Magician-Scientist Kind of Reveals Card-Trick Secret

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Photo: Chris Whitehead/Corbis

A psychologist-slash-magician in Canada comes very close to revealing the secret behind a particular card trick in a new paper in the journal Consciousness and Cognition but then doesn’t, exactly. Still, the finding itself is pretty interesting, in that it reminds us that a lot of the decisions we think we’re making of our own volition are in fact influenced by environmental factors we don’t even consciously notice. 

The lead author, is studying psychology at McGill University, and he also happens to be a professional magician. He asked 119 strangers on the streets of Vancouver to stop and “pick a card, any card” as he quickly flipped through a deck at their eye level. The entire shuffle took about half a second, but Olson intentionally lingered on one card for a beat longer than the rest — though he doesn’t share how he managed to get participants to unconsciously choose that one card. And choose it they did — 98 percent of them picked the intended card, though only 9 percent correctly suspected the reason why (some guessed, for example, that they’d chosen the 10 of hearts because of its bright red color; others said they picked their card for no particular reason at all). The trick closes with Olson asking them to hold the card box in their hands and then flipping it over, to reveal that “10 of hearts” — the card they chose — is printed on the bottom. 

Olson writes in his paper that borrowing from standard magician card tricks could provide psychologists with a new way to study free will and how our environments influence our decisions. (We’ve covered that subject before — for instance, the seat you choose in a restaurant may be influencing what you order.) The university made a little video to accompany the study so you can watch the trick in action: