Towards a Science of Magic

Total Posts:  7998
Joined  29-04-2005
08 May 2009 21:30

Someone tried a little magic trick on me this morning. Actually, a person on the phone was only carrying out what now appears to have been a previously conceived marketing strategy. I’d called the company to find out whether or not a particular problem would be covered by a 1-year warranty I have on certain items in my house. There was a problem with how the water heater vent had been set up. The guy who answered the phone told me that water heater venting problems were not covered by the warranty. I was a little disappointed, but I was fine with the decision, and appreciated the quick response to my question.

I was about to say goodbye when the guy says, “We can send someone out to look at it if you’d like.” He’d previously told me that the minimum service fee is $55. I asked him if he was offering to do the repair and he said, no, they’re just an insurer. So I said, “You’re willing to send someone out here to tell me that my policy doesn’t cover water heater venting problems, which you’ve already done just now, and then you’ll charge me $55?” Amazingly, he paused, then said, “Yes.”

I then said, “Do you think I’m nuts?” This was followed by a stretch of 4 or 5 seconds of silence between us. Then, “Can I help you with anything else, sir?” I hung up the phone. The incident has been rattling around my head all day, and not being any good at Eastern meditation techniques, it’s pulled my thoughts into various directions as it’s entered and exited my awareness. I’d truly hate to have a perfectly linear, ego-free cognitive style—I’d be so bored if I never had anger or bruised ego to deal with. (Just ribbing you, burt and unsmoked.)

Hours later, an online paper caught my attention:

From its Abstract:
“It is argued here that cognitive science currently neglects an important source of insight into the human mind: the effects created by magicians. Over the centuries magicians have learned how to perform acts that are perceived as defying the laws of nature, and that induce a strong sense of wonder. This paper argues that the time has come to examine the scientific bases behind such phenomena, and to create a science of magic linked to relevant areas of cognitive science.”

The paper lists and describes several techniques that have unraveled and put an obscure, very non-public spotlight on certain aspects of human behavior and perception. These techniques evolved over the past several millennia in ways that parallel current experimental science methodology. Modern psychology can do worse than taking this subject very seriously.

One of the techniques, “forcing,” whether mental or physical, relies on the magician simply lying to the subject. The magician understands that people tend not to question or doubt you when you present yourself in a certain way, especially in how you speak and how you dress.

Of course, the article reminded me of techniques that have forced the spread of various faiths over the years. It’s not enough just to say that some people are gullible and others analytical and reasoning, because within human cognitive ways lie inherent, even essential, reactions and tendencies that can be taken advantage of very easily if you know what they are. It’s a fascinating and very quick read, well worth looking at in my opinion.

[ Edited: 08 May 2009 21:38 by nv]