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Is Speed the Key to Deception?

We magicians are known to say, “The hand is quicker than the eye” and most people believe it. We say it to impress you, and it certainly would be impressive if we could do our secret moves so fast that the eye could not perceive them.

But is it true? (HINT: Never believe a magician.)

The reality is that very few magical illusions depend on speed. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Vision evaluated hand and eye speed and found that the hand moves 90 milliseconds slower than the eye in response to the same stimulus. So when someone is looking at and paying attention to a hand, they will pick up any movement.

Magicians also know that quick movements more often than not draw unwanted attention toward the sneaky maneuver. I only know of a couple of sleight-of-hand moves that require speed, and even those will likely be seen by close observers unless other methods are used to conceal them.

No, magicians don’t fool us with their speed but with other methods that are more clever and effective. And it is those same techniques that catch us off guard in our every day thinking and decision making as well.

So, without giving away any specific magical secrets, below are some of the more common methods magicians use to befuddle us, and some insights into how those illusions trip us up elsewhere as well.


Through posture, gestures, verbal suggestion and their own eye movements, magicians direct your attention to a specific area or “frame” of space. Everything that happens within that frame gets intense scrutiny, while anything outside the frame gets virtually ignored or, at the very least, less attention.

In real life, we have belief frames that cause us to see only what we want to see. These frames are strengthened by confirmation bias which has us seeking information that confirms our beliefs and ignoring anything that contradicts it. We create the frame based on our beliefs and are afraid to have them challenges.

Misdirection / Distraction

If a magician can distract your attention at a key point in the trick, you are likely to miss the secret move even if it is right in front of you. For example, when they need to hide a deceptive motion in the open they may ask the audience participant a question that requires a small amount of thought. This not only shifts the frame to them (and away from the magician), but requires that they direct most of their mental energy and attention to the question, not to what I am doing.

Likewise, the subconscious “system 2” is constantly being misdirected and distracted. It is always scanning its environment looking for threats and it locks our attention onto anything out of the ordinary or potentially threatening. Usually, this only serves to distract or misdirect us from what is truly important - our goals and priorities - and make us less effective at achieving them.

Time misdirection

This form of misdirection has the magician creating a “time buffer” between two events in order to cause the spectators to forget small details about the first event. With a little subliminal nudge by the magician they will mis-remember it. For example, an audience member cuts the deck into two piles and after a few seconds of distracted delay, they forget which half is which. Then the magician "helps" them by erroneously pointing to the card they cut to.

Recency bias is a similar effect. We typically remember and assign more weight and relevance to recent events over earlier ones, causing us to lose sight or forget information that could actually be the most relevant to us.

Large moves hide small moves

When a magician needs to perform a secret move in front of the audience, one method of hiding it is to make a larger move at the same time. For example, if the shifting of her fingers to perform a move would be noticeable to the audience, at that moment the magician might move her arms from one side of her body to the other or even move her entire body to a different position. The larger movements prevent the smaller motion from being detected.

Similarly, we are often fooled by those who want to influence us or sell us something, as they make large proclamations and sound bites that sound great but hide or exclude the unappealing details. “Lower taxes” sounds great but there is no mention of the accompanying reduction in services. “Medicare for all” would be sweet, but how it is paid for may not be. Pay attention to the details - the small moves.

In summary, be aware of how other people and your own mind deceive you by manipulating your focus. It’s not the speed that gets you bamboozled, it’s your inability to control your attention.

Think well and be well.

- Steve Haffner

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