Teller explains the psychology of magic

Teller had a great piece in last March's Smithsonian magazine, explaining the overarching principles behind all magic tricks. It's a great look at the way that our brains can be enticed to fool themselves.

1. Exploit pattern recognition. I magically produce four silver dollars, one at a time, with the back of my hand toward you. Then I allow you to see the palm of my hand empty before a fifth coin appears. As Homo sapiens, you grasp the pattern, and take away the impression that I produced all five coins from a hand whose palm was empty.

2. Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth. You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest. My partner, Penn, and I once produced 500 live cockroaches from a top hat on the desk of talk-show host David Letterman. To prepare this took weeks. We hired an entomologist who provided slow-moving, camera-friendly cockroaches (the kind from under your stove don’t hang around for close-ups) and taught us to pick the bugs up without screaming like preadolescent girls. Then we built a secret compartment out of foam-core (one of the few materials cockroaches can’t cling to) and worked out a devious routine for sneaking the compartment into the hat. More trouble than the trick was worth? To you, probably. But not to magicians.

3. It’s hard to think critically if you’re laughing. We often follow a secret move immediately with a joke. A viewer has only so much attention to give, and if he’s laughing, his mind is too busy with the joke to backtrack rationally.

Teller Reveals His Secrets (via Naked Capitalism)

(Image: fiveruns-penn-and-teller-3, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from copiousfreetime's photostream)b\


  1. I believe you left a tag hanging at the end of this post.  I bet I wouldn’t have noticed if there had been a joke at the end of the post.

  2. I see his name as a frequent commenter here.  I always wonder if it’s *the* Teller.  He is a prototypical happy mutant, after all.

  3. Is this where I request science fiction stories inspired by this article? It is? Oh, good. I want a science fiction story about the first human magician to create magic tricks for aliens, with different senses and pattern recognition systems.

  4. I was an amateur magician in high school and I really liked P&T.  Most of the older guys in local magic club did not like them b/c they sometimes revealed secrets.  To me their edgy style raised the bar for magical entertainment. 

    I got Cruel Trick’s for Dear Friends and it give complete details on the cockroaches and David Letterman.  Also it has trick printing, in between the regular pages are notes and screenplays for Invisible Thread and P&T get killed.  It also came with a little book that called “Would Could Should’ stories that is used to perform a mind reading trick 

    The book is completely readable as long as you know the secret to the trick and it contains fiction stories written by them.  One of them may be favorite short story of all time, The President’s Message.

    Recently I revived my interest and magic and in the last month my sons and I watched ITV’s P&T – Fool Us on Youtube.  After that my kids thought the videos of David Copperfield were pretty lame. 

    As a libertarian I also relate to them very well.

  5. Wasn’t something similar posted before on BB?  Video of him giving the explanation of the coin trick to a conference?

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