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  • Nicholas J. Johnson

How to fool a magician with reality

Have you ever wondered what it must be like to be a magician watching a magic show?

After all, we know all the secrets!

Do we still get fooled? Or is it impossible to bamboozle us once we know how the deceptive sausage is made?

(Don't ask a magician, we'll never admit it)

A recent study by researchers at the University of Cambridge has attempted to explore the difference between magicians' perception of magic and the general public's

In the experiment, researchers performed a simple action for the subjects: passing a coin from one hand to the other.

However, they also performed an almost identical piece of sleight of hand called a false transfer where the coin only appeared to be moving from one hand to the other.

The subjects were then asked to determine the position of the coin.

Unsurprisingly, the experienced magicians were much more likely to see through the sleight of hand than the laypeople.

However, the magicians DID have difficulty identifying the coin's position when the coin really WAS transferred, often accusing the researchers of trickery when non happened.

The laypeople were twice as likely to be fooled by the deception while the magicians were twice as likely to be fooled by reality.


The researchers hypothesise that magicians are primed to associate ambiguous actions with deception while laypeople are not.

If trickery could have happened, we assume it did, particular when the real transfer aped the movements of the false transfer.

I've attended countless magician's conventions (yes, they're a real thing) where magicians have tricked their peers by pretending to do a clunky piece of sleight of hand only to reveal they weren't!

I saw magician's magician Michael Ammar levitating a $20 note two decades ago and I was certain that the bill was dangling from a piece of invisible thread attached to his fingers.

My mind was blown when he moved his hands away and the note continued to float. I assume trickery and was wrong! (at least, wrong about the type of trickery he used).

You can see him performing the trick on The Late Show with Johnny Carson. At 3:45, Johnny Carson, a talented magician himself, does a literal double-take when Ammar moves his finger away.

I wonder whether there is a link between this phenomenon and the type of sceptical thinking that turns us into cynics. Do we often confuse questioning our assumptions with doubting everything?

In a desire to avoid being seen as a sucker, are we too quick to assume that every email is a scam, that every unbelievable video is a fake, and every incredible story is a hoax?

Are we so primed to expect others to fool us that we end up fooling ourselves?


Garcia-Pelegrin, E., Wilkins, C. & Clayton, N.S. Investigating expert performance when observing magic effects. Sci Rep 12, 5141 (2022).


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