Teller, quiet half of Penn & Teller, explaining how magicians have mastered the art of deception and manipulation over thousands of years.
If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely. This is one of the darkest of all psychological secrets. I’ll explain it by incorporating it (and the other six secrets you’ve just learned) into a card trick worthy of the most annoying uncle.
THE EFFECT I cut a deck of cards a couple of times, and you glimpse flashes of several different cards. I turn the cards facedown and invite you to choose one, memorize it and return it. Now I ask you to name your card. You say (for example), “The queen of hearts.” I take the deck in my mouth, bite down and groan and wiggle to suggest that your card is going down my throat, through my intestines, into my bloodstream and finally into my right foot. I lift that foot and invite you to pull off my shoe and look inside. You find the queen of hearts. You’re amazed. If you happen to pick up the deck later, you’ll find it’s missing the queen of hearts.
THE SECRET(S) First, the preparation: I slip a queen of hearts in my right shoe, an ace of spades in my left and a three of clubs in my wallet. Then I manufacture an entire deck out of duplicates of those three cards. That takes 18 decks, which is costly and tedious (No. 2—More trouble than it’s worth).
When I cut the cards, I let you glimpse a few different faces. You conclude the deck contains 52 different cards (No. 1—Pattern recognition). You think you’ve made a choice, just as when you choose between two candidates preselected by entrenched political parties (No. 7—Choice is not freedom).
Now I wiggle the card to my shoe (No. 3—If you’re laughing…). When I lift whichever foot has your card, or invite you to take my wallet from my back pocket, I turn away (No. 4—Outside the frame) and swap the deck for a normal one from which I’d removed all three possible selections (No. 5—Combine two tricks). Then I set the deck down to tempt you to examine it later and notice your card missing (No. 6—The lie you tell yourself).
Magic is an art, as capable of beauty as music, painting or poetry. But the core of every trick is a cold, cognitive experiment in perception: Does the trick fool the audience? A magician’s data sample spans centuries, and his experiments have been replicated often enough to constitute near-certainty. Neuroscientists—well intentioned as they are—are gathering soil samples from the foot of a mountain that magicians have mapped and mined for centuries. MRI machines are awesome, but if you want to learn the psychology of magic, you’re better off with Cub Scouts and hard candy.