Are we all just puppets on a string? Most people would like to assume that they are free agents – their fate lies in their own hands. But they’d be wrong. Often, we are as helpless as a marionette, being jerked about by someone else’s subtle influence. Without even feeling the tug, we do their bidding – while believing that it was our idea all along.
“What we’re finding more and more in psychology is that lots of the decisions we make are influenced by things we are not aware of,” says Jay Olson at McGill University in Quebec, Canada – who recently created an ingenious experiment showing just how easily we are manipulated by the gentlest persuasion. The question is, can we learn to spot those tricks, and how can we use them to our own advantage?
Olson has spent a lifetime exploring the subtle ways of tricking people’s perception, and it all began with magic. “I started magic tricks when I was five and performing when I was seven,” he says.
As an undergraduate in psychology, he found the new understanding of the mind often chimed with the skills he had learnt with his hobby. “Lots of what they said about attention and memory were just what magicians had been saying in a different way,” he says.
One card trick, in particular, captured his imagination as he set about his research. It involved flicking through a deck in front of an audience member, who is asked to pick a card randomly. Unknown to the volunteer, he already worked out which card they would choose, allowing him to reach into his pocket and pluck the exact card they had named – much to the astonishment of the crowd.
You can see a video of Olson blowing his volunteers’ minds below:
The secret, apparently, is to linger on your chosen card as you riffle through the deck. (In our conversation, Olson wouldn’t divulge how he engineers that to happen, but others claim that folding the card very slightly seems to cause it to stick in sight.) Those few extra milliseconds mean that it sticks in the mind, causing the volunteer to pick it when they are pushed for a choice.
As a scientist, Olson’s first task was to formally test his success rate. He already knew he was pretty effective, but the results were truly staggering – Olson managed to direct 103 out of 105 of the participants.
Unsurprisingly, that alone has attracted a fair amount of media attention – but it was the next part of the study that was most surprising to Olson, since it shows us just how easily our mind is manipulated.
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