obvious.

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