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What Is Misdirection in Magic? Learn About Types of Misdirection Used in Magic and 5 Tips for Using Misdirection

Written by MasterClass

May 20, 2019 • 6 min read

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In magic, the performer and the audience share an understanding: feats that appear to be real are actually optical illusions. When executed properly, all magic, deceives observers, tricking them into believing what they see. Magicians pull this off using the art of misdirection.


What Is Misdirection in Magic?

Misdirection—or direction, as some magicians prefer to call it—is the subtle, deceptive art of directing an audience’s attention towards one thing (a magical effect) so it does not notice another (the method or mechanics of a trick). It can refer to both the effect of a spectator’s mind being focused on an unimportant thing, or the action that causes it.

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What Is the Key to Misdirection in Magic?

It is important to note that misdirection is not mere distraction, pointing one way and performing an action while the audience looks away. Manipulation of that sort is not a trick—the audience knows exactly how the magician achieved the feat. The key to misdirection is that the audience is unaware of it, and feels that its attention was precisely where it wanted it to be throughout the performance—oftentimes studying the magician, looking for their sleight of hand.

How Is Misdirection Used in Magic?

Magicians use misdirection, or attention management, as a means of concealing the mechanics of their tricks. They can do this because the human brain naturally processes information in ways that allow it to be influenced to see certain things but not others.

  • Magicians learned misdirection through basic trial and error. This happened slowl, over centuries. Some magicians shared these secrets with the magic community in books such as Dariel Fitzkee’s Magic by Misdirection (1945) and Tommy Wonder’s The Books of Wonder (1996).
  • In recent years, science has confirmed what magicians already knew to be true. In their 2010 book Sleights of Mind, neuroscientists Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik detailed the science behind the visual cortex, the area at the back of the brain that processes visual information, and mental deception.
  • “The spotlight of attention.” It boils down to this: when a person is not focused specifically on something, they will not notice it. Even as their eyes receive visual input, their brain focuses only on what it considers to be important, the “spotlight of attention,” filtering out the rest. This phenomena, known as inattentional blindness, prevents the enormous amount of information that is constantly bombarding the brain from overwhelming it. In everyday life, this process helps people concentrate and do things like drive safely without every single thing they see muddying up their thought process.
  • In the context of illusions, magicians take advantage of inattentional blindness. They do this to make certain that the audience sees only what they want it to at all times. By focusing the observer’s attention on an object, person, or action, they will not process other visual input, including the magician’s method.
  • Did you catch that? For example, when executing a trick in which a coin appears to magically vanish, the magician will tell observers to watch their right hand closely as they make the coin they took from their left hand disappear. While focused on the right hand, they fail to catch the “false take,” that the coin never actually left the left hand.
  • The audience plays a big role. In this way, the audience, with its limited attention, is actually complicit in its own deception. As Teller, of the comedy magic duo Penn & Teller, likes to say, “the strongest lie is the lie that the audience tells itself.”

7 Types of Misdirection Tricks in Magic

There are several types of misdirection techniques that magicians use, both in isolation and in combination, to manage an audience’s attention:

  1. Social cues. In magic, as in life, people take cues from each other’s eye-movements and body language. For example, when humans observe people looking at something, they naturally want to look at it as well. Using this, magicians can direct an audience’s attention and influence their perception. To make the audience look at something, the magician need only look at it. By looking directly at the audience, the audience will, in turn, focus on the magician.
  2. Multitasking/splitting focus. Multiple tasks divide a person’s attention, so none of them gets full focus. Asking the audience a question—what color is this? What card is this?—is enough to create a moment of consideration and response during which the magician can perform a hidden action. Some illusions are specifically designed to split focus in this way. The cups-and-balls trick, which requires observers to follow three cups and the ball appearing and disappearing underneath them, decreases the attention paid to each cup so it is a third of what it would be if they were focusing on just that cup.
  3. Patter. Talking rapidly, such as Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller does, appears to be a style of showmanship but it is actually misdirection. Rapid-fire speech overwhelms the audience’s auditory and language processing capabilities, occupying the brain and limiting its ability to focus on other things, such as the magician’s method.
  4. Emotional manipulation. Emotional responses are the enemy of focus. When an audience laughs at a joke, reels in disgust at something horrifying, or even appreciates a surprising magical outcome, it loses focus momentarily, giving the magician a beat to perform a hidden act.
  5. Time misdirection. By letting time pass after an important action, talking to the audience or performing other actions before revealing the result, magicians allow the audience’s minds to forget the details of those important actions.
  6. Convincers. These are the actions a magician does that makes the audience consider and cancel out possible methods by which a trick could be achieved. Letting an audience member examine props, shuffle a deck of cards, or provide an object are all examples of convincers, as is passing a hoop around a floating person in a levitation trick to show that wires are not the trick’s method. While canceling out other methods, they also distract from the true mechanics of a trick.
  7. Repetition. Performing a trick a second time, using a different methods, combines the two methods in the observer’s mind, canceling out the weaknesses of both.

5 Tips for Using Misdirection in Magic

Mastering misdirection is difficult. Just because you know you need to direct your audience’s attention somewhere does not mean that you will be able to do so convincingly right away. Follow these tips to get your audience members to focus on exactly what you want them to.

  1. Keep misdirection in mind when creating tricks. Trying to cover up sleight of hand with misdirection after the fact works sometimes, but building it into your routine in the first place guarantees that it will flow naturally with the rest of the actions you perform in your routine.
  2. Use positive, not negative attention. When designing misdirection, don’t think of it as worriedly steering the audience’s attention away from something important and secret. Instead, shift focus toward something interesting but unrelated. Thinking this way will make your secret actions imperceptible.
  3. Practice. With the benefit of science and the collected knowledge of magicians, you know what will direct someone’s attention. To do so convincingly, however, while imperceptibly executing hidden actions, takes time. Practice in the mirror, in front of other magicians, and willing observers until your misdirection and sleight are flawless.
  4. Trust your technique. Remember that you are the center of attention and where you look determines where your audience looks. You may want to check that your sleight is going well, but fight the urge. You put in hours of practice to ensure your sleight is imperceptible, so trust the work you’ve put in.
  5. Don’t think about misdirection while performing. If you appear conscious of the hidden actions nobody else is supposed to know about, your audience will become aware of them. Focus instead on your story, your performance, and your audience, and it will keep attention where you want it.

Learn more magic tips and tricks in Penn & Teller’s MasterClass.