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Mind control through the magician’s force

Back in 1893, Dessoir (Dessoir, 1893) noted that magicians have powerful ways of influencing people’s decisions, and that these processes provide a useful tool to study our sense of free will and agency: forcing techniques (Kuhn, Amlani, & Rensink, 2008). More than one hundred years later, current psychological research highlights that our subjective experience of free will may be an illusion and that instead many of our choices are influenced by a number of different unconscious factors.

Free will is at the center of human behavior, thoughts, morality, and responsibility. The idea that we are in control, and the causal agents of what we think and do, lies at the heart of our conception of ourselves.  Understanding the psychological factors that lead to erroneous sense of agency is therefore of great importance, and it has wide ranging implications for forensic assessments of criminal responsibility, criminal punishments and related public policies derived from this. 

The magician’s force illustrates a powerful error in the sense of free will, and this illusion has important theoretical (e.g. the understanding of the nature of human beings and how we make our decisions), clinical (e.g. thought insertion in schizophrenia, alien hand syndrome) and applied implications (e.g. marketing, political propaganda, well-being). Studying the processes involved in this illusion provides, among other things, valuable insights into decision-making processes, new ways to present choices so as to encourage better decisions related to health and well-being, as well as a better understanding of cognitive mechanisms that lead people to experience a distorted sense of agency.

Alice Pailhes is exploring the nature of forcing and aims to identify and investigate ways in which magicians covertly influence our decision making through forcing.  The project aims to 1) identify effective forcing techniques, 2) identify the psychological mechanisms that underpin these forces, and 3) investigate psychological factors that contribute to people’s illusory sense of free will. 

In collaboration with Yuxuan Lan we have been exploring a psychological force that we coined the Implicit Choice Restriction force, in which magicians use subtle implicit suggestions to restrict the items that come to your mind. We have since investigated lots of different forcing techniques and also developed a new taxonomy of forcing, which tried to group forces based on their common psychological principle.  Click here for some demonstrations and explanations of these different forcing techniques. 

Here are some of the papers that we have published on forcing 

  • Pailhès, A., & Kuhn, G. (2021). Mind Control Tricks: Magicians’ Forcing and Free Will. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 25(5), 338-341. doi:

  • Pailhès, A., Rensink, R. A., & Kuhn, G. (2020). A psychologically based taxonomy of Magicians’ forcing Techniques: How magicians influence our choices, and how to use this to study psychological mechanisms. Consciousness and Cognition, 86, 103038. doi:

  • Pailhès, A.,Kumari, S., & Kuhn, G. (in press).The Magician’s Choice: Providing illusory choice and sense of agency with the Equivoque forcing technique.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General

  • Pailhès, A., & Kuhn, G. (2020). Influencing choices with conversational primes: How a magic trick unconsciously influences card choices. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(30), 17675-17679. doi:10.1073/pnas.2000682117

  • Pailhès, A., & Kuhn, G. (2020). The apparent action causation: Using a magician forcing technique to investigate our illusory sense of agency over the outcome of our choices. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 73(11), 1784-1795. doi:10.1177/1747021820932916

  • Pailhès, A., & Kuhn, G. (2020). Subtly encouraging more deliberate decisions: using a forcing technique and population stereotype to investigate free will. Psychological research. doi:10.1007/s00426-020-01350-z

Here is a short film about what our research tells us about the sense of free will:  How magic helps us understand free will

Here is also a TED talk by Alice Pailhes on forcing . 


Dessoir, M. (1893). The psychology of legerdemain. The Open Court, 12, 3599–3606.

Kuhn, G., Amlani, A. A., & Rensink, R. A. (2008). Towards a science of magic. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(9), 349-354. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2008.05.008

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