The Hand is Faster Than the Eye: The Power of Magic Techniques
By Adam Sinicki
It's a disappointment for many people to learn that behind the magic tricks they see is not some kind of cosmic power, but instead simple trickery, psychology and deftness of touch. Not so for me however, rather I find it far more fascinating that someone can fool us so thoroughly as for us to think it's magic. Using simple mindgames and showmanship they can sneak our belongings off of us, mislead our attention and generally pull the wool over our eyes. These skills make great showmanship, but imagine what they could achieve when put to other uses. How useful would some of these skills be in a business setting or even a combat one?
The simple magic trick can teach us a lot about misdirection, sleight of hand and human psychology. Here we will look at a few techniques used in magic tricks and how we can use those ourselves to great effect.
Let's start with one of the most basic fundamental techniques of the magician 'misdirection'. This means that by making our audience look the wrong way, we can of course get away with all manner of trickery. One simple and very obvious (yet under-appreciated) fact is that we look someone in the eye when we are asked a question. Thus if a magician wants to do something tricky with his hands he might ask you if you believe in ghosts, holding your gaze while you answer so that you can't see his hands (this definitely has martial application... and application for thieves but just don't do it...).
Another form of misdirection is to trick someone into thinking one part of the trick is important when really another is where the 'magic' lies. You might say 'pay close attention to my hand' while meanwhile with your other hand hiding the object (or perhaps the magic has already been done or is yet to be done). You can make it look like you're struggling with something so that when the viewer thinks back, they think they have identified the point of the trick.
Misdirection is actually a term used in strategy games and warfare, demonstrating just how many applications it has. For example a general might feint interest in capturing one piece of land, or might send a fleet of tanks in one direction while more subtly conducting more important tasks with the attention of the opposition mislead. In Arrested Development Jobe uses misdirection by releasing lots of rats into a supermarket so that he can steel the belongings. Again we've come back to theft – see if you can find an application for this stuff that isn't criminal... (interestingly it is also used in literature and story telling).
Sleight of Hand
Sleight of hand is the ability to do something subtly without the spectators' awareness. An excellent story is when magician and illusionist David Copperfield used sleight of hand to convince a mugger his pockets were empty when in fact he was carrying a phone, wallet and passport. The idea is to ensure that your hand doesn't draw attention to itself and thus it is not only important to be fast and subtle, but also to be natural and confident. You want your hand to look like it's doing something normal and unimportant, while actually it is concealing a coin/card etc. This is reinforced by the magician Dai Vernon who says that being natural is the key to good sleight of hand.
You can use this 'naturalness' in all walks of life. If you are somewhere you shouldn't be for instance then your best chance of getting away with it is not to hide, but to seem as though you are meant to be there. Stay out of site where possible of course, but look as though you're hiding and you'll be in trouble when you're found. You'd be surprised by what you can get away with if you act normal and as though you're meant to be there – look natural and people will assume you've nothing to hide.
Paul and Teller describe seven principles of sleight of hand as: palm (holding something while making your hand look empty), ditch (discretely misplacing something), steal (obtaining something), load (moving an object to where it's needed), simulation (to give the impression of something happening that hasn't), misdirection (to lead attention away – often simply with eye contact or with another hand) and switch (switching which hand the item is in).
In his book Trick of the Mind (highly recommended) Derren Brown teaches a great sleight of hand movement anyone can do. Simply place a coin on a table in front of you with your spectator looking at you from right across the table. Now drag it towards the edge of the table with two fingers covering it mostly as you do – often we would pick up a coin in this manner so it is not usual. Now look to get your thumb under it from the edge of the table and pick it up, while in reality letting it drop onto your lap. Hold your hand in a fist and now pretend to make it disappear (it's already gone as you know but here in lies some of the misdirection) and tap your hand three times. Open your hand and display it as empty. There you go, magic. It's fascinating that people fall for such an obvious trick, but they are too used to seeing people pick up coins like this and they are quickly made to forget the obvious part of the trick by the fact that you add all the hand slapping in. Just make sure they see you from head on or they'll witness the coin fall. If you want to make the trick even more spectacular then hide the coin previously somewhere in the room and then you can reveal that you have transported the coin to that place.
Okay so 'cloaking' is something I just made up, but it's also a clever technique that you can use to slip things past people. I'm sure it has a more magic name if you can track it down. Here you use an external event to make your less noticeable. For instance you might use a loud noise such as the chiming of a clock tower to cover up a noisy element of a trick. Likewise in a crowd a thief can use the hustle and bustle of people being pushed into to work something free from a handbag without that person noticing as much.
Often the imagination of the viewer is employed to great degrees. In the coin trick the viewer is left to fill in the gap by automatically imagining that the performer picked up the coin. This is used well when people utilise darkness or cover to disguise what they are doing. Meanwhile the viewers' imagination will likely fill in the gaps with something more colourful and quite likely magic – just as our imagination tricks us into thinking that a coat on a coat hanger is in fact the silhouette of a person.
In cold reading and mentalism, magicians pretend to be able to read minds and divine things from the dead. In other words it is their job to be able to act as though they know more about someone than they in fact do. It is possible to do this with open questions such as when guessing a number you might say 'it's not seven is it?'. This way if they go 'it is', you can say 'I thought so', whereas if they say 'no' you go 'thought not'.
A similar technique is the 'rainbow ruse' where one statement can cover every eventuality. Here then you might say 'You're quite a shy person aren't you? But also quite outgoing when the mood strikes you'. This way you will get a positive response whether they are shy or outgoing. In a 'Barnum' statement meanwhile you say something that sounds very specific to that person but in fact applies to everyone and here their own imagination leads them to make a connection. For instance you say 'you have a box of photos under your bed', or 'you have some secret you've had for a while now that you haven't been telling anyone'. Again though what also makes it work is the confidence.
When a guess is wrong, a cold reader won't acknowledge it but rather move quickly on, whereas there accurate estimations they will read more into and spend more time on, creating the impression that they were right more times than is likely by chance.
Again there is an excellent card trick you can use to demonstrate this effect. Here you know which card the individual has chosen, and they know you know. You then mix up the cards on the table face down into sets of three so that the participant has lost track of it (but you know where it is) and challenge them to find it using their own magic powers. This they then do by selecting the groups of three cards.
Ask them to pick two and then if they have picked one of the right ones discard all the others. Otherwise discard just those two. Ask them to pick one, and if it's the right one leave just that one, whereas if it's the wrong one discard it. Continue this pattern and then do the same with the remaining three cards. Obviously you've just chosen the card, but the way you framed the question 'pick two', rather than 'discard of two', will mean they feel as though they chose it.
Micro Expressions and Accessing Cues
You can tell when you look carefully at someone's expression what they are thinking. You can use this to discern the accuracy of your estimations when you are divining or mind reading. In the case of cold reading then for instance you might use micro-expressions such as slight winces or twitches to narrow down your guesses and make your explanations more accurate. You can also listen out for small stutters and pauses in someone's speech in order to discern whether they are having second thoughts or are stressed etc and this can also provide clues.
Another use of micro-expressions and such clues is how people use them when trying to conceal the truth. Thus magicians can use this technique to decide which hand someone is holding a coin in.
Accessing cues are specific type of micro-expression you can use. Here the direction of a person's gaze can tell you whether they are recalling information or making it up and comes from 'NLP' or 'Neuro Linguistic Programming'. Here if someone looks left (their right) then they are likely to be creating a story – or lying – whereas if they look right (their left) it's likely to be recalling.