Study turns over cards and minds to understand illusions


By Alison Roach

SFU masters student looks at the psychology behind card tricks

When someone asks you to choose a playing card, you have a completely free choice in which of the 52 you pick, right? According to SFU psychology graduate student and teaching assistant Jay Olson, you might have less choice in the matter than you think. Olson has recently co-authored a study called “Perceptual and Cognitive Characteristics of Common Playing Cards” that investigates the relationship between psychology and magic.

The study itself focused on a seemingly simple brand of magic: tricks using playing cards. Specifically, it analyzes how one psychologically perceives individual playing cards. “We were trying to look at how card tricks work in the mind. There are some tricks that we don’t understand how they work in the mind, as magicians and as psychologists,” said Olson. He revealed that there are card tricks that magicians don’t completely understand themselves, or the reason why magicians think that they work happens to be incorrect. This means that there are psychological processes going on that aren’t completely understood, or even recognized.

The study looked at psychological characteristics of cards to better understand how people treat them. Four specific factors were examined: “visibility,” how well people can perceive specific playing cards; “memorability,” how memorable certain cards are; “likeability,” how much people liked certain cards; and “accessibility,” how easy it is to access specific cards when asked to name one. Looking at cards through these lenses, the study distinguished several large differences in how specific cards are treated. For example, when asked to name a card instead of being asked to visualize it, people will choose different types of cards.

Some cards are more “likeable” than others, and this might depend largely on the audience’s past associations with them. For example, the research showed that women liked lower valued cards more, while men tended to favour higher valued cards.

“We’re not sure why . . . but maybe men associate cards more with card games; say, poker. If more men play poker, then maybe they associate those kinds of values more than women do,” Olson speculated. It was found that people’s perceptions of cards were strongly linked to their favourite card games. For example, players of “Big Two” liked twos much more than those who didn’t, since twos are highly valued in the game.

There were some universals, however. Most notably, the study found that when people were asked to name a playing card, most people chose from the queen or king of hearts or the ace of spades. Women were found to choose the king of hearts more than men did, and men chose the queen of hearts more often than women. These findings suggest that there are inherent cultural, social, or psychological values that certain cards possess.

Olson has been personally practicing and performing magic since he was five years old, but had never really considered the psychological implications of his tricks until four years ago, when he saw a story in the Vancouver Sun featuring Alym Amlani, a UBC psychology major and instructor at Kwantlen, and Dr. Ronald Rensink, a professor at UBC. Olson contacted the two and they became a group, going on to co-author the paper in Perception together. “We started out specifically studying how magicians influence people’s choices,” said Olson.

The research has brought out not only some insight into the minds of the participants, but into the minds of the magicians themselves. There is one specific trick the team computerized, in which a person is shown each card in a deck and is then asked to choose a card. The person will think that they have a completely free choice in this, but in reality the magician knows 99% of the time which card they will choose. When this trick was automated, it was found that the reason magicians thought this trick worked was actually partially or completely wrong. In the experiment the computer shows 16 packs of playing cards to the viewer, flipping through the first while trying to make the person choose a specific card, then a second pack to make the person choose a different card, and so on. When Olson had the magician who initially taught him this trick sit down to participate in the experiment, his friend was skeptical, and claimed there was no way his choice could be influenced in more than one of 16 trials. In the end, the computer had actually gotten him to choose 5 of the target cards. To this day, four years later, Olson’s friend still doesn’t believe these results. “It just shows that someone who knows it’s a trick, who knows what the trick is, still feels he has a completely free choice of the card he wanted. It shows how strongly people want to have a free uninfluenced choice, when in reality they don’t,” said Olson.

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