Hayden performing a magic show in uptown Charlotte

Think Like A Magician: 4 Books That Will Help You Think Differently

4 books that will help you think more like a magician! Psychology, behavioral science, and more.

Thinking Like a Magician Can Help You Get Ahead at Work

…or at least this is the idea behind an article written by Cryptologist and Illusionist David Kwong.
Kwong’s article is a fascinating read if you have ever wanted to learn about some of the utterly insane levels of preparation many magicians have gone through in order to create seemingly random and impromptu moments of wonder.
To summarize the first story, director Edgar Wright hired two magic creators, David Kwong and Blake Vogt, to his home to perform magic tricks so he could better understand the thought processes behind how magic tricks are created. After a full day of consulting, Edgar enthusiastically asks to see “One More Magic Trick Please!” (If it’s not too much trouble before you leave).
David asks him to name ANY playing card.
“Five of Hearts” announced Edgar.
David asks Edgar to pick up a shovel and dig in his backyard. Sure enough, at the exact point where he dug, a folded Five of Hearts had appeared!
Like Magic.
The kicker secret?
David and Blake had arrived a day earlier with a full deck of cards, and had buried each of the 52 cards in a grid system. So, it didn’t matter WHICH card he had named, all 52 were buried at different areas in the yard! Hours of preparation, planning, and hard labor just for 2 minutes of seemingly impromptu wonder.
Comedians get a credit for commiting to a joke. But few know the dedication and commitment to pull off a great magic trick.
For someone who wasn’t there reading this blog it may seem like an obvious method to the trick but think of the sequence of events from the spectator’s mind:

  • “I guess he could have planted that while I was in the bathroom earlier? No, because how would he know I’d say 5 of hearts?”
  • “He didn’t plan on it. It was MY idea for him to do a trick, not his… so nothing could have been planned out like that”
  • “This is MY house, with MY yard. I would have known if something had been tampered with…”

Performing an incredible magic trick requires a person to understand various aspects of the human mind:

  • Expectations – What does a person expect to happen in a sequence of events, and how can you surprise them?
  • Perception – How does the world look like through the eyes of the spectator? What are their beliefs about how the world works and how can you manipulate them?
  • Memory – What things will people remember, and what will they forget? How can you use this to your advantage in order to amaze or surprise them?
  • Attention – Where does someone’s attention go when a certain action takes place? How can you maintain control of their attention?

(Not surprisingly, many of these traits are also found in writers, directors, filmmakers and other creative mediums.)
Magicians have intuitively learned these concepts for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the past few decades that psychologists understand how it works.
If you are interested in psychology, magic, or how and why we make irrational decisions, then here are four books for helping you think more like a magician!

1. Thinking Fast and Slow  (Daniel Kahneman)

Courtesy of Amazon


Our brains think in two ways – Fast (intuitive, emotional) and Slow (rational, logical). Each chapter begins with a hypothetical scenario and asks the reader what they would do in each scenario. More times than not, you will find that you behave irrationally. However each chapter gives tips and advice of how you can make better decisions.
Ultimately, this is a really fun (and dense) book!

How Will It Help Me Think  Like A Magician?

There are psychological techniques explained throughout that magicians and mentalists indirectly use in their acts. A magician tricks the viewer into thinking they are using the logical side of their brain, but in fact it was the intuitive part all along.

This is one of the elements of a magic trick in my ZOOM Magic show.

One example is the irrationality of overconfidence. In this chapter, the CFOs of several corporations are asked to predict how the stock market will perform in the next year. It’s then revealed that the average CFO’s prediction was nowhere near the actual performance of the market! Even stranger was the more confidence the person felt about their own firm the more over-confidently they were in their predictions.
The people most likely to be fooled by a magic trick are people who are overconfident in their ability to “figure out” a trick. A classic line any magician hears is “I don’t get it… I was looking RIGHT AT HIS HAND THE WHOLE TIME!”. Chances are they weren’t – and if they had just briefly let go of their ego they could have thought “I probably didn’t see his hand reach into his pocket”.

2. The Invisible Gorilla by (Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons)


I had this one on hand at the time of writing!



Based on the famous basketball pass experiment. How many passes can you count? (Spoilers below)

How Will It Help Me Think  Like A Magician?

The book dives into cognitive blind spots, which are a key component of magic tricks that use techniques such as misdirection or change blindness. I think The Invisible Gorilla does a good job at explaining how easy it can be for you to totally miss seeing something, even when it is right in front of you.

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Performing Misdirection at Monday Night Magic in NYC.

This can help you in your daily life too. For example, in the gorilla experiment, most people miss the gorilla and the changing colors because they are focused on more important tasks such as counting basketball passes. In our daily lives, it’s really easy to feel like we are a giant gorilla when we walk into a room of strangers. But the reality is, most people are focused on other things like their smartphones.
The first time I ever did a magic trick I was so convinced that everyone would notice how it was done. I was nervous, frantic, and had a miserable time performing it. The secret (I thought) was glaringly obvious! It turns out, nobody noticed. Had I read this book when I was 9 years old, I might have had a different attitude early on.

3. Sleights of Mind (Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde)



Neuroscientists Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde explore how magician’s techniques trick your brain. Some notable magic acts studied include Mac King, James Randi, Johnny Thompson, and Teller (of Penn and Teller).
Overall a really fun read filled with fun stories of some of the best magicians of our time!

Me, Mac King, and my friend Chris Beason eating dinner after a corporate gig in Atlanta. Mac is freaking amazing and you can read about him misdirecting the neuroscientists in Sleights of Mind.


How Will It Help Me Think  Like A Magician?

This book directly shows the connection between science and magic, so I’d highly recommend if you specifically want to learn more about the psychology of magicians.
It is written from the point of view of a scientific non-magician, so the stories often involve the researchers watching a trick, learning how it’s done, and doing their best to explain how certain techniques trick your brain.It’s also really cool to see how those concepts apply to everyday life, such as the illusion of choice.
Although not perfect I’d say this book does a pretty good job at showing the ways that magicians may think of a magic trick and then coaching you as the reader to think from their perspective.

4. You Are Not So Smart (David McRaney)


Another One I had on hand!


Straight from the introduction:

“There is a growing body of work coming out of psychology and cognitive science that says you have no clue why you act the way you do, choose the things you choose, or think the thoughts you think.”

This book, much like Thinking Fast and Slow, is about cognitive biases you probably have, showing you how they can be irrational, and helping you make better decisions.

How Will It Help Me Think  Like A Magician?

There’s a piece from the book that I really like about how we make irrational decisions.

“You create narratives, little stories to explain away why you have up on that diet, why you prefer Apple over Microsoft, why you clearly remember it was Beth who told you about the clown with the peg leg made of soup cans when it was really Adam, and it wasn’t a clown.”

If we linked this to magic tricks, I would say many people create narratives in their own mind for why they picked a certain card, and how they were somehow deceived by an illusionist. People will even create a false memory of a magic trick that they have seen – describing an even more amazing trick than what had actually happened!

Fort Collins, Colorado. Close-up aftershow. There’s a magic trick I perform that has to do with manipulating memory, on the premise that everyone will remember the trick differently.

Part of being a good magician is allowing yourself to feel humility over the limitations of your own mind. Accepting the fact that you were fooled by a magic trick because you have certain cognitive blind spots, or that someone simply influenced your perception and thinking. Once you have accepted the fact that you can be fooled – whether you are a average joe or the smartest person in the world, you can then learn more about how you were fooled and you will see the world from a different perspective.
This is a fun read, and I think you will come out smarter having read it!