History: Alfred Binet's "Psychology of Prestidigitation"

As I alluded to in my first post, we are experiencing a renaissance in the psychological study of magic, but many of the ideas being tossed around today are simply reminiscences of past observations. It may surprise you to learn that one of the earliest researchers in psychology and magic was famed intelligence tester, Alfred Binet. In addition to creating the first intelligence test, Binet is credited with capturing the first moving picture of a magician (with the help of French photographer Georges Demeny). Recently, Richard Wiseman (2005) rediscovered the original footage collected by Binet of magician "Raynaly" vanishing a ball (seen below).

In 1894, Binet wrote a manuscript entitled "Psychology of Prestidigitation" in which he foreshadowed many pieces of current research, including the role of joint attention in magic (which I'll discuss in a subsequent post) and the exploitation of inattentional blindness and perceptual set. He also pointed to a problem that researchers are still having a difficult time tackling: the reduction problem. Binet said:
The illusion of each trick is not merely the result of one single cause, but of many, so insignificant that to perceive them would be quite as difficult as to count with the naked eye the grains of sand on the seashore.

Indeed, the methods of magicians are often multi-modal, disallowing reduction in the lab. If any piece of the method is removed, the illusion fails. Oftentimes, we see this with video footage of magic. Social cues to attention are weakened when magic isn't performed live, so consequently, misdirection often fails on video. Binet recognized
this phenomenon in his footage of Raynaly, noting:
We have not for one moment the impression that the exchange has actually been made...If the photographic proof destroys so completely the illusion, it is because it does away with all the adjuncts necessary for the illusion which we have enumerated: The rapidity of the trick, the little discourse given by the artist, the maneuvers which cause a diversion or a diminution of attention, etc.


Binet, A. (1894). Psychology of prestidigitation. Smithsonian Report for 1894 (pp. 555-571). Government Printing Office. Link

Wiseman, R. (2005, July 27). Trick and treat. Daily Telegraph. Link


freida said...
2:52 AM

I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post


Post a Comment