A Psychologist’s Guide to Why We Love Magic

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I’ve loved magic since I was a kid. I used to perform for my family after dinner and get applauded for tricks that worked and mercilessly joked for tricks that bombed. I have a family friend who, to this day, never greets me without asking how my Chinese linking rings are doing. (Answer: still not too good.) Whether I succeeded or bombed, I loved the rush of doing a magic trick. As I got a little older, magic didn’t play as well. For some reason, it wasn’t as big a hit among 16 and 17-year- olds (though I’m sure times have changed and high school sophomores love nothing more than a good magic trick these days). So I put the tricks away for more than a decade. After I got married, I was suddenly less concerned with being cool, which coincided nicely with a trip to Myrtle Beach where I happened upon BroadwayMagic, a great little shop that had some familiar old tricks and lots of new ones. It tickled that little part of my brain, and, like an alcoholic falling off the wagon after more than a decade of sobriety, I was back into collecting magic.

As a psychologist, I’ve been intrigued by why we like magic and how people invent magic. I spoke with Rick Lax, who makes his living inventing tricks and has the distinction of being America’s most-watched magician, amassing nearly a quarter of a billion views in half a year (Billion with a “B”). He consults with top magicians like David Copperfield and stumped Penn & Teller on their own show.

I asked him how he comes up with an idea for a trick. He says it happens two different ways. The first way is he thinks of something that seems impossible, then figures out a way to make it possible (“How could I accurately know the order of a shuffled deck of cards in a matter of seconds?”) The second way is that he has a clever way to make something extraordinary happen—a gimmick, a move, a design—and then he builds a routine around it. Either way, the results are spectacular.

Surely you have to be possessed of a certain kind of intelligence to do this, to create magic tricks that fool people, I asked him. No, he said. It’s a mindset, a way of seeing the world. It’s something that you develop over time by training your brain to look at life in a unique way. You walk around thinking, “How could I get a man to levitate when he is surrounded by people on every side?” You roll it around in your head; you stay up late talking about it with other magicians; you try out possibilities.

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Don’t be fooled, though. Rick Lax isn’t just pulling all-nighters with Bizarro. He’s a smart man, a lawyer by training, and author of three books. Along with magician Justin Flom, he also created the Syfy show, Wizard Wars, which drew more than a million viewers.  He joined MENSA after college, but only, he says, so he could write an exposé of the organization. When he says you don’t need a certain intelligence to invent magic, he may be fooling you.

Rick began his magic career in kindergarten when his parents bought him a magic set from Toys-R- Us. He stuck with it through grade school, but then shifted focus later. But fortunately, when he was in his late 20’s, he returned to his original passion and began creating and publishing magic tricks. (By the way, I’ve picked out five fun ones for you to pick up yourself. Some are digital downloads and you can begin practicing them within the hour.)

These days, Rick goes by a lot of titles—inventor, performer, consultant, renaissance man—but he spends much of his time offering his services as a “deception expert,” explaining to the media and corporations why people are easily scammed and how to avoid being fooled.  Because no one likes to be fooled. Right?

Which brings us to the question of why people enjoy magic. Most of us would say we don’t like to be fooled, but the majority of people also seem to really like a good magic trick. Magic is still as popular as ever. Certainly the fantasy and supernatural kind of magic, as seen in Harry Potter and The Magicians, continues to be popular, but also the traditional stage and performance magic, like the kind in Now You See Me 2 and frequently on American’s Got Talent, is a big part of the pop culture landscape.

So why do we like magic so much? Consider these three explanations:


1. DELIGHT

You know there’s hours of entertainment to be had playing Peek-a- Boo with an infant. That kid can’t get his head around how you can magically appear and disappear in front of him. Every single time, he squeals with delight. As we get older, we sort of figure out that if someone puts their hands over our eyes, they are not only being creepy, but also probably still there.  We have a harder time, though, understanding how a signed card could disappear out of a person’s hand and reappear in a glass case that had been in view the whole time. Our mouths open. We squeal. We clap. Maybe we drool. We might be a little older, but make no mistake, we’re still big babies at heart. We are wired to be in awe of things that cannot be logically explained.

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Why? Because our pea brains have evolved to make sense of the world. We begin, as Piaget said, as “little scientists.” For us, it’s not only a desire to make sense of the world; it’s an imperative. It’s how we survive and thrive. Ordinarily, when we can’t make sense of the world, it pushes us to generate an explanation, but when no such explanation seems possible (“How did that sword go through her neck without hurting her?”), it produces a little thrill in our brain. Our concept of how the world works has just been compromised. In a way, it’s a little dangerous—the world is no longer predictable and orderly—yet it’s completely safe.

Believe it or not, these are the same parts of the brain that respond to rollercoasters or scary movies. It’s an opportunity to be scared safely. Some magic tricks are scary, like sawing a person in half, dropping a guillotine on a person’s neck, or slamming your hand down on a paper bag that may have a giant nail underneath it, but not all tricks are even remotely scary. Still, it’s the same part of the brain that lights up. Why? Because even though we don’t see all magic tricks as overtly scary, we do see them as a threat to our conception of how the world works. People don’t levitate or read minds or teleport things. It’s not possible to pass one solid object through another solid object without leaving a mark. Motorcycles and the Statue of Liberty don’t just vanish. Yet all these things happen and there’s no way—it seems—to explain them.

The best word to use here is “delight,” because our caveman brains delight when something challenges the laws of nature and nobody gets hurt and the Earth keeps spinning on its axis. Nobody dies. The world doesn’t fly apart.


2. WONDER

About a decade ago, some nutty psychologists gave people a voodoo doll, the kind you stick pins in to torment some terrible person in your life. They were told the doll represented a student they had met a few minutes earlier, but for half of them, the student had been a real turd. The best touch: The jerky student wore a t-shirt that read, “Stupid People Shouldn’t Breed.” The participants were told to jab the pins into the voodoo doll when the student was in the room. A little while later, the student complained of a headache. The psychologists then asked the participants how much they felt like they had caused the headache. The more negative thoughts they had of the student, the more likely they thought they personally had been responsible for his migraine. Bear in mind, these were smart, educated people. They really believed sticking a voodoo doll with pins caused the guy’s torment. Whether for good or bad, we watch to believe that impossible things are true.

In the same way, there’s a part of us that wants to believe that magic is real. Again, this is rooted in our childhood where we comfortably talked to imaginary friends and gave ourselves magical abilities in our playtimes. It’s why we love Harry Potter. We know these things are fantasy, but if magic is real, then maybe all kinds of other cool things that we want to believe are real, too.

Recently I had a friend explain to me how the magician at his company event had learned special skills for reading people’s minds. He believed this because the magician had told him he had these skills. Simple as that. My friend, a smarty pants with a graduate degree, found it easier to believe the magician had super-human mind reading abilities than to believe he had been tricked. It’s not only more fun that way, but it keeps alive the sense of wonder we crave.

On good days, this sense of wonder makes us hope that Area 51 is chock-full of aliens and flying saucers. One bad days, it makes us think the Illuminati is in control of the world. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but I know it’s that same sense of wonder that draws us to magic. Maybe David Blaine really can levitate. Maybe Penn & Teller really can shoot guns at each other and catch the bullets in their teeth. Maybe David Copperfield really can teleport himself to Hawaii. Maybe Rick Lax really can memorize the order of a shuffled deck in an instant. Maybe. We’d certainly like to think so.


3. SUPERIORITY 

Humans have an uncanny knack for believing in their own superiority. In one study, 94% of professors rated themselves as “above average” compared to other faculty members. In another, 93% of U.S. drivers rated themselves as “above average.” A majority of Americans believe they are smarter than average. The list goes on…and on. In the biz, we call this “Illusory Superiority,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like.

This tendency to believe in our own superiority is another reason why magic is such a big hit. While there are some people who watch magic with wonder, there are plenty of others who get off on their perceived superiority to the magician. They can figure it out. They know how you do that. Or so they’d like to think.

Once I did some tricks for a few families and after each of the tricks, one of the kids would say, “I know how you did that.” After the third round of that, I handed him the coins and said, “Show me.” Of course, he had no idea, but until that point, he had convinced himself—and tried to convince the room—that he had really outwitted the bad amateur magician.

For a certain percentage of the audience, they are less driven by a sense of delight and wonder and more driven by a need for superiority. These folks are less fun for the magician, but it’s still a big reason why some people like magic. It’s another opportunity for them to compete, to be better than someone else.

Whatever the motive, magic is a little tickle to the brain and a jolt to the heart. It might stroke our ego if we figure it out, but more often than not, we want to believe it is real and experience the delight and wonder that comes with it.


5 Great Magic Tricks From Rick Lax

Rick Lax, the world’s most watched magician, has invented or enhanced some tricks that you can purchase yourself. Go to the links below and check out the videos for each trick.

  1. Mind to Matter – Featuring John Kennedy’s Mind Power Deck, this trick will make people believe you have really read their minds—with an impossible twist. Takes a little skill, but you can master it easily with practice.
  2. Binary Code – A reputation maker for Rick. He performed it for Penn & Teller on their show and stumped them. If you get this trick, you’ll convince people you have memorized the order of an entire deck in seconds. Takes some work, but it always impresses.
  3. Reverse Psychology – One of my favorites of his. You play a mind game with a spectator and you always predict exactly which card he’s going to pick ahead of time. Great trick!
  4. Quarterly Report – If you’re looking for an easy trick that leaves people scratching their heads, check this one out. A person places her hands behind her back and switches a coin between them. When she presents her closed hands to you, you always know which hand the coin is in.
  5. Past, Present, Future – I call it the “scream test.” It’s when I show my wife a trick and she screams. This is one of the only tricks that earns the honor. You ask a spectator to pick a card freely from a deck that represents his past, another one for his present, and a final one for his future. After he picks, you flip them over to reveal the words “Past,” “Present,” and “Future” on exactly the cards he picked. You’ll have to practice, but it’s a jaw dropper.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Dave, again, you are my hero! And, for once in the existence of pop culture, you and I have come together… I love Rick Lax! I feel like I’ve finally made it to the beginnings of cultural literacy, 🙂 I’ve always been a fan of your magic, and I’m your most gullible audience member! I DO delight. You forgot ONE other aspect: I truly enjoy watching people with exceptional talent, and you, Rick, Teller, etc. are brilliant! Thanks. A fun article!

  2. […] As expected, some of the top Buzzfeed quizzes are personality quizzes, but, to our surprise, a lot of the so-called “magic trick quizzes” are extremely popular on social media as well. These guess one or more of your personal traits – like age, height or home city – based on your answers. We think a lot of what makes magic tricks so popular also applies to these quizzes and you can read a psychologist’s interesting analysis here. […]

  3. […] As expected, some of the top Buzzfeed quizzes are personality quizzes, but, to our surprise, a lot of the so-called “magic trick quizzes” are extremely popular on social media as well. These guess one or more of your personal traits – like age, height or home city – based on your answers. We think a lot of what makes magic tricks so popular also applies to these quizzes and you can read a psychologist’s interesting analysis here. […]

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