Why We Believe in Magic

In 1848, two young sisters in a small town in New York discovered they shared a room in their tiny farmhouse with a mysterious spirit.

Margaret and Kate Fox learned of this spirit’s presence through a nightly knocking sound in the walls, floors, and furniture.

To summon this mysterious spirit, Kate would knock on the floor which would be met with a responding knock from the deceased. The sisters would eventually communicate with their spirit through something of a Morse code of their own creation.

The spirit told them he had been murdered and buried in their cellar. Neighbors began requesting the Fox sisters communicate with their deceased relatives and they soon realized there was an opportunity to cash in on their abilities. This led to larger groups of paying customers.

Over time their séances evolved, including written messages and even the use of musical instruments. The spiritual movement of mediums spread in full force across the country and made the Fox sisters wealthy in the process.

Forty years later, Margaret Fox admitted it was all a hoax. The knocking sounds coming from the “spirits” were actually cracking sounds from the joints in her toes and knees.

Not everyone believed in the Fox sisters for their run as mediums but a surprising thing that occurred after the revelation that it was all a fraud. People didn’t want to believe it was all fake. The true believers assumed the retraction itself was a hoax, not the communication with the dead.

Once you’ve convinced yourself of something, changing the narrative is much easier than changing your mind.

In his book Experiencing the Impossible: The Science of Magic, Gustav Kuhn shows that most people would rather believe in magic than find out the secret behind an illusion.

Kuhn details a study by magician Joshua Jay and a psychology research team that showed participants video clips of over the top magic tricks. In one such trick, a magician made a helicopter appear seemingly out of thin air.

After showing them the clip, researchers asked whether participants in the study would rather discover how the trick was performed or watch another trick. The results are surprising:

Sixty percent preferred watching another magic trick, whereas only 40 percent wanted to know how the trick was done, illustrating that people are more interested in experiencing mysteries than in solving them.

Penn & Teller described a trick they performed on David Letterman’s show that saw 500 cockroaches crawl out of his top hat. The planning for the trick took weeks and cost a ton of money. Most people assume the duo would never hire an entomologist to provide just the right cockroaches or procure the special type of foam cockroaches couldn’t cling to or build a compartment in the hat from scratch.

It’s almost easier to just believe it was all a magic trick than think through the elaborate set-up involved to make it look so easy.

There’s a reason get rich quick, lose weight quick, and turn your life around immediately books will always find an audience. People want to believe these things are true. This traded turned $2,000 into $7.3 million in under 6 months and you can too!

We want there to be a secret path to wealth, health, and happiness. The alternative — that no secret actually exists — is much more depressing than the idea that some guru can come to your rescue.

This is true even for those who aren’t charlatans or hucksters looking to defraud you or pull the wool over your eyes. Take a look at these three stories I came across on Twitter this weekend:

There is plenty to learn from giants of business like Charlie Munger, Richard Branson, and Bill Gates. But THE secret or THE habit or THE book that will change your life probably won’t do you much good.

These people are the outliers and put in a ton of work to achieve their position in life. You can’t boil all of that hard work down into a simple formula. And even if you could somehow find that magic formula, you’d never be able to recreate the same circumstances they had.

We want to believe that magic elixir will fix our finances or relationships or health. The truth is these things all require hard work and a heavy dose of patience.

Experiencing the Impossible

Further Reading:
Making it Look Easy is Hard Work

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