Jay Olson is a student of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal, but he also has an interesting side job that has come increasingly into play with his studies: performing magic tricks. As part of a paper recently published in Consciousness and Cognition, Olson conducted research that revealed how subtle environmental factors can strongly influence decisions with astounding predictability.
Like any good magician’s tricks, these cues are almost imperceptible to the human brain and rely on skillful sleight-of-hand as well as audience reading. Further research by people like Olson can help break through the hidden codes used in society, such as how advertisers influence buying behavior or politicians sway voters’ opinions. And while the techniques used by magicians will remain a secret, added transparency as to how our thoughts can be shepherded to a particular choice can help further understanding of the human brain and group communication.
Everything’s Coming Up Hearts
A research volunteer stands in front of Olson as he instructs her in true showman fashion. “I’m going to flip through here and I want you to glance at a card in the middle,” he tells her while clutching a full deck in his hands. “Not the bottom one—that’s kind of simple for me—but one in the middle. Okay?”
He flips through the cards and she chooses one mentally, not even touching it or pulling it out of the deck. Olson then places the deck back inside its box and hands the box to her. “So,” he says without a hint of suspense, “which one did you choose?”
She tells him it was the 10 of hearts. Olson asks her to examine the box to see if anything is unusual about it, including the barcode. When she sees the barcode she giggles. He got her. Among the assorted letters and numbers reads “T E N O F H E A R T.”
What the subject does not know is that her card was not a lucky guess at all. Olson purposefully lingered over the 10 of Hearts for just a fraction of a second longer when presenting the deck, impressive considering sifting through it only took him a second or two in total. That small amount of difference was enough to influence the subject’s decision, and she was not the only one. A full 98 percent of participants chose the 10 of hearts.
Olson and other magicians call the technique forcing, and it is accomplished in a variety of ways. Even though Olson disclosed that he allowed the card to linger, his particular method will remain shrouded in mystery. “I can’t share that,” he asserts. “It’s part of the secret.”
What Card Tricks Can Tell Us About the Human Mind
The cabalistic ways in which magic tricks are closely-guarded or handed down also preserve methods that can influence decisions in profound ways. Learning more about these techniques can uncover behavior trends in the non-performance world. For instance, menu items listed towards the beginning or end of columns often get ordered with higher frequency because of the way they impact the reader.
Mentalists use this type of technique to not only lead their subjects to a particular line of thought, but also to imperceptibly glean information from them, such as their high school sweetheart’s name. Witnessing the act helps viewers realize that their thoughts and physical “tells” are not under their own control to the degree they might consider them to be.
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