Magicians' deceit put to public poll

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Wellcome Trust funds research into psychology of magic.

Is this man telling the truth? Your vote could help psychologists understand what makes a successful liar.

Magicians are practised at pulling the wool over our eyes during shows. Now psychologist and Magic Circle member Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, UK, is trying to find out what makes them masters of deception.

Wiseman and colleague Peter Lamont of Edinburgh University travelled to the home of magic, Las Vegas. They tracked down 'mentalist' Max Maven, a performer renowned for his verbal skills and improvization. They shot two videos of Maven talking about his life, one in which he is honest, the other in which he lies.

You can vote on which video you think is truthful here. Wiseman will ask delegates attending this week's sciart Symposium and the Science on Stage and Screen Symposium in Liverpool, UK, to do the same. Last year Wiseman used a similar web-poll to find the 'funniest joke in the world'.

"I'll be really interested to see the results," says mind-reader Ian Rowland of London, UK. Rowland writes and lectures on the physical and verbal techniques mentalists, mind-readers and psychic entertainers use to manipulate and deceive.

Although the experiment is small, Wiseman hopes the results might help police, customs officers or financial negotiators to detect liars. He trains people to pick up clues in body language, speech and stammers that might reveal deceit.

Wiseman and Lamont's study is part of a year-long project exploring the relationship between magic and science, funded by a £10,000 Wellcome Trust grant. They also plan to use eye-tracking equipment to investigate how magicians control audience attention.

Psychology turns tricks

Wiseman and Lamont hope psychologists can also help conjurors. The pair has developed a new trick to be presented at this week's symposium.

“Any experienced magician could wipe the floor with a cognitive psychologist Ian Rowland , Mind reader”

The scam is based on the phenomenon that people are blind to obvious changes in their surroundings. At a doctor's surgery, for example, patients who have been filling in a form are often oblivious if the receptionist ducks down behind the desk to file it - and a different person pops back up.

In the new trick, a magician holds a pack of playing cards face down and turns them over one by one. The observer has to count the number of red suits that appear. After nine cards, they are asked 'what colour are the card backs?'

Blue, people invariably say - but turning them over reveals red. Only the first two cards had blue backs and the pack then blatantly switched to red, a fact that goes unobserved by those concentrating on the faces. Several magicians have already been fooled, claims Lamont - the ultimate test of a trick.

But Rowland maintains that magicians are several steps ahead of science - thanks to several thousand years worth of secret knowledge available only to members of the Magic Circle. "We probably knew the underlying principle for a long time before the psychologists," he says. "Any experienced magician could go head-to-head with a cognitive psychologist and wipe the floor with them."

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Pearson, H. Magicians' deceit put to public poll. Nature (2002) doi:10.1038/news020923-6

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