A psychologically based taxonomy of magicians’ forcing techniques: How magicians influence our choices, and how to use this to study psychological mechanisms

Consciousness and Cognition 86:103038 (2020)
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“Pick a card, any card. This has to be a completely free choice.” the magician tells you. But is it really? Although we like to think that we are using our free will to make our decisions, research in psychology has shown that many of our behaviours are automatic and unconsciously influenced by external stimuli (Ariely, 2008; Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; Newell & Shanks, 2014; Nisbett & Wilson, 1977), and that we are often oblivious to the cognitive mechanisms that underpin our decision (Wegner, 2002, 2003). Magicians have exploited this illusory sense of agency for a long time, and have developed a wide range of techniques to influence and control spectators’ choices of such things as card, word, or number (Annemann, 1933; Banachek, 2002a; Jones, 1994; Turner, 2015). These techniques are instances of what is called forcing. Many forces are extremely effective, illustrating various weaknesses in our sense of control over decisions and their outcomes. Researchers have started to investigate them in various ways (Kuhn, Pailh s, & Lan, 2020; Olson, Amlani, Raz, & Rensink, 2015; Pailhes & Kuhn, 2020b, 2020c; Shalom et al., 2013) and are beginning to obtain valuable insights into decision-making processes as well as a better understanding of the cognitive mechanisms that lead people to experience an illusory sense of free will and of agency. Although magicians have acquired large amounts of knowledge in covertly controlling people’s choices, much of this knowledge is only discussed in the context of individual magic tricks, or in books that are not readily accessible to non-magicans. As we and others have argued elsewhere (Ekroll, Sayim, & Wagemans, 2017; Kuhn, 2019; Kuhn, Amlani, & Rensink, 2008; Kuhn, Caffaratti, Teszka, & Rensink, 2014; Macknik et al., 2008; Olson et al., 2015; Olson, Landry, Appourchaux, & Raz, 2016; Shalom et al., 2013; Thomas, Didierjean, Maquestiaux, & Gygax, 2015), a particularly effective way of making this knowledge more available is via the creation of taxonomies centered around psychological mechanisms (Rensink & Kuhn, 2015). For example, the psychologically based taxonomy of misdirection (Kuhn et al., 2014) helps draw links between misdirection and formal theories of perception and cognition. Our aim here is to apply a similar process to the knowledge magicians have about forcing. The present paper develops a psychologically based taxonomy of forcing techniques with two goals in mind. Firstly, it should help uncover the various psychological mechanisms that underlie forcing techniques. Secondly, it should facilitate knowledge transfer between magicians and psychologists. Among other things, this knowledge will allow researchers to gain new insights into the mechanisms underlying decision-making, and the feeling of free will and of agency over choice. We start by defining the magician’s force and then look at some of the past classifications of forcing.

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Ronald A. Rensink
University of British Columbia

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