• Adina Samuels

Prestidigitation and Thinking and Reasoning

Published in the University of Toronto's undergraduate psychology journal, 2018.


Prestidigitation, the act of performing magic tricks for entertainment, as a domain through which to study the cognitive processes involved in thinking and reasoning is analyzed. The prestidigitator is aware of the mind’s limitations and exploits them. The prestidigitator’s manipulation of the perceptual and attentional faculties is explored, focusing primarily on the use of misdirection. The illusions created are related back to Gestalt theories of thinking and reasoning. The commonalities between insight problem solving and attempting to solve a prestidigitator’s tricks are discussed. Examples of studies are looked at to further

the understanding of the benefit of studying prestidigitation and its effects on thinking and reasoning. The conclusion asserts the unique value to studying thinking and reasoning through prestidigitation.

Keywords: prestidigitation, misdirection, illusions, verbal cues, non-verbal cues, Gestalt theory, automaticity of processing, insight, impasse, constraint relaxation, breaking frame, confidence rating, feeling of warmth, intuition


The True Magic and Mechanics of Prestidigitation

Prestidigitation, the act of performing magic tricks to entertain a crowd, has delighted audiences through the ages. With the snap of a finger or the turn of a hat, a prestidigitator, more commonly known as a magician, can create an illusory environment of fanciful magic. It can be puzzling how a seemingly simple card trick can leave an audience dazed and stumped. Many magicians chalk it up to their sleight of hand, their patter, and the audience’s willingness to enjoy the show. Upon closer inspection however, it can be seen that prestidigitators rely heavily on psychological phenomena to be able to carry out their tricks and create the effect of “magic.” Due to this, prestidigitation is an ideal domain through which to study psychological thinking and reasoning, precisely because its main purpose is to fool the audience and manipulate their faculties for thinking and reasoning. To know how to do this, the prestidigitator must have a superior understanding of how people think - it is by misguiding our attempts to think and reason that magicians succeed in creating believable illusions. Its uniqueness in this respect provides psychologists with a natural domain to study the abilities and limitations of the human mind. The renowned psychologist Alfred Binet claimed that ‘“All prestidigitation ... rests on psychology,’ and stated, during a performance, that ‘It is not our senses that trick us, it is our mind’” (Thomas, Didieriean, Nicolas, 2016). This essay will delve into the mind’s processes to determine why we fall prey to the illusions of prestidigitation and will identify the particular advantage of studying thinking and reasoning, specifically with regards to insight problem solving, under the unique spell cast by the magic wand.

History of Prestidigitation

Prestidigitation is an ancient form of entertainment, with the oldest trick dating back to Ancient Egypt in 2700 BC. Magicians were able to fool audiences into believing their magical abilities, allowing them to have total power and control over situations (“The History of Magic and the Mind,” 2010). However, upon analyzing their illusions, it becomes evident that it is not “magic” but rather a fine manipulation of the audience’s perceptions that allows magicians to appear in control. Their tricks manage to control attention and alter perceptions, thereby influencing their audience’s attentional focus, perception, and memory (Kuhn, Amlani, & Rensink, 2008). These faculties, all crucial to one’s thought processes, create a dissonance between what the audience sees and what the audience believes. This is the true magic of prestidigitation.

In the late nineteenth century, French psychologist Alfred Binet set out to uncover the secrets of magic by observing some of the greatest magicians of the time and filming their performance in a laboratory setting. He determined some of the psychological mechanisms the prestidigitators used to fool their audience (Thomas et al., 2016). He focused on a phenomenon known as misdirection, for which there are numerous conditions at play when a magician takes the stage, including the audience’s expectations and anticipation, optical cues and illusions, the magician’s patter, and nonverbal suggestions (Thomas et al., 2016). In this regard, magic can be seen as a unique domain through which to study the mechanics of the mind since its natural setting entails the workings of various psychological processes. Binet discovered that, in using misdirection, prestidigitators ensure the audience does not see the method of the trick, but still experience the effect (Thomas et al., 2016).

Physical and Psychological Misdirection

Physical misdirection involves attentional capture, causing the spectators to pay attention to an area of high interest, while the method is occurring in a low interest area. The spectators, for example, will look where the magician is looking, while the magician is carrying out his method in a different area of interest. Another way of doing this is by shifting attention to an irrelevant task (Kuhn et al., 2008). Audience members use a magician’s visual focus as a cue, visually attending to what they perceive the magician to be attending to. By following the magician’s eyes, and looking where he looks, the audience develops expectations regarding the source of the magic. The audience’s visual focus plays a crucial role in the magician’s performance. For instance, if the magician looks at his hand while performing a motion, the audience’s attention will be on his hand as well (Thomas et al., 2016). Psychological misdirection, on the other hand, involves manipulating the spectators’ expectations. The magician seeks to reduce suspicions of deception, consequently allowing deceptive actions to go unnoticed. Some magicians reduce suspicion by keeping the audience in suspense. In doing so, they cannot know when to pay attention to important parts of the routine, and will most likely miss them. Another example of psychological misdirection is the false solution. By allowing the spectator believe he has figured out the solution, and then proving him wrong, the likelihood of the spectator’s ability to then go back and reevaluate the act will be low. This relates to the Einstellungs effect in psychology, the Gestalt theory describing our inability to consider alternatives once we have an idea in mind (Kuhn et al., 2008). These tricks of misdirection are similar to inattentional blindness, another phenomenon described by psychology, where we fail to see an object that is in plain sight due to a lack of focused attention. The magician knows exactly what his audience is looking for and what they are thinking, and so uses this knowledge to act against their expectations. In addition to these forms of misdirection, cognitive and optical illusions are also employed to further exploit the audience’s beliefs.

Cognitive and Optical Illusions

Cognitive illusions leading to unconscious inferences are employed in order to effectively entrap the audience into believing what they see. These actions rely heavily on the magician’s sleight of hand, where the magician must know what the limits are to his audience’s ability to be deceived by the illusion. For example, the ‘vanishing coin illusion’ is when the magician appears to transfer a coin between hands, but, in reality, the coin remains where it was. The audience is fooled by the clever concealment of the coin in the hand, making them believe that they saw the coin change hands when in actuality, it never does (Kuhn et al., 2008).

Magicians employ optical illusions by using the perspective of objects and mirror effects to misconstrue the actual size and nature of the objects. These tricks date back to psychological Gestalt theories of continuity in thinking and reasoning, which rely on, and describe, the human tendency to see partial objects and turn them into completion. In fact, this tendency to complete partial objects encompasses many of the psychological phenomena of thinking and reasoning. The Gestalt theory of good continuation explains much of the psychology behind the tricking of the audience in prestidigitation (Barnhart, 2010). Good continuation refers to the principle that humans perceive objects as singular and uninterrupted. Humans have a tendency to group together and organize lines and other shapes that seem to be going in the same direction. If an object goes in an opposing direction, it is perceived to be different. This, in turn, relates to other Gestalt principles such as the Law of Good Gestalt, where objects that present as part of a pattern have a tendency to be grouped together, and Closure, which describes our tendency to complete an incomplete object by filling in what is missing (“The Gestalt Laws”). The prestidigitator relies on our automatic inclination to fall back on heuristics to fill in the blanks, thereby creating a situation in which the audience makes themselves believe they see the whole picture. It is in the missing spaces that the magician exploits our tendencies and creates ‘magic’. This suggests that a magician must understand the way humans perceive and think in order to deceive them, making magic an optimal domain to study the human mind’s attempt at thinking and reasoning as it encounters deception during a performance. Indeed, the points at which a system breaks down allows us to understand the mechanics of a system and see the mechanisms and processes that are at work.


Another key insight Binet discovered was the importance of a magician’s patter. Patter is the magician’s discourse, including instructions he gives to the audience. By explicitly telling the audience to pay attention to a certain object, he is, in effect, misdirecting their attention from the place in which he conducts the method. This top-down control manipulates the audience’s attention. Binet himself explains that:

There exists another artifice that makes the effect

of a trick ten times stronger, it is patter, a

pleasant little speech through which the spectator's

mind is oriented in the direction most

favorable to the illusion (Thomas et al., 2016).

Evidently, patter is crucial in the further misdirecting of the audience, and since it is an integral part of a magician’s performance, prestidigitation is an ideal platform to explore the relationship between verbal cues of the performer (or researcher) and cognition of the spectator (or participant).

Prestidigitation and Insight Problem Solving

It is important to note the many correlations between magic tricks and insight problems - problems involving the shifting of the mind’s mechanisms in a novel way to reach the solution. This relationship is not surprising, since the faculties being exploited by magicians are all heavily involved in thinking and reasoning, and by extension, insight problem solving. Magic tricks were chosen as a platform through which to study insight problem solving because, similar to insight problems, they activate self-imposed constraints (highly automatized, difficult-to-overcome, implicit assumptions the spectator has which are exploited by the magician in his most natural setting: the stage). As a result of these presuppositions, the spectator’s search space becomes constrained in their understanding of what has to be possible in observing a trick. Observing magic tricks often leads to an impasse, which occurs in insight problem solving as well, when one enters a situation in which there is no believed progress to be made. To surpass this impasse, the spectator must relax their constraints to achieve insight. Furthermore, watching a magician seemingly defy rational laws is a motivating factor for the spectator to attempt to figure out the trick, leading to a critical analysis of the performance. Magic tricks are a good way to study insight because while they can be solved by insight, at the same time they do not have to be. There is no formula for solving magic tricks. Thus, by giving agency to the spectators and participants, the spectators can inform us of whether they used insight mechanisms in solving problems themselves. This does away with the need for creating a laboratory environment in which there are sets of previously identified insight versus non-insight problems (Hedne, Norman, Metcalfe, 2016).

In a series of experiments carried out by Danek et al. (2014), magic tricks were used as the problem-solving domain specifically because of their intrinsically deceptive nature. This study ran an experiment with 50 participants, all of whom were shown 34 video clips of magic tricks with the instructions of figuring out how the tricks were done. When a participant solved the trick, they would indicate whether the process of figuring it out involved insight or not. Their confidence ratings were also assessed for each solution they solved. In 41.1% of solutions, insight was used. Using magics tricks as a domain, when paired with insight findings, led to interesting results. The self-proclaimed insight solutions were found to be more likely to be correct, discovered earlier and with greater confidence ratings than the magic tricks solved without insight.

Furthermore, the same study carried out an additional experiment, honing in on the role of self-imposed constraints brought on by prior knowledge and assumptions of the individual. Twelve magic tricks were performed for 62 participants. The experimental group was given a verbal cue with relevant and useful information in order to solve the trick, while the control group was given no cue. The results indicated that the participants’ constraints were influenced by the verbal cues. This external help in relaxing the spectators’ constraints resulted in greater rates of solving the trick and facilitating the solution (Danek et al., 2014).

The results of this experiment further confirm the unique nature of insight problem solving, dating back to the long-standing debate between the Search-Inference theorists and the Gestalt approach. The Search-Inference theorists saw problem solving as an action, getting from Point A to Point B. The Gestalt approach believed thinking and reasoning to be more of a perceptual process into what insight is and how it manifests. As well, the findings present the importance of cues in constraint relaxation and have further implications for enhancing our ability to solve insight problems in such means (Danek et al., 2014).

A similar study was carried out in 2016 by Hedne et al., where participants were shown 15 second recordings of magic tricks and had to explicitly state whether or not they experienced insight in their attempts to solve them. The participants reported confidence and warmth ratings in their sense of how close they were to solving the problem. In line with Danek et al.’s (2014) study, solutions where participants proclaimed to be using insight had higher confidence ratings and accuracy than the non-insight problems. Warmth ratings, however, did not differ between insight and non-insight tricks. This study attempted to find correlations between intuition and insight, and so used feelings of warmth to do so. In a previous experiment on insight problems, Metcalfe and Wiebe (1987) found a gradual increase of warmth ratings before finding the solution to non-insight problems, but did not find this to be true for insight problems. This lines up with what was found in the self-proclaimed insight solutions of magic tricks. Notably, solution time was not shorter for magic tricks requiring insight mechanisms to be solved. The cause for this discrepancy could be due to differences in experimental design, since this study involved videos of 15 seconds, while Danek et al.’s (2014) study involved videos lasting up to 80 seconds. Shorter videos would give the participant less time to solve the problem. Interestingly, unlike Metcalfe and Wiebe’s (1987) original experiment, there was no difference between warmth ratings and success of solving for magic tricks using insight and non-insight tricks. Confidence ratings did differ after the solution was disclaimed, indicating that at a cognitive level, insight and non-insight problems are not equivalent (Hedne et al., 2016). These past findings demonstrate the importance of insight in the domain of prestidigitation.

It clearly seems that magic tricks are a valid domain to research the faculties engaged in thinking and reasoning. There is inherent value in studying thinking and reasoning brought about by prestidigitation. The prestidigitator’s ability to exploit and manipulate our reasoning faculties allows for the in-depth study of the underlying mechanisms at work in the moment of deception. In this moment, our systems have been exploited, providing the opportunity to study the mechanisms and limitations for this deception. The act of prestidigitation is a worthy area of study to better understand our cognitive mechanisms, precisely because of its uniqueness relative to other lines of study. We would be hard pressed to come across another domain with the fundamental purpose of deceiving its spectators. In conclusion, although magic may not exist, it is evident that there are special properties in the prestidigitator’s ability to manipulate human thinking and reasoning that have implications for the understanding of human cognition.


Barnhart, A. S. (2010). The Exploitation of Gestalt Principles by Magicians. Perception, 39(9), 1286-1289

Danek, A.H., Fraps, T., Muller, A. V., Grother, B., & Ollinger, M. (2014). Working Wonders? Investigating insight with magic tricks. Cognition, 130(2), 174-185

Gestalt Laws: Form, Continuation, & Common Fate. Retreived November 17, 2017, from https://explorable.com/gestalt-laws-form-continuation-common-fate

Hedne, M.R., Norman, E., & Metcalfe, J. (2016). Intuitive Feelings of Warmth and Confidence in Insight and Noninsight Problem Solving of Magic Tricks. Frontiers in Psychology.

Kuhn, G., Amlani, A. A., & Rensink, R. A. (2008). Towards a science of magic. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(9), 349-354.

Metcalfe, J., Wiebe, D. (1987). Intuition in insight and noninsight problem solving. Memory & Cognition

The history of magic and the mind. Retrieved November 17, 2017, from http://www.darrenbridger.net/articles/the-history-of-magic-and-the-mind/

Thomas, C., Didierjean, A., & Nicolas, S. (2016). Scientific study of magic: Binet’s pioneering approach based on observations and chronophotography. The American Journal of Psychology, 129(3), 313-326.

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