Abracadabra: Magicians make things that don’t exist disappear

A study at Oxford University has tested tested whether magicians can convince people that they've seen an object disappear - when it never actually existed in the first place(Credit: Matthew Tompkins)

Keep your eye on the ball – a flourish of hands and it's gone. Sleight of hand magic can look impressive, but we usually know there are some deceptive tactics at play. Psychologists have had quite an interest in how magicians cause our minds to play tricks on our senses, and a new study has found that sometimes people can be tricked into believing an object has disappeared – even when it never actually existed in the first place.

"Much of sleight of hand magic is about misdirecting people about the location of an object, and there is a growing body of psychological research about how magicians cause our minds to override the input of our senses," explains Matthew Tompkins, the Oxford researcher leading the study. "We wanted to go further and see whether magicians' misdirection techniques could be used to induce the misperception of 'phantom' objects – could a magician make us 'see' something that was never there."

To test this, 420 volunteers were split into five groups, then were shown a series of videos featuring a magician performing tricks with certain objects. Each group saw five videos: the first four focused on one object – a coin, a ball, a poker chip, a handkerchief or a crayon – which differed between each group. After each video, the participants were quizzed on what they'd just watched and asked to rate how surprising, impossible and magical it had seemed.

After four videos showing magic tricks (with one video featuring nothing out of the ordinary to make sure the participants did not see a magic trick simply because they expected one), all groups were shown the same fifth video which depicted a "Phantom Vanish." This saw the magician simply mime making an object disappear. At no point in that last video was any object actually shown, yet afterwards, 32 percent of the subjects reported that they had seen something vanish.

Out of context, it's pretty clear that no object is present, but 11 percent of the participants were confident enough to actually name the non-existent object. This group gave this "trick" the highest rating, while those who were convinced they saw something, but didn't name it, still gave fairly high scores. The group who saw right through the ruse gave the video low scores in surprise, impossibility and magic.

"We think what may be happening is that people are effectively confusing their expectations with a true sensory experience," says Tompkins. "They expect to see another video with a crayon or a coin, for example, and this expectation is so vivid that it can actually be mistaken for a real object."

As interesting as they are, the results of the study have wider applications outside of parlor tricks.

"The science of magic is a fascinating area, and there are important practical applications. For example, our work builds upon previous studies that have shown how eyewitness testimony can vary from the facts. In understanding how people can be fooled, we can gain better understanding of how our minds construct our conscious experiences."

The research was published in the journal, Frontiers in Psychology. The rest of the tricks can be seen below.

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