How Mentalism Works: the Psychology of Magic

Have you ever wondered how mentalism works?

When magicians perform spectacles that seem to defy the laws of nature, they do so by manipulating psychological reality. 

The Other Side of Magic: The Psychology of Perceiving Hidden Things

Whether a mentalist performs a card trick or a cold reading, we can't help but think it's impossible. Surely, no one can actually read your mind , right?

But that's just how things seem.

The real secret behind mentalism? Psychology.

While a psychologist uncovers the mechanisms of the mind, a mentalist exploits the errors of its system.

Here, we explain the many ways in which psychology makes mentalism work.

1. Cold reading is a social skill

Cold reading is a key skill in mentalism but did you know that it's also an important social skill?

To better understand this, let's discuss what cold reading is. Cold reading is a technique used in mentalism to make inferences about people's thoughts, emotions, or identities.

By by closely observing a person's body language, attire, and other cues, mentalists are able to guess what a person may be thinking. This information is then used to perform a trick that makes it look like one can actually read another person's mind.

Make no mistake though, cold reading doesn't mean a mentalist can't read your mind. They can; it just doesn't happen in the way you may think.

Social cognition is packaged as mind reading under mentalism.

In psychology, cold reading is a skill that helps people understand others. A 2013 study by Michael, Christensen, and Overgaard explained that social cognition helps people interact with each other by allowing them to infer other people's thoughts and feelings.

Aside from its social benefits, it also has functions that fall under evolutionary psychology. For one, it helps us steer clear of danger.

When someone is frowning and giving us glares, we avoid them because we know it means they're angry. When the person we're talking to during lunch seems to be looking at our plate, we offer them a bite.

Social cognition and cold reading look identical, don't they? The only difference between the two is how they're used.

The average person will only use social cognition to understand people's motives, feelings, and thoughts to maintain interpersonal relations.

A mentalist takes this a step further by presenting themselves in a theatrical way. Through smoke and mirrors, they turn social cognition into a magic trick.

If you want to read more about how mentalism works with regards to cold reading, you should check out the explanations for tricks in our cold reading listicle.

2. Joint attention bends spoons

A dog and a man look at something in the distance. If you look too, you'll fall prey to this way in which mentalism works..

Most mentalism guides will emphasize hand movement when studying sleight of hand tricks but did you know that it requires eye movement as well?

Joint attention is when two or more people focus on one object at the same time. This is different from when they only do so by coincidence.

In joint attention, the people who look at a given object agree to look at it. This can happen in two ways- explicit and implicit.

Let's say you're on a road trip with a friend.

Your friend, who is driving, is distracted by something they see from the right window. You, however, are looking straight ahead.

You see a cow cross the road and shout, “Look out!”. Because of this, your friend hits the breaks in time.

Pretty simple, right? Now let's move on to implicit joint attention which is the kind used in mentalism.

When joint attention is implicit, people track each other's eye movements and follow their line of sight. In the same scenario above, you don't have to shout at your friend to look.

If you friend can see your face, they would automatically notice how your eyes widen in horror. This information will draw their attention to what's ahead.

This quirk in the way people pay attention helps mentalism work by directing their attention away from an object. In the case of spoon bending, attention is taken away from the spoon towards hand movements.

Notice how a mentalism will move their hand dramatically as they perform a sleight of hand trick? They're doing it to distract you; and the fact that they keep their eyes on their hands makes a human's social brain focus only on that.

3. It's your brain, not your eyes, that deceive you.

Another tricky way in which mentalism works is by using our mental shortcuts against us.

If you've ever played fetch with a dog you'll know that they'll snap their heads in the direction a ball is thrown…even if you don't actually throw the ball. From just seeing your arm move as if its about to make that throw, a dog will immediately react to what it thinks is about to happen.

This ability to anticipate the future is also present in humans. While it can be a cause of disappointment, our expectations of the future allow us to process events quickly and respond to them accordingly.

Unfortunately, it's also one of the ways mentalists exploit our perception.

In 1912, Max Wertheimer wrote a book entitled “Experimental Studies of the Perception of Movement”. This book is a seminal piece for Gestalt psychology, a branch of psychology which originated in Germany.

In his book, Wertheimer explained that movement is perceived as part of a whole. This means that even if a particular action didn't occur, we would still think it did just because all of the actions related to it did.

Consider tricks where a coin or card disappears.

Our imaginary mentalist shows his audience a coin and asks them to watch him make it disappear. His superfluous movements capture our attention and direct it to his hands.

The mentalist then passes the coin from one hand to another. He then opens his palm and shows us an empty hand.

The audience thinks, “That can't be! I saw him move the coin from one hand to the other.”

But did they really? Or did they just expect him to move the coin after he brought his hands together?

It's important to note than in this trick, a mentalist has his hands formed into fists with the palms facing himself. No one can see where the object in his hand is apart from him.

Gestalt psychology is right when it says the whole is more than the sum of its parts but when it comes to mentalism, it's one key part that makes a trick whole.

Click on the video below to help you better understand all of the psychological principles of mentalism we've mentioned.

Lets see how mentalism works

In this video from Digg, Jonathan Hsu of Mtheory magic demonstrates how he performs mind blowing tricks. By deftly controlling people's perception, he is able to perform sleight of hand effortlessly.

Using attention control, Hsu conditions a participant to focus on the coin which will be used for the trick. He then makes a show of transferring the coin between his hands.

By pretending as if one hand was empty and the other as holding the coin, he is able to mold our assumptions of where the coin is. Misdirection is then used to further manipulate what we see or, at least, what we think we see.

Here's another video that explains how sleight of hand works in mentalism by exploiting cognitive blindspots.

This excellent TedTalk from Kyle Eschen flawlessly demonstrates sleight of hand by means of attention control and misdirection. While viewers are busy laughing at his dry, sarcastic humor, a cup appears on the table.

Though it seemingly comes out of nowhere, Eschen implicity tells us that he's been distracting us the entire time. By keeping us entertained, he is able to make us lose track of our surroundings.

A cup is a small object so we may be excused from not noticing it…but how about a gorilla?

The Monkey Business Illusion asks viewers to track how many times a ball is passed between the women in white shirts. Though this is a more complicated trick, it still uses the same concepts that Hsu and Eschen did,

By asking viewers to count passes, Simons conditions them to pay attention to the ball and block out other stimuli. This leads viewers to not notice a person in a gorilla suit walk by in the background.

The girls in black shirts and gray pants help make this illusion more effective. Since viewers are focused on the girls in white, they will only notice the blurred movements of the girls in black and miss the details entirely.

Using a black and gray gorilla suit allows the person to appear unnoticed. Viewers don't think anything is amiss since the color blends in with the scene.

Remember Gestalt psychology?

Here, the whole helps hide the part by making us associate black and gray with the women. Later into the video, we ignore the women in black entirely and write off ‘black and gray' as just being those women.

This leads to us not noticing the person in a gorilla suit walk by.

Magic is all around us.

Though we might think that it is entirely within the realm of fiction, there are multiple ways in mentalism works in the real world.

Armed with their knowledge of human psychology, mentalists captivate audiences all around the globe.

You probably find those mentalists impressive which is why you're here. Maybe you even want to learn how to become like them.

Now that you know how mentalism works via psychology, you can try it out yourself with these awesome mentalism tricks that will knock your audience's socks off.


If you’ve ever dreamed of quickly mastering mentalism and magic at a level that blows away even hardcore professional mentalists and magicians… then check this out.

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