Several other common beliefs were also disproven. For example, magicians often say that when asked to name a card, women choose the Queen of Hearts more than men do. In our sample, we found the opposite: men chose the Queen of Hearts more than women did, and women chose the King of Hearts more than men did.
Other results appeared to be completely new. For example, people detected most cards equally well, except for the Six of Hearts and Diamonds, which seemed to be misreported more than any other cards. In other words, people saw red Sixes that were not there. Also, women seemed to prefer lower number cards, and men preferred higher ones. We don’t know why.
A final interesting result was that the exact wording of the question seemed to influence which cards people chose. When asked to name a card, over half of the people chose one of four cards: the Ace of Spades (25%), or the Queen (14%), Ace (6%), or King (6%) of Hearts. If you’re like most people, you may have chosen one of these cards when asked at the beginning of this article. (A full list of cards and their frequencies is also available.)
But when asked to visualize a card, people seemed to choose the Ace of Hearts more often. In our sample, they chose it almost twice as often when asked to visualize (11%) rather than name (6%) a card. Perhaps something about the visualization process makes people more likely to think of this particular card.
Systematic studies such as these can help form the basis of a psychology of card magic. Magicians can improve their tricks by knowing which cards people like the best or choose the most. Meanwhile, psychologists can follow up on unexpected findings to understand why people may misreport seeing red Sixes or why the wording of a question may bring different cards to mind.
And this is only the beginning. Applying these results, we can uncover the mechanisms behind the principles of card magic. If magicians can influence the audience’s decisions, what factors enable this influence? Why do people still feel like they have a free choice? Answers to these questions could provide new insights into persuasion, marketing, and decision making. Ultimately, we hope to develop a science of magic, where almost any trick can be understood in terms of its underlying psychological mechanisms. Such a science can keep the secrets of magic, while revealing the secrets of the mind.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.