Today, the Wellcome Collection opens a new exhibition on “Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic”.

The exhibition claims to be bringing “together the worlds of psychology and entertainment in search of the truth about deception”; in other words, it explores why and how magic works on the spectator’s mind.

This is no new topic: Goldsmith University has a Psychology department called the ‘Magic Lab’, which stands for Mind Attention and General Illusory Cognition, and their course offers a module in magic. 

Some of this department’s research has highlighted some key ways in which magic works, and how we might extend this to look at wider social issues.

The first of these is known as ‘misdirection’ – when we distract the spectator’s attention and cause them to not look at what is important.  This can be used to consider things such as road signs: moments in day to day life when we don’t appear to see things even when we look at them.

Another technique is known as ‘forcing’.  This is when the magician apparently offers choice to the participant – by choosing a card, for example – but is in fact controlling or manipulating the participant’s choice.

This highlights the unreliability of our perception, which could be an issue when, for example, eyewitnesses to an incident are mistaken about what they see.  It can also be linked to how suggestion and manipulation can be used in political contexts.

Psychology or Psychological and Behavioural Sciences (PBS) applicants might be interested in further researching the relationship between magic and psychology, either by looking into the Wellcome Trust exhibition, or Senate House Library’s exhibition “Staging Magic – The Story Behind The Illusion”.  They might also use these ideas as a point of reflection on how our responses to magic provide an insight into human psychology, and whether there are other forms of popular entertainment that may teach us about ourselves.

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