A new study sheds light on an unconscious tactic that magicians may be using to deceive their audiences. The experiment, published in the journal Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, found that magicians increase their eye blinking when performing difficult tricks. The researchers suggest that this tactic may be used to encourage synchronized blinking in the audience, so spectators are more likely to miss deceptive actions.
Magicians are known to manipulate the consciousness of their audiences. In 2016, a study by Wiseman and Nakano found that spectators demonstrate synchronized blinking while watching magic tricks, particularly during moments when secret actions are being carried out by the magician. This suggests that magicians may be misdirecting the audience by encouraging them to blink — and thus, to relax their attention — during moments of deception.
While this manipulation tactic seems impressive, there is some worry that a magician’s blinking behavior could lead to their own demise. Study author Anthony S. Barnhart and his coauthors note that magicians often rehearse their tricks in front of a mirror, and anecdotal evidence suggests they have a habit of blinking while practicing acts of deception.
“Before I was a scientist, I was a professional magician,” explained Barnhart, an associate professor and the Chair of Psychological Science at Carthage College. “My experiences as a magical performer showed me just how fallible human perception and memory can be, so as a psychologist I frequently turn to magicians as a source of insights about the mind that have yet to be tested. When learning magic, I was warned about the tendency for magicians to blink their eyes while carrying out sleight of hand in a rehearsal setting before a mirror, thereby blinding themselves to any evidence of their proficiency (or lack thereof) with the deceptive action.
“I decided to seek out empirical evidence of this behavior after perusing the literature on self-deception and realizing that evidence to support the existence of deep self-deception (where a person both knows the truth and actively pushes that truth out of their consciousness) was scant. If I found evidence for this blinking behavior in magicians, it would have been some of the first strong evidence of deep self-deception in the literature.”
To explore this possibility, the researchers recruited a sample of 11 magicians who had been practicing magic for anywhere between six months and 50 years. The magicians watched a tutorial for a magic coin trick involving 10 sleights of hand — a term for skillful hand movements used to deceive spectators. A week later, the magicians were filmed as they performed the magic trick four times — twice in a rehearsal setting in front of a mirror and twice in a performance setting in front of a video camera.
The researchers analyzed the footage of each performance and identified frames during which magicians were practicing sleights of hand (experimental frames) or not engaging in sleights of hand (control frames). They then coded these frames, noting whether participants’ eyes were open or closed. Finally, they performed an analysis to see whether participants’ eye blinking differed as a function of condition (rehearsal vs. performance) and frame type (experimental vs. control).
The findings revealed that the magicians increased their blinking in moments where they were practicing acts of deception (i.e., within experimental frames). However, contrary to the researchers’ hypothesis, this was only true in the performance condition, when the magicians were performing the trick for a video audience. Further evidence revealed that the magicians blinked more frequently when performing the most difficult acts of deception — suggesting that their blink rates increased with cognitive effort.
Barnhart and his colleagues say their findings suggest that the magicians’ blinking during acts of deception did not function to deceive performers about their own proficiency. They suggest instead that it served to encourage the audience to blink as well, helping the magicians conceal their secret actions.
“While my magician participants were more likely to blink their eyes when carrying out deceptive action than when not, this tendency was increased in a performance setting without a mirror compared to a rehearsal setting with a mirror,” Barnhart explained to PsyPost. “This was surprising and didn’t match the predictions from the world of magic. Our pattern of results points to a potentially interesting phenomenon: We suggest that magicians may be blinking their eyes when they carry out sleight of hand to encourage their audiences to do the same, thereby blinding the audience to any evidence of the magician’s shenanigans.”
Notably, eye blinking tends to occur during moments when visual information is scarce. If a magician increases their blink rate, this could signal to the audience that there is nothing important to see. “Although blinking during performance could act as a ‘tell’ for the audience, it could also offer a nudge to the audience that they have reached a moment when there is very little useful information in the visual stream,” the authors explained.
An important limitation of the study was that the researchers were only able to recruit a small sample of magicians due to the demanding nature of the experiment. Nevertheless, a large amount of data was collected from each participant, with researchers analyzing an average of 9,339 video frames per magician.
“Our interpretation of this surprising pattern of results is post hoc,” Barnhart noted. “Our actual experiment is agnostic to the source of this pattern. However, the pattern does conform to findings from the blink entrainment literature, which shows that media viewers are apt to entrain their blinks to those of a speaker if they are processing narrative content. Future research should explore whether a magician’s blinking behaviors impact the blinking behaviors of their audience and thereby their audience’s perceptions of the magic.”
“This work is being published in a special section of Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice edited by the leadership of the Science of Magic Association, an organization that promotes rigorous research directed toward understanding the nature, function, and underlying mechanisms of magic,” Barnhart added. “I encourage readers to follow the group’s activities at https://scienceofmagicassoc.org/.”
The study, “Tactical Blinking in Magicians: A Tool for Self- and Other-Deception”, was authored by Anthony S. Barnhart, Kaitlyn Richardson, and Shawn Eric.