Deception and misinformation
Magic is an artform that involves deception and revelation to create experiences that violate our understanding of the world. In most instances this form of deception is simply used to entertain audiences, but similar techniques can and are deployed to intentionally misinform and mislead the public. Spiritualist medium have often used conjuring principles to convince the public of their supernatural powers.
In collaboration with Prof. Christine Mohr, at Lausanne University, we have run an extensive research project that examines the impact that such misinformation can have on people’s beliefs. In some of these experiments, we collaborated with magicians (Lee Hathaway) to create live demonstrations in which a medium was able to contact the spiritual underworld to divine information from individuals. To much of our surprise, a relatively large proportion of our participants believed that such phenomena were genuinely possible. What was even more surprising, was that telling people in advance that these demonstrations were accomplished through trickery had virtually no impact on our participants beliefs. Even when they were explicitly told that the demonstrations were fake, several of our participants believed that our fake medium’s supernatural powers were genuine. More worryingly, our results showed that such demonstrations, even when explicitly labelled as fake can enhance people’s beliefs in spiritualist phenomena. We have also conducted studies in which we used magic trickery to demonstrate pseudo-scientific psychological skills, such as body language reading, and here the effects were even stronger.
It's only once these demonstrations are entirely debunked, by explicitly exposing how the tricks are done, that the spread of misinformation can be mitigated. In fact, debunking a psychic demonstration reduced people’s beliefs in the paranormal, which suggests that such demonstration may offer a valuable tool to promote critical thinking. More generally we believe that magic provides a great tool to investigate the impact that misinformation has on our beliefs.
Some publications from this project
Kuhn G, Ortega J, Thomas C, Simmons K, Mohr C. (in press). Experiencing misinformation: The effect of pre-exposure warnings and debunking on psychic beliefs. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. July 2022. doi:10.1177/17470218221116437
Lesaffre, L., Kuhn, G., Jopp, D. S., Mantzouranis, G., Diouf, C. N., Rochat, D., & Mohr, C. (2020). Talking to the Dead in the Classroom: How a Supposedly Psychic Event Impacts Beliefs and Feelings. Psychological Reports, 0(0), 0033294120961068. doi:10.1177/0033294120961068
Mohr C, Kuhn G (2020). How stage magic perpetuates magical beliefs. In Laurens Schlicht, Carla Seemann, Christian Kassung (eds). In Mind Reading as a Cultural Practice. Perspectives on its Epistemologies, Technologies, Modes of Subjectivization, and Cultural and Political Dimensions in the Twentieth Century. Palgrave Studies in Science and Popular Culture. Springer Nature Switzerland (pp. 93-106)
Lan Y., Mohr C., Hu X., Kuhn G. (2018). Fake science: The impact of pseudo-psychological demonstrations on people’s beliefs in psychological principles. PLoS ONE 13(11): e0207629. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0207629
Lesaffre, L., Kuhn, G., Abu-Akel, A., Rochat, D., & Mohr, C. (2018). Magic performances - When explained in psychic terms by university students Frontiers in Psychology.
Mohr, C., Lesaffre, L., & Kuhn, G. (2018). Magical Potential: Why Magic Performances Should be Used to Explore the Psychological Factors Contributing to Human Belief Formation. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science. doi:10.1007/s12124-018-9459-1