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Understanding the Impossible: Misdirection Demystified (Part 1)
The first article in a series on the mysterious art of misdirection. In it, we consider several definitions of misdirection and discuss some of the different techniques involved.
In the forthcoming instalments of Understanding the Impossible, I will delve into one of the most critical components of magic—misdirection. As a dedicated amateur magician with almost three decades of experience, I have devoted endless hours to perfecting my craft. However, I must admit that I am not entirely confident in my understanding of misdirection. Despite my ability to execute it successfully when performing, I still feel I lack a comprehensive understanding of the concept. By consistently writing on this topic, I hope to unravel the mystery of misdirection and offer a clearer understanding of this essential element of magic.
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“The principle of misdirection plays such an important role in magic that one might say that magic is misdirection and misdirection is magic.”
— Jean Hugard
What is Misdirection?
The obvious starting point is to look at the definition of the word in some of the more popular dictionaries. The Oxford English Dictionary defines misdirection in a very straightforward manner:
The distraction of a person's attention by a conjuror, thief, etc.
So we’re in good company, alongside criminals! The Cambridge Dictionary defines it in a similar way but with a little more detail:
the action of making people pay attention to the wrong thing, usually intentionally so that they will not notice something else.
And finally, Dictionary.com defines it in the following way:
misdirection [ mis-di-rek-shuhn ]
the use of misleading appearances or distraction to prevent detection of one’s true intent, as in a sports play, magic trick, plot twist, or wrongdoing; feint.
All three sources focus on the element of distraction. Interestingly, the Cambridge Dictionary definition introduces the idea of accidental misdirection, something that I haven’t ever contemplated. These definitions, of course, also apply to other non-magical situations. As well as magicians and thieves, politicians are often accused of misdirecting the public. Military generals also use misdirection, such as feints1, to dominate an enemy.
However, these definitions certainly chime with my limited understanding of misdirection as a magician; I’ve always considered it something that you apply to a magic trick to disguise or camouflage the method. In other words, misdirection is anything that prevents a person from noticing the secret method. It manipulates an audience in various ways to lead them away from the actual cause of a magical effect.
“Misdirection is the meat of deception, the stuff of which illusion is made.”
— Al Leech
However, Tommy Wonder, a legendary Dutch magician and a prominent authority on the subject, felt that distraction was not the most important aspect of misdirection. He argued that we should focus on directing the audience’s attention towards something rather than away from the method, as the following quote demonstrates:
“Misdirection must be attention directed toward something, not away from something, and positive images are the way to achieve this.”
— Tommy Wonder
In this way, you can more effectively conceal the modus operandi of a trick while also maximising an audience’s sense of astonishment.
Tommy Wonder also recommended using terms such as "direction," "attention control," or "attention management" instead of "misdirection" because he believed that the "mis" in the word could be misleading, causing people to assume that attention should always be redirected away from something. However, in reality, effective misdirection usually involves drawing the audience's attention towards something. Wonder believed that "direction" was a more accurate word to use and better described what magicians do when engaging in misdirection.
“Directing attention from is a hopeless and virtually impossible approach.”
— Tommy Wonder
Amusingly, he also likened misdirection to an "invisible beast", a fitting metaphor as it is often seen as elusive, intimidating and even a little scary!
Similarly, Michael Vincent, another expert practitioner of magic, advocates for the term "audience attention control" to describe the concept of misdirection. Although it may appear insignificant, this alternative terminology helps avoid perpetuating a limited understanding of misdirection. However, there is a problem with this particular view of misdirection: it focuses solely on attentional misdirection, disregarding other non-attentional forms.
While attention-based misdirection is by far the most popular and practical form of misdirection, this approach presents an incomplete picture of the technique. For example, non-attentional misdirection, such as masking—also known as blocking or screening—is also common. People are prevented from perceiving an event by some kind of visual obstruction or competing event. For example, a magician might turn to one side when ditching a coin in his jacket pocket, blocking the spectator’s line of sight and effectively hiding the action from his audience.
“Good magic without proper attention management is an impossibility.”
— Tommy Wonder
Long before Tommy Wonder was exploring the concept of
misdirection in magic, Arturo de Ascanio, known as the father of Spanish magic, also offered a similar definition. Ascanio believed that misdirection could be defined as:
“The art of drawing the eye and the attention of the public to a safe and interesting point, while elsewhere a secret action, which is therefore invisible and unsuspected, is carried out.”
— Arturo de Ascanio
Ascanio's "Conception of the Magical Atmosphere" was not the first attempt to codify the use of misdirection, but it remains one of the clearest and most comprehensive treatments. One of his key concepts was the "Principle of Coverage", which refers to the defence mechanism used by a performer to conceal the method behind any magical effect.
As part of this system, Ascanio later introduced three levels of intensity—dissolution, attraction, and deviation—which will be explored in a future article.
Different Types of Misdirection
Most magicians agree that, from the performer’s point of view, the act of misdirection can fall into one of two main categories: physical and verbal misdirection.
Physical misdirection involves movement that attracts the audience's attention to a specific location, object, or action while simultaneously distracting them from the method being used. For instance, in a Cups and Balls routine, a magician might use the motion generated while producing an initial load to conceal the introduction of a secondary load item.
Verbal misdirection, on the other hand, uses language to manipulate, mislead, or distract the audience in some way. For example, asking a question like "What is your name?" usually causes a person to look at the performer's face instead of their hands, allowing the magician to carry out a secret move unnoticed.
Tommy Wonder also defined two forms of
misdirection from the perspective of a spectator or participant rather than the performer: mental and visual direction. Mental direction involves the manipulation of mental attention, usually dealing directly with a person’s thoughts. It is almost always verbal in nature, using specific words and phrases to influence a person’s train of thought. Visual direction, on the other hand, controls the direction of a person’s gaze and is strongly connected to the ebb and flow of tension and relaxation. It can be accomplished through physical or verbal means or a combination of the two.
“Real misdirection deceives not only the eye of the spectator, but his mind as well. It leads his mental processes astray.”
— Al Leech
Prior to Tommy Wonder’s groundbreaking work on misdirection, Jason Randal built on Ascanio’s work. He developed five types of misdirection:
Misdirection of Attitude - The magician draws attention to points of interest through gaze and attitude.
Misdirection by Transfer - The magician uses gestures and glances towards a point far away from the magical secret.
Misdirection by Repetition - A spectator is made accustomed to a specific action through repetition, which puts them into a state of relaxation before the same gesture performs a secret action.
Verbal Misdirection - The magician distracts using speech.
Non-Verbal Misdirection - The magician distracts using gestures, personality and attitude.
In his 1978 book Anatomy of Misdirection, Joe Bruno—an author, lecturer, and inventor of magical effects—developed a system of misdirection that can be categorised into three distinct techniques: distraction, diversion, and relaxation.
Distraction - This technique relies on creating a situation where multiple things happen at the same time, thus drawing the audience's attention to one event and away from another. By distracting the audience, the performer can execute a secret manoeuvre without being detected.
Diversion - This technique is designed to divert the audience's attention away from the secret by introducing a seemingly unconnected event. For example, a performer may adjust their glasses or cough to divert the audience's attention away from a secret move.
Relaxation - Takes advantage of temporal fluctuations in attention created by off-beat moments in a routine. For example, people tend to pay less attention when they believe that the trick hasn’t started. This makes the moments just before a routine begins a prime opportunity to execute a secret manoeuvre and catch the audience off guard.
Similarly, in his book Conjuror’s Psychological Secrets, Samuel Henry Sharpe developed a dual-mode model of misdirection. Sharpe defined misdirection as the:
“Intentional deflection of attention for the purpose of disguise.”
He split it into two broad categories: active misdirection, which involves some kind of change in movement or sound and passive misdirection, which includes methods that target the spectator’s mind in an unobtrusive manner. Both of these modes of misdirection involve either disguising to avoid attention or distracting to draw attention away.
More recently, Peter Lamont and Richard Wiseman, well-respected academics in the fields of history and psychology, proposed an equally broad definition of misdirection, defining it as “that which directs the audience toward the effect and away from the method”. This was also divided into two sub-categories: physical and psychological misdirection.
Physical misdirection encompasses passive, active, and temporal techniques whereby the magician influences the audience's focus of attention by directing their gaze towards areas of interest. Psychological misdirection, in contrast, involves manipulating the audience's suspicions by misrepresenting the method or creating a false solution that distracts from the genuine solution. By differentiating between these two sub-categories, Lamont and Wiseman have provided a more detailed understanding of the various techniques employed by magicians to achieve their illusions.
In 2014, Gustav Kuhn and his scientific colleagues proposed a new classification system in their paper, A psychologically-based taxonomy of misdirection. This taxonomy does not focus on how performers achieve misdirection but instead categorises it based on the psychological mechanisms involved. The taxonomy sorts misdirection into three categories:
Perception Misdirection - Procedures that manipulate perceptual mechanisms, preventing people from noticing particular events.
Memory Misdirection - The manipulation of memory. Any approach to misdirection that take advantage of the selective, reconstructive and highly fragmented nature of memory. In extreme cases, the magician can implant false memories in a person’s mind to heighten the magical experience post performance.
Reasoning Misdirection - Manipulates the way people reason about an event.
The perception of an event, our memories of it, and our subsequent attention and reasoning are all interrelated. How we perceive an event can influence our memories, which, in turn, impacts our attention and reasoning. By emphasising attention management, memory biases, and decision-making, this new classification system provides a more spectator-centric approach to understanding the experience of magic. By incorporating psychological theories into the classification system, Kuhn and his colleagues have introduced an innovative framework for understanding the workings of misdirection, which I'm eager to explore further.
One of the challenges with using such clear-cut categories to describe misdirection is that magicians often employ a combination of different methods to enhance the effectiveness of the technique. As a result, it can be challenging, or even impossible, to categorise each technique definitively. Nonetheless, I believe that these taxonomies—as scientists and researchers call them—are valuable because they highlight the connections between different techniques and help us comprehend why certain techniques are successful. Despite their limitations, these categories remain useful tools for understanding and analysing the intricate world of misdirection in magic.
Why is Misdirection Difficult to Understand?
Misdirection can be a challenging concept to comprehend because the only way to truly understand it is through performing magic tricks that utilise it. However, many beginners are hesitant to use misdirection out of fear of failure, which can make them more likely to get caught in the act. Regrettably, this can lead to individuals incorrectly attributing their failure to the technique itself rather than their execution of it, so they give up prematurely.
Furthermore, many principles of misdirection are counterintuitive or even paradoxical. For instance, Tommy Wonder found that visual direction becomes stronger as it becomes weaker! This is because using a minimal amount of misdirection makes the technique more subtle and less noticeable, thus making it more effective in diverting the audience's attention.
The fundamental psychological principles that make misdirection work are also often counterintuitive. Several forms of attentional misdirection take advantage of our flawed assumptions about perception. The phenomena of inattentional and change blindness highlight that our visual representations and memories are not always reliable or complete; instead, they are somewhat sparse, delicate, and easily manipulated.
Masters of Misdirection
The good news is that a lot has been written on the subject of misdirection. There is a wealth of literature available on the topic, although some of the books and pamphlets are difficult to obtain.
In future articles, I’ll be exploring the work of many recognised masters of misdirection, including but not limited to Al Leech, John Ramsay, Arturo Ascanio, Juan Tamaritz, John Carney, Gary Kurtz and, of course, Tommy Wonder. By studying their tips, techniques and insights, we can gain a deeper understanding of the art of misdirection. I hope you’ll join me on this exciting journey!
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Here are the main sources that I consulted when writing this article. If you’d like to learn more about the different types of misdirection, I suggest you read Gustav Kuhn’s paper, A psychologically-based taxonomy of misdirection.
Ascanio, Arturo de and Etcheverry, Jesús. The Magic of Ascanio: The Structural Conception of Magic. Madrid: Ediciones Páginas, 2005.
Kuhn, Gustav, Caffaratti, Hugo A., Teszka, Robert and Rensink, Ronald A. “A psychologically-based taxonomy of misdirection.” Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 5 (2014). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01392.
Wonder, Tommy and Minch, Stephen. The Books of Wonder Volume 1. Seattle: Hermetic Press, Inc., 1996.
A feint is a military attack or manoeuvre that diverts attention away from a planned point of attack.