Why You Are Fooled by Magic Tricks.

Having performed magic professionally and also having worked in the problem-solving unit for the Metropolitan Police in London, I feel I’ve learnt a few tricks (pardon the absolutely awful pun) about the way most people’s brains are wired.

I think it’s very interesting to explore how people get fooled by something as simple as a card trick because you can then extrapolate this knowledge and ask yourself if you are being fooled by the people you know, the media, the government or even by your own mind.

It would be logical to assume that the less attentive and intelligent a person is, the easier they are to fool but, as we shall see later, this is not the case! The spectators who have their eyes constantly fixed on the cards are often the easiest ones to fool because they are spending so much mental energy trying to see any manipulations that they can be led astray by words alone.

Whenever I explain to someone how a card trick works, they are always surprised by how simple the actual manipulation or trick is. The complex part is managing the audiences’ attention and making sure they are alert or relaxed at the exact moments when you want them to be. Often, if the trick is crafted very well, this will be very natural and require very little assistance from the magician— the audience fool themselves!


If I sit down across a table to a spectator and there is a deck of cards on the table, I already have the advantage. I know that the spectator will have made several assumptions even before I have spoken!

  • They will assume that the colour of the back of the top card of the deck is the colour of the backs of all the cards. So they see a “red” deck when it could easily be a blue deck with a red card on top
  • They assume that there are 52 cards.
  • They assume that all the cards are different
  • They assume that the table does not have any special mechanisms.
  • They assume that the deck of cards is a deck of cards! This might seem quite a strange one but the deck of cards could quite easily be a block of wood or an empty plastic shell.
  • They assume that the deck is shuffled and not in a special order — I’ve previously exploited this by having a special memorized order where I know the position of every card in the deck.

There are far more assumptions that I haven’t listed but it’s not meant to be an exhaustive list. These assumptions may or may not be conscious but they are all there.

A magician can, by exploiting these assumptions, have “done” the trick before the performance and so all that is left to do is act the part. This goes a long way towards explaining why some tricks truly seem impossible, and that’s because you only witnessed part of it!

Let me give you a quick example:

The magician and the  spectator sit at a table opposite each other. There is a deck of cards in its box on the table. The magician takes the cards out, shows that they are all different, and gives them a quick shuffle and then sets them down on the table in a neat pile. The spectator cuts the deck at any point he wishes, looks at the card he has cut to and then puts the cards back. Without touching the cards, the magician closes his eyes and places his fingertips on his temples. After roughly 15 seconds he opens his eyes and names the spectator’s card.

On first reading this trick may seem truly impossible. Taking for granted that there are no mirrors or accomplices,  the spectator may come to the conclusion that he is sitting in front of  a psychic. In reality, there are dozens of ways this could be achieved and rely on erroneous assumptions by the spectator  and not psychic powers.

Lack of Knowledge.

This goes back to intelligent people getting fooled. It doesn’t matter how intelligent you are – if you lack specific subject knowledge you too can be fooled. If you know any information about your public then you can enhance any effects by focusing on their weaknesses.

On one hand, I would fool a group of scientists by leading them astray with my words and so leading them to erroneous assumptions.

On the other, a group of actors or professional speakers would merit a very different treatment: use (real or made up) mathematical principles to get them into unknown territory.

If the spectators are not aware that you have a deck of cards which is made up of only one card, an eight of hearts for example, then it’s their lack of knowledge that prevents them from understanding how the trick is accomplished. That is how Houdini got fooled.

Sometimes, all that is needed is to present one type of trick as another. This leads us nicely onto…


I will only go over this topic quickly because it’s such a huge topic that I can’t hope to give it justice here. Misdirection is a bit of a misnomer. I prefer the term attention direction. Misdirection makes it seem as if the magician (or government agency) just needs to distract the audience at one or two key points and that’s it. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s about managing the attention of the audience.

Just as in a movie or a play, planning is required. The magician needs to manage the curve of tension and relaxation so that the secrets of the trick are in the shadows of relaxation and the result occurs at the moment of highest tension. Over the centuries the techniques for misdirection have become so refined that it’s practically become an art form it itself. Magicians go to Machiavellian lengths to divert your attention from the reality of the situation. Social cues also help. For instance, if I ask a question almost everybody will look at me in the eye as this is the norm in our society, which leaves the hands free.


Although I’ve presented this topic in three separate parts they are actually completely connected and symbiotic.  For example, you can use Misdirection to  keep the audience from acquiring certain knowledge (i.e. seeing a sleight-of-hand technique) which then leads them onto false assumptions.

So next time you get fooled, don’t feel bad, remember that even Einstein got fooled!

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