How Magicians Trick Us

Magicians using Psychology [All Ages]

Opening Questions

What insights from Psychology can magicians use to trick us?


Magicians have been studying the human brain for much longer than psychologists and brain scientists. Most magic tricks rely on understanding how the brain is likely to fill in gaps in its knowledge. For instance, watch the following trick. Pause the video at 4:05.

Ask the audience how they think the trick was done and then show them the rest of the video.

Discussion Points


Q: How did Billy do this magic trick?

A: Billy distracts us by guiding her attention to where she is looking so that we are not paying attention to what she is doing with her other hand.


Q: What psychology tricks does Billy use to create the impression of things magically appearing and disappearing?

A: Billy is using a variety of tricks in this sequence that rely on her understanding what humans automatically do in social situations.

Illusion – Because Billy is looking at one of the balls, we all look too. This makes us think that the ball is still in her hand when she has secretly already got rid of it. That’s why is appears to have disappeared.

Distraction – When Billy looks at one hand we all look too. This means that we are not paying attention to what she is doing with her other hand like hiding balls or producing new ones from her bag.

Control – Magicians can also work by putting ideas into our mind. Billy does this by leading us to make certain assumptions about what is under the cups and then surprising us.

How to be a magician [Key Stages 3-4]

Opening Questions

Can we read people’s minds?



Present audience with the display of 6 cards and ask them to choose one card as quickly as they can and focus on it really really hard. Tell them you’re going to read their minds and remove their card. Turn to the next slide:

Ask the audience to put up their hands if their card is now missing.

Explain that this trick works because ALL of the cards change, not just the one that the person was focusing on. Because they were focusing on it so hard though, most people don’t even notice what the other cards around it are and so it seems to them that only their card is missing.

Discussion Points

Q: Can we really read people’s minds?

A: No, although we have very sophisticated social signals and can tell all sorts of things about how a person is feeling from their outward appearance, we can’t actually read other people’s minds – a process called ‘telepathy’.