Working wonders? investigating insight with magic tricks

Cognition. 2014 Feb;130(2):174-85. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2013.11.003. Epub 2013 Dec 1.


We propose a new approach to differentiate between insight and noninsight problem solving, by introducing magic tricks as problem solving domain. We argue that magic tricks are ideally suited to investigate representational change, the key mechanism that yields sudden insight into the solution of a problem, because in order to gain insight into the magicians' secret method, observers must overcome implicit constraints and thus change their problem representation. In Experiment 1, 50 participants were exposed to 34 different magic tricks, asking them to find out how the trick was accomplished. Upon solving a trick, participants indicated if they had reached the solution either with or without insight. Insight was reported in 41.1% of solutions. The new task domain revealed differences in solution accuracy, time course and solution confidence with insight solutions being more likely to be true, reached earlier, and obtaining higher confidence ratings. In Experiment 2, we explored which role self-imposed constraints actually play in magic tricks. 62 participants were presented with 12 magic tricks. One group received verbal cues, providing solution relevant information without giving the solution away. The control group received no informative cue. Experiment 2 showed that participants' constraints were suggestible to verbal cues, resulting in higher solution rates. Thus, magic tricks provide more detailed information about the differences between insightful and noninsightful problem solving, and the underlying mechanisms that are necessary to have an insight.

Keywords: Aha! experience; Constraint relaxation; Insight problem solving; Magic; Representational change.

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magic / psychology*
  • Male
  • Problem Solving / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Young Adult