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Researcher finds method behind magic

May 24, 2012
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By Adam Ovenell-Carter

A magician will always have the upper hand because he knows how his trick works. But according to Jay Olson, the magician might not know why.

Olson, an avid magician and SFU Psychology teaching-assistant, has co-authored a study that investigates the mindset behind card magic. He says that while participants may think they have a free choice of any card, there are a number of patterns suggesting otherwise.

For example, the study found that when asked to name a playing card, most people chose only one of four: the ace, queen or king of hearts, or the ace of spades. Unexpectedly, women chose the king of hearts more often than men, and men chose the queen of hearts more often than women. The magician’s trick is to exploit these patterns.

The next step, according to Olson, is to apply the study findings to a broader field than just magic to see how the mind works. Understanding how magicians influence people could lead to a better understanding of memory, decision-making and awareness.

“We hope this study will promote more collaboration between psychologists and magicians,” says Olson. “This will help us learn more about magic from psychology, and more about psychology from magic.”

The full study is available online from the psychology journal Perception.

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