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The Psychology of Magic, Mediums, Politics, and Advertising


Magic and advertising are both deeply rooted in manipulation, and exploiting knowledge of human psychology. One of the most important aspects of the magician’s trade is manipulating the spectators choice while at the same time tricking that spectator into thinking they willingly made the choice. Derren Brown is a master of that particular trick. Check out some Derren Brown videos at the bottom of this post.

Ironically, that type of manipulation plays a huge part in advertising as well. In fact, magicians, politicians, advertisers and mediums are all essentially doing the same thing, the difference lies in their levels of honesty. The magician is usually the only honest one.

Skeptical Magicians

Skepticism and magic go back a long way. Magicians are generally well versed in the trickery that psychics and mediums try to pass off as real; and there is a long history of magicians and spiritualists butting heads. People like James “The Amazing” Randi, Penn and Teller, Derren Brown, and Harry Houdini are good examples of the skeptic magician. Houdini actually spent the latter half of his life debunking spiritualists, psychics, and mediums. He went to great lengths to show that he could do all the tricks they could do, better then they could, and without any supernatural help.

Magic tricks exploit the same cognitive patterns that psychics exploit with cold reading, and politicians exploit with buzzword-filled speeches, and advertisers exploit with logos and ads. Some psychologists are considering how they can use magic to advance our understanding of the brain, and help us be less easily swayed by trickery.

The Science of Magic


In a recent paper published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, University of British Columbia psychologist Ronald Rensink and Durham University psychologist Gustav Kuhn argue that magic has cultivated a great deal of insight into the human mind via the collective wisdom of magicians. Rensink and Kuhn say that magicians have built up an understanding of the limits of human perception and cognition over the millenia that magic has been practiced.

They write that a science of magic (a study of magic from a cognitive science viewpoint) could be extremely useful to cognitive science. They even say it could help people defend themselves from the tricks of advertisers and politicians.

“Many of the techniques used in advertising and political propaganda resemble the methods of the magician,” write Kuhn and Rensink. “Because there will always be motives for manipulating our choice, an important challenge for the future will be to understand these techniques sufficiently to ensure our free will.”

Advertising’s Magic Logos

Advertising logos have an amazing power over us. In one group of studies, researchers set up an experiment where subjects saw either the Apple logo or the IBM logo subtly displayed. Then they were asked to name as many uses for a brick as they could think of. People who’d seen the Apple logo were more creative.

In another experiment, people were exposed to the logo of either Disney or the E! Entertainment network. Those who saw the Disney logo answered questions more honestly. In yet another study, logos were shown to have an effect on actual physical endurance. When viewing a Gatorade bottle (versus a water bottle), subjects thought of their task as a positive challenge and held their leg in the air longer.

The point is, we’re generally naive, fragile-minded puppies, and our minds are bent and twisted daily by the whims of advertisers, politicians, and unsavory weirdos who claim to be in contact with our dead relatives. It’s unfortunate that our natural tendency towards trust is so easily abused, but we’re not hopeless. We can still learn to avoid the faith-healers and spirit mediums and snake-oil salesmen and false advertisers and pandering politicians. We just have to take a look at the skeptical magicians and try to understand how they can do all the same tricks without claiming to be in contact with the dead, and without asking for our vote or our money. Basically we just need to think critically.

*New videos:

Derren Brown Interview (3/6) – Richard Dawkins (Embedding disabled by request)

*:This Derren Brown and Richard Dawkins conversation is new. Originally, I had a series of Derren Brown videos including one of him cold reading, one “winning” at the dog track, and a few others; but unfortunately, the embedding has been disabled on those particular videos, which disgusts me. Lovely idea… whomever contacted those youtubers and made them disable embedding has said no to free advertising and the free exchange of ideas. They’re saying they aren’t intelligent enough to think of innovative new ways to use this amazing technology of sharing video… they honestly think it’s in their best interests to block people from actually seeing the videos they produced. Amazing stupidity.