Learning from: magicians

The principles behind illusion can help to inspire a safer, healthier working culture so it is worth OSH practitioners knowing some tricks of the trade

Photo Credit | Alamy

Magic has been part of safety and health education for nearly 20 years. But using trickery to understand psychology is even older, with Alfred Binet studying this area in the 1890s.

IOSH Magazine spoke to Dr Gustav Kuhn, Ivor Smith and Rubens Filho, magicians with different backgrounds. All have something to share that can benefit OSH professionals. Kuhn has been involved with the Wellcome Collection exhibition “Smoke and Mirrors: the psychology of magic” (a free exhibition in London that runs until 15 September 2019), which provided valuable material for this article.

The psychology of magic

Kuhn started as a professional magician, but became so fascinated by the psychology behind the magic that he took his talents into academia. He teaches psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and wrote about links between magic and psychology in his book, Experiencing the Impossible: the science of magic, which was published in February. Kuhn runs the MAGIC (Mind Attention and General Illusory Cognition) lab at Goldsmiths, where he studies what magic tricks tell us about the human mind.

“Magic is about preventing people seeing what exists or making people see what doesn’t exist, sometimes both,” he says. 
“It exploits cognitive loopholes. This has major implications for understanding health and safety. If you’re not aware of those loopholes it’s easy to blame people for mistakes. Awareness of the loopholes might help in designing systems that are more resilient to error." 

The design of a work environment might prevent us seeing what does exist, such as a warning light or damaged equipment. Sometimes during an audit, inspection or accident investigation we see what we expect to see. Understanding how magicians exploit our perception, our memory and our recall can help to recognise where these problems occur in the workplace.

We start by looking at four examples of the loopholes exploited by magicians and what these tell us about OSH. Then we examine ways that magic has been used to inspire a safer and healthier working culture. Kuhn provides examples of his illusions on YouTube, so if you can view these before you read each section it will make reading this a more magical experience!

1. Misdirection (youtu.be/qKjETmS-mJs)

One natural principle magicians exploit is that, when there are large movements and small movements, the human visual system focuses on the larger (see disappearing lighter illustration below). “If the right hand moves a long way to the left hand, the small movement of the fingers towards the palm to hide a sponge ball is easily missed,” he says. Kuhn illustrates this principle with a disappearing cigarette lighter in the YouTube video.

Consider how this could apply in your workplace. The movement of a vehicle across a wide area might hide the fact that the forks on a lift truck are being raised at the same time or that the bucket on a digger is tilting. If you watch someone walking away from a noisy or dusty area, are you aware of the precise moment they remove their hearing protection or dust mask? Would you be able to say with certainty whether they are far enough away from the hazard at the time the PPE is removed? 

Kuhn says social cues enhance this effect: “We tend to look where other people are looking or pointing. If I look at my right hand, the audience is likely to look too – missing what is happening with my left hand.”

Joint safety inspections are intended to bring more eyes, ears and minds to the process, but if all the eyes are looking the same way because of social cueing it is easy to miss something

We see experts in our workplace and don’t like to challenge them. If our peers don’t question something, why would we?


2. Change blindness (youtu.be/qblOKInU6Ik)

A card trick demonstrates the phenomenon of change blindness. Kuhn shows you six cards (see illustration below) and asks you to think of one of them. He magically throws away one of the cards and then shows you the remaining ones. Everyone looks for the card they thought of – it’s not there. Whichever card you thought of, it’s not there. With sleight of hand, the magician has replaced all six cards with five different cards, but with the same range of colours and mix of court and number cards.

Given the similarities between the cards, most of the time (unless primed for the trick) the viewers don’t notice that all the cards have changed. Each of us focuses on our own card, not on the other five. My card has disappeared, so the magician must have known what card I selected. The phenomenon is known as change blindness. If you watch the video, Kuhn changes something else that most people don’t spot first time around, but I won’t spoil it for you.

In the workplace, recognising change blindness is important. Small changes over time might be ignored. The floors get greasier, the machinery noisier, the floor surface more uneven. If an auditor has been asked to work through a specific checklist, there can be misdirection towards just those items on it, while something significant is ignored. Like the fire risk assessor who is obsessed with the position of extinguishers but fails to notice that the new fire exit has no signage or lighting.

“Much of our work shows that people can look directly at something, yet they still do not see it,” he says. The six-card trick would be easy to detect on subsequent viewings, focusing on a different card each time. One workplace response to our change blindness could be to look for different hazards on each inspection rather than focusing on the same checklist each time.

3. False memories (youtu.be/mc0gQcP20pg)

The vanishing ball illusion demonstrates two loopholes (see illustration below). The first is that we predict what is going to happen from what has happened before. The second is that, having made a prediction, we are more likely to develop a false memory that whatever we predicted really happened. Our brains will fill in any gaps with what we expected to see.
In this illusion, Kuhn throws a ball into the air. Once. Twice. Three times. On the third occasion, the ball does not fall back down to the magician’s hand. Two-thirds of the audience swear they saw it go up the third time. “This demonstrates people often see things they believe will happen in the future, but that did not take place,” he says. As with other tricks, social cueing enhances the effect. Kuhn looks up each time he throws (or pretends to throw) the ball and, generally, everyone else does too, missing what he does with the ball in his hand.

The implications of this for investigating accidents are clear – witnesses, even the injured party, might genuinely believe they saw something on a given day because they had seen it on other days and expect to have seen it on that day too. On Monday and Tuesday I saw a guard on the machine. If Jack’s hand was trapped in the machine on Wednesday, he must have removed the guard. Referring back to the magic trick, on the third “throw” the ball was not thrown upwards. In the workplace, on the third day the overnight maintenance staff had not replaced the guard, so it was not there when Jack started work.

The fallibility on which the magician relies for the success of the trick results in an inaccurate accident report and incorrect remedial measures. A witness or the injured party might genuinely believe they saw something on a given day because of an expectation based on what they had seen previously.

However, even when we haven’t seen something before, our brains are influenced by expectations and social cues. Kuhn and colleagues returned to the vanishing ball illusion to ask a further question: did the trick work if people had never seen the two true throws first? A primed group saw the trick as before – two true throws and one false, while the non-primed group saw only the false throw. As before, around two-thirds of the primed group believed they had seen the ball being thrown and disappear. Did the non-primed group do better? Some did, but one-third of the group, influenced by expectations and social cues, still believed they had seen the ball being thrown.

4. False solutions – Tommy Cooper (youtu.be/ueMr0z21mBw?t=155)
A terrific example of false solutions has been on show at the Smoke and Mirrors exhibition. For those who cannot attend the exhibition in central London, watch the YouTube video from about two-and-a-half minutes in. This is not one of Kuhn’s tricks, but one from the late, great British comedian and magician, Tommy Cooper. Cooper appears to be making a mess of a trick, clumsily hiding an egg. He plays with the audience, misleading them into thinking they know how he’s done the trick. Suddenly, the audience realise they are wrong, and cannot see the solution at all.

This is of key relevance to accident investigations. In “Clear your head” (IOSH Magazine, February 2018:  bit.ly/2E2f21a) we looked at how hindsight bias, anchoring and confirmation bias affect accident investigations. Cooper’s trick could be used to prove to an investigation team how quickly we grab for an easy solution to a mystery, and how difficult it is to let go of that idea and consider different explanations.

That our beliefs affect how we explain events is not a new discovery. The Smoke and Mirrors exhibition features the work of Richard Hodgson and Samuel Davey in 1887. They invited people to a seance where ghostly activity was faked. The accounts that attendees wrote of what they had observed omitted important events that would not support their belief in the paranormal (such as movement from the “medium”). Other events at the seance were recalled as having happened in a different order. Similar studies have been repeated since, with similar results. “Bizarrely,” says Kuhn, “even in 21st-century studies where people are told in advance that the paranormal effects are faked by a magician, a proportion still convince themselves they are real by leaving out important details.”

Although we are unlikely to attribute accidents at work to paranormal activity, this is a strong reminder that our pre-existing beliefs can influence how we remember things. Anyone with a strong belief about accident causation (it’s always the fault of the worker; it’s never the fault of the worker) should be aware of this fallibility. Kuhn’s findings suggest some ways to overcome this. 

“If there was any ambiguity in our debriefing, some people would still resort to a supernatural explanation,” he says. “We had to explain exactly how each deception was achieved to overcome this.” 

Although when looking at an accident the precise circumstances might not be known, by educating ourselves on a broader range of causes for similar accidents, perhaps the tendency to grasp for the easiest explanation can be reduced.


Magic for soft skills

Rubens Filho is the director of magic at Abracademy (abracademy.com). Trained as a lawyer, his teenage hobby of performing tricks led him to abandon law in favour of soft skills training. He explains the relevance to OSH: “More and more health and safety leaders are understanding the importance of non-technical skills like creativity, curiosity, listening skills, social skills, persuasion, influence and empathy. These are skills where magicians rule.”

Abracademy uses magic as a tool for learning and development. “We can stretch professionals outside their comfort zones so they can be more effective and take the perception of the health and safety profession to magical heights,” Filho says.

“With magic, people surrender into the learning journey in a very powerful way. Magic opens their minds and shifts perspectives.”

Shifting perspectives can be a critical part of moving an organisational culture. “If OSH professionals can be more curious, innovative and confident – therefore more magical – they are likely to have a much greater impact in the businesses where they work,” Filho adds.


Safety training

While Kuhn started as a professional magician and moved into academia, Ivor Smith and his business partner Jeff Burns started with conventional jobs and a part-time interest in magic. Burns was a chartered accountant in the oil industry and Smith was head of marketing in economic development at Aberdeen City Council. As an amateur magician Smith incorporated tricks into his presentations for council staff. His approach was spotted by the authority’s training team and encouraged. Smith decided to go part-time and develop a management training organisation with Burns and another magician, Bill Duncan. Initially they focused on team development and organisational change, but responded quickly when asked to use the same approach for safety training. “Safety hadn’t been on our radar but, once we understood what messages organisations wanted to present, we were able to create presentations with magic around those messages.”
By 1999 there was enough work for Burns and Smith to give up their day jobs, and work with Duncan full-time, forming Fifth Dimension (www.fifthdimension.biz) to deliver inspirational sessions to the business world. With the tagline “safety doesn’t happen by magic” they have an ever-increasing range of tricks and magic workshops to illustrate principles of safety behaviours, attitudes and soft skills. “We use magic as a visual aid to reinforce key behaviours,” says Smith.

For example, they use a card trick that works for Smith but not for Burns – until they work together. They use the trick to make the point to the audience that safety requires everyone to work together in the same way. In another (illustrated during a TEDx talk at bit.ly/2SVAPzK) the magicians have the entire audience trying to follow along with a physical exercise. At the end, the magicians’ hands are released, but everyone else’s hands in the audience are tied. Smith and Burns explain the importance of accurate instructions and effective training. Other tricks illustrate worker engagement, seeing the bigger picture and healthy lifestyles.

Complacency and hazard reporting is another target for Smith. “People are not always comfortable challenging unsafe behaviour from their colleagues,” he says. “We shock people into realising this using a Russian roulette-style trick. There is real danger in the trick, both for us as performers and the audience member helping us. You might get away with an unsafe behaviour several times, but eventually it can catch up with you. You can see the audience wince! They are fully aware of the danger. But no one ever suggests that we stop because it’s dangerous. This leads to a great discussion – unpacking the reasons why they didn’t intervene, and why they don’t intervene in the workplace.”

Of course, we trust magicians to keep their assistants and audience volunteers safe. They are the experts. The assistant sawn in half will be reassembled safely; the rabbit in the hat will be treated in accordance with animal welfare standards; the people playing Russian roulette will not be injured. The rest of the audience too seem happy with the process, so why would we intervene? The parallels at work become clear. We see experts in our workplace and don’t like to challenge them. If our peers don’t question something, why would we?

Smith remarks on how memorable the Russian roulette trick is for those who have experienced it. “Compared with reading bullet points on the importance of raising safety concerns, this is visceral, and people remember it. I’ve had people come up to me ten years after a session, and they can still recall how they felt.”

Final act

Kuhn’s illusions point to a common finding. “When we make a decision we’re not necessarily aware of why we made that decision,” he says. “Decisions are driven by unconscious processes, and the rationalisation happens post hoc. Post hoc rationalisation is an illusion.”

A final thought relates to the sense of wonder that magic creates, something mentioned by both Kuhn and Smith, and on the Abracademy website (see box, above). The idea of making significant changes in a workplace – changing the safety culture, reducing the accident rate, embarking on an ambitious project of training or software adoption – can seem impossible. Perhaps demonstrating that apparently impossible events are possible through magic will give a project the kick-start it needs. 



Bridget Leathley is a freelance health and safety consultant, providing risk management support in facilities, retail and office environments.  She delivers face-to-face safety training including IOSH and bespoke courses, and contributes to e-learning courses through evaluations and design work.  She has been writing for health and safety publications since 1996.  

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