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  • Writer's picturealicepailhes

Is Exposure Really Bad for Magic?

‘Some magicians have never tipped to the fact that pretty much everyone knows a certain amount of magic. It is a developmental stage we all go through, you get your [magic] set, everybody above the age of sixteen knows the word palming means hiding something in your hand […] People know about things like threads, trapped doors, and if you come out as a magician and behave as though your knowledge of these things gives you a great exclusivity and a great insider’s perspective, you will be insulting your audience. There are ways to say ‘we know that you know a certain amount of magic, and we are on your side’.

Teller - in The Magicians' Podcast

Magic is unquestionably intertwined with the concept of secrecy. Magicians are notoriously averse to revealing their secret methods: when they join a magic society or club, they are usually asked to swear an oath of secrecy, promising that they will never expose their secrets to the general public, and magicians who engage in wilful exposure can face expulsion or censure. However, looking back at the issue of exposure, the magic community has not always agreed about the damage and inconvenience that it can cause. Some magicians vigorously oppose to it and condemn any fellow magician engaging in it. Others do not feel threatened by it, or don’t seem to think that it can seriously damage the magic community.

The question of exposure in itself still seems to be ill defined: for instance, does completely forbidding exposure mean that Slydini’s ‘Flight of the Paper Balls’, in which all but one spectator have access to the secret method behind the trick, is a performance that needs to be banned? That Penn and Teller don't respect their own art? Or can revealing a secret method that magicians use be, in some context, acceptable, or even beneficial?

I love magic, and have a deep respect for professional magicians and for this art form. I’ve decided to dedicate my research to this art form because I would love to contribute something to this wonderful world while creating a real collaboration between scientists and magicians. However, this collaboration has sometimes aroused animated debates around the issue of exposing the secret methods behind some tricks in academic papers or educational conferences.

In this article, I’d like to take a quick look at the issue of exposure, and present some recent data about the impact that revealing magic secrets has on people’s perception and appreciation of magic and magicians.

Exposure ‘fun facts’:

- Ironically, one of the most widely disseminated exposures was perpetrated for magicians’ benefit, by a friend of magic. The Discoverie of Witchcraft, written in 1584 by Reginald Scot, revealed various magic tricks and secrets behind them, in the hope to dissuade religious authorities from persecuting magicians and rebutting allegations that they were witches.

- In 1933, Camel produced a massive advertising campaign to sell their cigarettes and exposed thirty-nine classic tricks in their ads. The ads (which ran for 8 months), peddled cigarettes with the catchy slogan ‘It’s fun to be fooled… It’s more fun to know.’ and each one gave a short explanation behind the trick.



What’s fascinating is that exposure doesn’t seem to have always been frowned upon. A couple of years ago, I stumbled across a paper called ‘Psychological principles and techniques of Illusionism’ written by French magician Rémi Ceillier, talking about misdirection, attention, and other psychological principles in magic. One particular paragraph caught my attention, as the paper was written in 1922 and mentioned the benefits of exposing magical secrets. Here’s a translation of this surprising extract:

"One might think that illusionists, especially professionals, take a dim view of the disclosure of their secrets, however partial it may be. It was indeed still like this 25 or 30 years ago; but since around 1900 a very clear turnaround has occurred. The appearance in Paris of many foreign ‘manipulators’ (we will see later the exact meaning that needs to be attached to this term) has spread among the public the knowledge, or at least the notion, of new passes, of very difficult execution, but generally very little concealed, and neither the secrecy of the real tricks nor the success of the artists was diminished. Experience has even shown that a more or less complete revelation of the principles of conjuring, far from saturating the public's interest, aroused its curiosity and brought a larger number of spectators to the ‘magic’ séances, where the half insiders were taking a keener interest. As for the true initiates, they form the best and most assiduous core of the audience for these sessions, although they know almost all the modus operandi; as they have become proselytes, they help to make new amateurs and bring in new spectators, taking all the more interest in the sessions as they are more documented on the principles and the techniques of tricks."

However, nowadays, the rise of the internet and social media has importantly changed the ease by which secrets about magic can be accessed. Any curious mind about magic tricks can find information about how a trick is done relatively easily. Many social media accounts on Instagram or TikTok are now even just about revealing secrets behind tricks as a way to entertain, and we can wonder what impact revealing such secrets can have on the perception of performance magic. Alongside social media and the internet, the recent rise in scientific research on magic in which I have participated has raised issues about the impact that the dissemination of magic knowledge has on people’s perception and appreciation of magic. For the past decade, there has been an increasing number of scientific research on magic investigating cognitive mechanisms behind magicians’ techniques and some magicians have raised their concerns about the effect of such publications, which I completely understand. This is why we got interested in gathering data on the impact of exposure on the art of magic. Here are the results from two recent studies conducted on the subject.


Study 1: An exhibition on the Psychology of Magic

In 2019, the Wellcome Collection created an amazing exhibition that showed the psychological mechanisms underpinning some magic tricks and contributing to the ways people experience magic tricks. The exhibition was in central London, and you could see a lot of advertising in all London’s tube stations about it. It wasn’t huge, but very well put together, beautiful, and welcomed several performers every week, talking about the psychology of magic and performing short shows.

Some parts of the exhibition examined the ease by which magicians manipulate their audience’s experience, the psychological mechanisms behind misdirection, or others that underpin forcing techniques such as the visual riffle force and the role of visual saliency behind the success of the technique. In these instances, the exhibition revealed the psychological mechanisms that underpinned the principles and methods, and in doing so ‘exposed’ these methods to the visitors.

It lasted six months, attracted nearly 190,000 visitors and was a big success. However, alongside this keen interest from the general public, it also generated a lot of controversy within some parts of the magic community. Some magicians expressed their concerns about the fact that some secret methods were exposed and that it would result in negative impacts on their artform.

A group of researchers including Gustav Kuhn, my PhD supervisor at that time, decided to investigate how learning about scientific principles that underpin some secret magic methods could impact people’s appreciation of magic. They developed a survey containing different questions to assess the visitor’s views on how the exhibition changed their appreciation for the art of magic, as well as their perception of magicians and the magic community more generally.

The results from this study, counting about 400 visitors of the exhibition, showed that the vast majority of people reported that the exhibition had no real impact on their perceptions of magic, and even brought some positive effects (in fact, only 2% of people felt it had a negative impact).

More specifically, despite magicians’ fears, the exhibition had a positive impact on visitors’ interest and appreciation for magic, respect for magicians, and the wonder that visitors felt magic would elicit in the future. Contrary to some magicians’ thoughts who took great offence at the exhibition, revealing the psychological mechanisms behind magic even increased people’s interest in seeking out opportunities to watch more magic, both live and on TV.


Study 2 : A magician revealing the secret method behind a trick

More recently, I conducted a scientific experiment to investigate the impact that the direct exposure of a simple magic trick could have on people’s interest and appreciation for magic. In this online study, I first asked participants to watch a short video clip in which a magician performed the vanishing silk trick. After this, half of them were informed about how the trick was done, while the others only had access to broader information about the secret method (e.g., some historical information and ‘fun facts’). As we expected based on previous results, participants who got the explanation of the trick reported a higher interest and appreciation for magic, as well as respect for magicians, and willingness to seek magic in the future, than participants who were given no further information about it. Moreover, the individuals who got access to the secret also felt the magician was more trustworthy and closer to them than the ones who did not.

What’s really interesting is that all of these positive effects were mediated by how special receiving the information made the participants feel. In other words: people who got the secret method behind the trick felt more special by receiving this information than people who had other, broader information, and this is the reason why they ended up feeling more positive for all the other measures on magic and magicians.


So, what if giving away a bit of secret could actually be beneficial to magic? The results seem to be in line with what Rémi Ceillier already argued in 1922: revealing a magic secret might just arouse spectators’ curiosity and lead them to seek out magic performances even more.

Of course, many further questions need to be answered, and these results do not indicate that all types of exposure can have positive effects on people’s perceptions of magic, nor am I saying that magicians should systematically expose magic secrets. Performers and scientists studying magic still need to be mindful of respecting this art, and exposing for the sake of exposure, crazing for likes and followers, seems completely unethical. However, you can probably relax: even this type of exposure probably has very little long-term impact on the spectators’ perception of magic, and I imagine that magic would have died long ago if these revelations were so detrimental to the art…

A nice point to take away from the second study is that if you want to benefit from giving away the method behind a trick you just did, you might just as well simply give away a plausible, false one. We can imagine that an average lay person, without any knowledge of magic methods and principles, would not make any difference and just end up appreciating you and your art more, without you exposing any real secret…😉

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