'Holiday Sampler' of Empirical Magic Research


2018 has been a particularly productive year in terms of the ‘science’ aspect of the Science of Magic.

To date, a dozen separate peer-reviewed empirical studies of magic have been published in 2018 (you can read a complete list of all empirical studies here).

SoMA’s Jay Olson has prepared a brief overview of some of the key recent publications:


False solutions

Magicians often suggest “false solutions” — incorrect ideas about the secret of a trick — to hide the real secret. Thomas, Didierjean, and Kuhn (2018) led participants to make an incorrect assumption about a false solution then tested how this affected their ability to guess the true secret. In their study, 120 participants watched a video of a card trick. The videos showed the Queen of Clubs on top of a deck which would magically end up in the magician’s back pocket. The true secret was simply that a duplicate Queen of Clubs already existed in his pocket. In the “no false solution” condition, the video-taped magician showed that his hand was empty before reaching into his pocket. Here, 88% of them guessed the true secret: there was a duplicate card. In the “false solution extinction” condition, the magician began pretending that the card was hidden in his hand, then showed his hand empty before reaching into his pocket. Participants thus believed, only for a moment, that the card was hidden in his hand. When asked to explain the trick, now only 60% (down from 88%) thought it was done with a duplicate card. These results demonstrate that leading participants towards a false solution — even for a moment — can make it less likely that they will guess the actual secret.

Paranormal interpretations

An early study by Benassi and colleagues (1980) showed that audiences will readily give occult explanations for magician’s performances, even when the magician is introduced as an amateur magician. Lesaffre, Kuhn, Abu-Akel, Rochat, and Mohr (2018) extended this study by examining various personality traits and changing how aspects of the performance affect audience’s interpretations. Surprisingly, whether the magician was introduced as a magician or psychic, there was no change in how much participants judged the performance to be conjuring versus paranormal. When the performance was more powerful and emotional, such as when appearing to talk to an audience member’s deceased family member, more people endorsed psychic explanations of the performance. These results suggest that a sufficiently powerful performance can nudge audiences to disregard the information received before it began.


Magicians often perform secret sleight-of-hand moves during off-beats. For example, a magician announcing to make a coin vanish “on the count of 3” will perform the secret move on the off-beat, such as between the count of “2” and “3”. Barnhart, Ehlert, Goldinger, and Mackey (2018) tested whether participants’ attention on or off beats of a rhythm. Participants heard a consistent series of tones while searching a computer monitor for a faint stimulus (a square) among random noise (like TV static). The stimulus either appeared on the beat — during the tone — or off the beat. Participants were slower and less accurate to detect the stimulus when it was presented during the off-beat. These results support magicians’ beliefs that audiences can entrain to auditory stimuli (“1… 2… 3!”) which affects visual attention (watching a coin vanish).


Barnhart, A. S., Ehlert, M. J., Goldinger, S. D., & Mackey, A. D. (2018). Cross-modal attentional entrainment: Insights from magicians. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 1-10.

Benassi, V. A Singer, B., & Reynolds, C.B. 1980. Occult Belief: Seeing is believing, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 19, 337.

Lesaffre, L., Kuhn, G., Abu-Akel, A., Rochat, D., & Mohr, C. (2018). Magic performances-When explained in psychic terms by university students. Frontiers in Psychology9, 2129.

Thomas, C., Didierjean, A., & Kuhn, G. (2018). It is magic! How impossible solutions prevent the discovery of obvious ones? Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1747021817743439.

Matt Tompkins