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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 07-Mar-08


Friday 07-March-08

Magical misdirection

I'm just reading Derren Brown's erudite and entertaining book 'Tricks of the Mind'. Brown is a top-class UK entertainer in a modern wrapping of the 'mentalist' guise, using a tricky blend of illusion and psychology to perform wonderful feats and shows.

One of the basic principles he uses is 'misdirection'. A simple example he uses to show this magical tricks is with the 'coin drop'. The basic trick is to drag a coin off a table and, whilst appearing to take it in your hand, you actually drop it into your lap. With practice, you can make this a smooth motion where the drop cannot be detected. You can then blow on your hand and, hey presto, open it to show the coin has disappeared.

What happens next is that your audience mentally backtracks, looking for a point where the coin could have been removed -- and might easily guess what happened. The principle of misdirection is to give them false information that lets them guess wrongly, for example after 'picking up' the coin you might 'pass' it to the other hand. Now the audience may well think it is in the first hand, and will be further confused when they find it is not -- and failure / confusion is not a great place from which to figure out what really happened.

This principle of false information may be used in other forms of persuasion, for example where a salesperson 'lets' you see a memo about impending price rises.

Brown's methods do not stop at switching hands, for example he suggests really picking up a coin beforehand (to plant a false memory) and 'playing' with the non-existent coin in your hand. By the time he has finished, the coin drop is lost in a welter of other activity and misdirection, and he has transformed a simple trick into an accomplished performance.

Of course in persuasion there are ethical concerns about deception but, as the caveat notes, intent is key and much persuasion is relatively harmless. Also, as with all methods described here, there is as least as much value in being able to spot the misdirections being used by others. So, when others point you in one direction, look at what else they might be doing elsewhere!.

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