Audience Misdirection in Magic Acts
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Published: Fri, 04 May 2018
For hundreds of years, magicians have performed acts which are perceived to be impossible, causing the viewer to question how the act was performed. The viewer would generally know that act performed by the magician will use some sort of trickery or illusion, but still viewers are usually unable to detect the change when it occurs, even when the trick is in full view of the audience.
Sometimes when a magician performs a magic trick, he uses misdirection to trick the audience. The magician would usually draw your attention elsewhere while the trick is being performed to stop the audience seeing how it is done (Kuhn, Amlani & Rensink, 2008).
Kuhn and Tatler (2005) recorded eye fixations of the audience as a magician was performing a magic trick developed especially to see the effect of misdirection on the audience. It was a relatively simple trick; lasting only 15 seconds, where the magician was to drop a lighter and cigarette into his lap without the audience seeing, causing the audience to think the items had magically disappeared.
First the magician removes the cigarette from the packet and deliberately puts it in his mouth the wrong way round. He then pretends to light the cigarette, which enhances the audience’s interest in the mouth/cigarette region. Both magician and the audience then realise the mistake, and the magician turns the cigarette around with his left hand while keeping his gaze fixed on his hand and cigarette.
During this time the magician drops the lighter into his lap, which is in his right hand. He then causes attention to go to the disappearance of the lighter by attempting to light the cigarette. When he is unable to light the cigarette, he looks to his right hand, snaps his fingers and waves his hand; pulling the audiences’ attention to his right hand. While the audience are looking at the disappearance of the lighter in the right hand, the magician drops the cigarette from a height of around 15cm. He then turns his gaze to his left hand, and opens it to show that the cigarette is also disappeared.
The magician uses gaze direction to disguise his actions while performing the trick (Tatler & Kuhn, 2007). Generally, people have an urge to follow the gaze of others, in particular when there is pointing or another similar gesture involved that pulls the viewers attention to a specific place. While dropping both the lighter and the cigarette from his hand, the magician’s gaze is focussed in the opposite hand to which the trick is being performed. This causes the audiences’ attention to also be focused on where the magician is looking, and makes them miss the lighter and cigarette being dropped. The dropping of the lighter was not very visible and could very easily be missed; however the dropping of the cigarette was done in full view of the audience, from about 15cm above the table top, but this action is also not usually detected, usually due to gaze misdirection. This shows that the magician successfully misdirected the audience’s overt and covert attention at the correct time during the trick, right when the disappearance occurs.
Surprisingly, when the audience were told that the magician was going to misdirect them while performing the trick, most people are still unable to stop themselves looking where the magician was looking and therefore miss detecting how the disappearance was performed. When in close interaction people tend to look at each other a lot – in an conversation setting, the average time people tend to look at each other is 75% of the time when listening, and 40% of the time when talking (Land & Tatler, 2009). As the audience are viewing the magic trick, their attention is focussed on the magician who is performing the trick, and so have an urge to follow his gaze in whichever direction he is looking. The sharing of attention is a strong social cue, whereby people appear to look in the direction they see others looking.
When an event or fully visible item is not noticed by the audience, it is often called intentional blindness (Kuhn & Tatler, 2010). By the magician drawing the attention of the audience to his hand by snapping and waving it, he creates an area of high visual interest, which the audience are preoccupied with by processing those actions of the magician. Because of this, they fail to notice the event occurring in the opposite hand, which is an area of low visual interest to the audience.
Kuhn and Tatler (2005) also considered visual factors which could cause the audience not to detect the change, such as blinking, and the distance of the fixations of the audience when the drop is taking place. However, these do not seem to influence whether the drop was detected or not by the audience. Blinking when the drop took place did not influence whether the audience detected the change or not. There was also not much difference in where the audience were looking and whether they detected the drop or not. When the magician dropped the cigarette, most viewers were looking at the magicians face, his right hand or the space in between. In the first trial only 2 people detected the drop and 18 participants did not detect the drop.
What is interesting though, when the participants were shown the magician performing the trick again, all participants detected the cigarette being dropped. In the second viewing, most of the audience still look at the same place they were looking before; around the right hand and the magicians face, but this time, they are able to detect the drop. Only three participants looked where the cigarette was at the time of the dropping. This shows that the magician was successfully manipulating the audiences covert attention as well as overt attention in the first trial, but in the second viewing he was less successful at manipulating the audiences covert attention; allowing the audience to see how the trick was performed in the second viewing.
There is also a difference in whether the disappearance of the cigarette and the lighter is detected by the audience depending on it being a live performance (when the trick is performed in front of the audience) or whether the audience watch the trick being performed on a screen. Kuhn, Tatler, Findlay and Cole (2008) found that the audience are more likely to detect the disappearance of the cigarette when watching the trick being performed on a screen, rather than in a live performance. This shows that the audience have a closer connection to the magician while performing the trick live, and are more susceptible to following the magician’s social cues and misdirection to stop them uncovering how the disappearance occurs. However, even when viewing the trick being performed on a screen, the audience still look in the same area, so they do follow the gaze of the magician. The study found no difference in the fixation of the audience and whether the disappearance was detected or not, but they did find a connection in the time taken to go from one fixation to the other. People who detected the disappearance are simply faster at moving their eyes to the left hand from which the cigarette disappeared.
It is interesting how the magician manages to avoid this detection of the trick, even though it is fully visible. He pulls the overt and covert attention of the audience away from where the trick is being conducted, simply by his gaze direction. Misdirection usually works as the magician creates an area of high visual interest were most of the audience look, and performs the disappearance in an area of low visual interest.
Eye direction plays an important part in misdirection. In another experiment by Kuhn and Land (2006), a magician performs a disappearing ball trick. The magician throws a ball in the air three times while keeping his gaze on the movement of the ball. As the ball goes in the air, his eye gaze also goes in that direction. On the third throw however, the ball seems to disappear while in the air.
There are two conditions in this trick; firstly the magicians gaze also goes up when the ball is thrown for the third time, and his gaze follows the movement which the ball is expected to take, and seems as though he is expecting the ball to come back down. In the second condition the magicians gaze is fixed on his hand for the third throw.
This experiment shows that misdirection using eye gaze provides a huge impact on the results. 68% of the participants believed that the ball had left the screen in the air when the magician was looking upward on the third throw, but only 32% believed that the ball had disappeared in the air when the magicians gaze was fixed on his hand. This result shows that social cuing and gaze direction plays an important role in misdirection in magic.
However, the eye movements of the participants showed that on the third throw, the area in which participants looked differed to where they looked for the first two throws. The eye fixations showed a pattern – eye movements went from the magician’s hand, to his face, to the air (where the ball would be) and then back down to his hand. This would be repeated again for the second throw, but for the third throw, when the ball disappeared, participants’ eye gaze was fixed around the area of the magicians face, or not far from his head. This fixation also occurred on those participants who were sure the ball had been thrown and had disappeared upwards. This shows that people perceived something had happened, even though they had not followed the gaze of the magician. This demonstrates that gaze direction matters and influences the audience to look where the magician looks.
In conclusion, a magician misdirects his audience mainly through gaze direction. He looks in the opposite hand to which the disappearance is occurring, causing the gaze of the audience miss discovering how the trick had been performed. People generally follow the gaze of others,; look where they see someone else looking, and so the magician uses this strong social cue to influence his audience to also look where he looks. He creates an area of high visual interest for the viewer, by waving and snapping his hand, and performs the trick in an area of low visual interest to the viewer. By doing this he successfully misdirects the audiences’ attention, and performs the trick without anyone discovering how the cigarette disappeared.
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