Literally Psyched

Literally Psyched

Conceived in literature, tested in psychology

How to fool Houdini-and avoid fooling yourself


Alex Stone's "Fooling Houdini," out today from HarperCollins. Photo credit:

Last week, Alex Stone taught Wall Street Journal readers the world round how to steal a watch. It’s probably a safe bet that fellow magicians were none too pleased. Nor are they likely to have gotten a kick out of Stone’s new book, Fooling Houdini (out today), where the watch theft maneuver is but one of the effects that the amateur magician so shamelessly reveals. Shamelessly, that is, if you’re playing by the traditional rules of magic conduct, where, as Stone puts it, “exposure is seen as a form of vandalism,” something that “deadens the mystery and tarnishes the brand, shrinking all the grandeur in magic to the scale of an intellectual puzzle.”

But does it really? Stone certainly doesn’t think so. Though initially cowed by the magic community’s overwhelming insistence on a code of silence (one that even got him kicked out of his local magic chapter, after he published an exposé in Harper’s), he has since come to believe that the emphasis on secrecy is not only misplaced, but detrimental to the very practice of magic. In its exploration of Stone’s quest to become a better magician, Fooling Houdini becomes an ode of sorts to the principles of openness—a testament to the notion that when we strive to maintain secrecy, we are only fooling ourselves.

Secrecy, Stone argues, makes magic look finite, old, and stagnant—a washed-up pastime that is afraid of change, of criticism, of anything that might threaten its ascendance. It’s as if the community were afraid that magic would vanish if exposed. Not so, says Stone. Magic will remain magic no matter how many of its principles you open up to the public. “Practically every classic trick has been exposed at one time or another,” he writes—but that doesn’t make it any less classic. Instead, the revelation might even heighten curiosity: the more you know, the more there is to learn—an exposure of mystery that serves only to deepen that very mystery. The process is akin to physicist Richard Feynman’s approach to the mystery of physics. Each finding makes it clear just how much remains to be discovered, how vast the unknown and unknowable is as compared to the kernels of the known. “Magic is a science as well as an art,” writes Stone, “and in science, knowledge serves only to deepen the mystery. Each new find opens vistas on an unchartered territory at the edge of human understanding. Nestled within each answer lies another riddle in an endless stream of unknowns.”

That principle holds true far outside of magic. Take something as seemingly unrelated as fiction—or any writing, for that matter. Read all the books you will on the craft of writing, comb through as many interviews as you can with your favorite writers, collect as many ‘how to write a bestseller’s as you can get your hands on, and still, the writing you admire will not lose its magic or its grip on your imagination. Even knowing the entire plot, that surprise ending or that give-away spoiler—arguably the closest approximation to finding out the trick of a magic act—is unlikely to limit your enjoyment in any way. In fact, it might even make the process of reading more enjoyable.

In a 2011 study, psychologists from UC San Diego found that individuals who had seen a spoiler paragraph prior to reading a short story rated the story as more, not less, pleasurable. And that held true even of stories where the plot, the “trick” so to speak, was seemingly the center of the experience, such as one of Roald Dahl’s signature ironic twist tales or an Agatha Christie mystery.

Why? When we know the plot, the twist, the surprise, we become more able to focus on everything else: language, character, the intricacies of rhythm and technique. We may even pay closer attention than we otherwise would, trying to wrestle with elements that we hadn’t even noticed the first time around. While it may seem that the surprise is the epicenter of the experience, that initial perception couldn’t be further from the truth. Focus too much on trying to figure out what the twist will be and you miss the art of the telling. Know the twist, and even if you’d previously thought that the knowledge would ruin your experience, you find your attention free to take in a much richer panorama than it otherwise would—and your mind enjoying itself far more as a result.

So, too, with magic. As Stone stresses repeatedly, the trick is only part of the experience. Equally as—if not more—important is the performance, the whole package in all its artistry and psychology. Does your awe at a magician’s performance lessen with knowledge of technique—or does it instead grow deeper, with a new appreciation for the difficulties and subtleties of the craft? Does finding a trick out spoil the act, or does it enhance the pleasure of the reading—or the watching, as the case may be?

What’s more, even if we know each principle, there is always the barrier of perception itself: when it comes down to it, our eyes are not that quick. No matter what we know, there remains a disconnect between what’s in our mind and what our vision can discern. Take the case of optical illusions. Even if we know they are fake—and know all of the principles behind them—we will be affected all the same. They never stop working. They never stop fooling us. And we never stop loving them, even if we know all of the science behind them. If anything, knowing the background helps us appreciate them even more. We know, and yet we are still tricked. Again and again. There’s something giddy about that.


Does knowing a trick's technique undermine its magic? Photo credit: Steven Depolo, Creative Commons.

But, argue proponents of secrecy, the viewer’s experience is only half the problem. What of that other devil—the ability of others to appropriate your act, the argument that a lack of secrecy means not only ruining the magic for those who watch but also enabling others to “steal” your material?

Here, too, the argument falls short. For one, there’s a chasm between knowing a principle and being able to recreate in practice—or even being able to notice it. Knowing the technique behind a trick in no way means you can repeat the trick itself, just as knowing all about a writer’s style in no way means you can create your own literary masterpiece. (Or artistic masterpiece, for all that. At best, you’d be an imitator or a forger. Never an innovator or one the greats, be it of magic, literature, or art.) Think you can steal a watch now that you’ve read Stone’s explanation? Think again—and be ready to put in the hours upon hours of practice that are required, as he’ll be the first to tell you, to attain any semblance of proficiency. Knowledge itself, absent skill, application, time, and true engagement, means little. Want to steal my book or my magic act? Good luck to you.

But perhaps the most important argument against secrecy lies outside both the viewer and the performer, at the very heart of the craft itself: innovation. If a technique behind a magic trick becomes known, you are more likely to try to find a new one—a new approach, a new trick, a new act. (Nothing is quite as satisfying, Stone says, as being able to trick a room full of magicians with a new sleight of hand.) But if the technique remains secret, why in the world would you bother coming up with anything new?

The point shouldn’t be underestimated. It may, in fact, be the single biggest argument in favor of openness, be it in magic or elsewhere. It’s not only that competition forces improvement. It’s also a question of never knowing just when that very openness may prove to be the key to a central innovation. Take Stone himself: when he finally finds the inspiration for his act, it comes from outside magic. His defining secret, as it turns out, lies in mathematics. Had he devoted himself only to the study of magic, he never would have found it. And had he not opened his act to mathematicians, they never would have been able to help.

Houdini himself published many of his own secrets. Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons.

In Stone’s case, he himself was the seeker. But openness also allows for accidental discovery in a way that would not otherwise be possible. How often do seminal advancements in a field come from the outside world, brought in by someone with a new outlook, a fresh perspective, a novel background who is not stymied by set ways of thinking? There is even a think tank that has been founded on the principle of outsider insight.

I can’t help but think of those scientists—specifically, psychologists, the ones I have direct experience with, but also, I’m sure, representatives of other disciplines—who do their utmost to veil their experiments, methods, and ideas in secrecy, lest someone beat them to the punch. Data isn’t shared freely. Approaches remain proprietary. Lips remain sealed. It’s the traditional magician’s ideal world—and it is one that hurts the science and public alike.

I’ve been shocked at how often I find the same ideas cropping up over and over in parallel literatures—under different names, and with no reference to one another. That’s the result of a field that doesn’t communicate, that not only remains secretive but also frowns upon forays into any other discipline—a lack of openness in its own area as well as a lack of openness of mind. External interests are something akin to betrayal.

But who are you really betraying when you follow that approach? You never know where that crucial innovation will come from. Close the field, you close the opportunity.

Secrecy seems anathema to innovation and creativity, to any real, meaningful progress, be it in magic or science. When we insist on secrecy, we may think we’re fooling everyone, Houdini included. But at the end, the biggest victim of that deception may well be ourselves.



Leavitt JD, & Christenfeld NJ (2011). Story spoilers don't spoil stories. Psychological science, 22 (9), 1152-4 PMID: 21841150

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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