I Didn’t See a Thing — What Magicians Can Teach Us About the Science of Attention

You’re much worse at noticing things than you think, and magicians use this to divert our attention from things that are literally in front of our eyes

David Britland
Mar 27, 2018 · 8 min read
Eden Brackenbury

Listen to this story



When it was announced on the radio that there’d been a cop shooting at Grove Hall in Boston, Kenneth Conley, like many of his fellow officers, raced to the scene. Four suspects were making their getaway in a Lexus and a high speed chase followed, resulting in one police car crashing and the suspects’ vehicle being abandoned. The four made the rest of their escape on foot and Kenneth Conley jumped out of his own police car and followed. He saw one of the suspects, Smut Brown, scale a fence. Conley chased after him, doggedly pursued and eventually captured him.

It should have been a good night’s work. Instead it led to Conley’s imprisonment and a case that intrigued psychologists — all because of something Conley said he never saw.

What Conley didn’t see was devastating — he failed to see fellow officers beating up another suspect on the other side of the fence. This fifth suspect was actually a black undercover cop also in pursuit. When the undercover cop sued Conley and his fellow officers, Conley’s version of events was examined in the courtroom. When asked if he saw the undercover officer being beaten he said, ‘I should have.’ But he didn’t — he’d passed right by him.

How could he have missed a scene in which his fellow officers were beating someone up? All Conley could repeat was, ‘I didn’t see anything. I don’t know why I didn’t see anything. I wish I had seen something.’ The jury concluded that he had seen the incident — after all aren’t Police Officers trained to observe? — and that Conley was involved in some kind of cover up. He was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice.

The case dragged on for several years after the incident in 1995, and Conley was eventually sentenced to thirty-four months in jail. But the incident was still a topic of debate when it came to the attention of Dan Simons and Chris Chabris of the psychology lab at Harvard in 2001. Simons and Chabris were interested in attention, and the lack of it — how we manage to not notice things that are right in front of us. They wondered whether Kenneth Conley could have been telling the truth. Could someone be so engrossed in a pursuit that they would not notice a fight going on?

There is an old bar bet that demonstrates the same phenomenon. You can try it if your friend has an analogue wrist watch. Ask them ‘How many times a day do you look at your watch?’ and wait for the their answer, before asking — “Okay, here is a question. Does your watch have Arabic or Roman numerals?’

Believe it or not this stumps a lot of people. Have your friend check their watch. Then ask, ‘Does your watch have a number 6 on the dial, either Arabic or Roman, or some other marking?’ Once again, they’ll have to think about it. Many watches have another mark entirely or even a small dial showing the seconds.

Finally, when they’ve checked the watch for the answer, ask them what time it is. The point is, unless you are actually looking for the time, you will miss it even when the area you are looking at is less than two inches in diameter.

As Sherlock Holmes said to Dr Watson, ‘You see, but do not observe.’ Magicians often exploit our inability to observe — controlling the audience’s attention is a key part of conjuring. It usually involves distracting the audience away from the weak part of the method to something more inconsequential.

Harry Blackstone, a successful illusionist of the 1940s, was famous for presenting a trick in which he focussed the audience’s attention to such a degree that he created a miracle on stage. The trick involved a drum from which he magically produced great quantities of silk and flags. And then he whisked away this heap of colourful material to reveal a fully-grown donkey. It was an astonishing moment, and the method was a brazen manipulation of audience attention. While they were watching the silks emerge from the drum, Blackstone’s assistants were marching a donkey onto the stage right in front of them. No one saw it until Blackstone decided they should. Magicians think of it as an outstanding example of what they call misdirection.

Magicians also know that once a spectator’s thoughts are focussed on some specific task, they will fail to notice almost anything else that is put in front of them. One noted exponent of magic by misdirection was Slydini. He specialised in close-up magic and analysed how the movements of the magician’s hand and body could be used to focus the spectator’s attention to an incredible degree. One of his most famous tricks is a masterly demonstration of attention control. The premise is simple, the magician makes a number of paper balls vanish from between his hands without the spectator having any idea where they have gone. The rest of the audience is, however, in on the trick as they see the paper balls tossed over the head of the unsuspecting victim. It’s a clear case of the closer you watch, the less you see:

Heba Haba Al, a bar magician in New York, was another who used the principle of focussed attention to great advantage. One of his favourite tricks involved making a spectator’s selected card disappear from the deck and reappear under a beer glass that had been on the table just a few inches from the spectator. Given that the glass was in full view throughout it seemed utterly impossible that the card could have got there without anyone seeing it. But Heba was an expert at choosing the right moment to steal the card from the deck and load it under the glass. You can see a little glimpse of Heba Haba Al performing the trick here:

In 1999, Harvard Professors Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris created quite a stir in psychological circles when they devised an experiment that highlighted our inattentional blindness in a most amusing way. Building on the work of other researchers, they created a video of a ball-passing game and challenged subjects to count how many times the players in white passed the ball.

The counting task, like many of the spectator-tasks in a magic trick, was bogus. What the experimenters really wanted to know is whether you saw the gorilla that casually strolled across the room as the players bounced the ball. Just as no one noticed the time on their watch, the donkey that crossed the stage or the card that appeared under the glass, no one saw the gorilla.

It is often said that we see what we want to see. Expectation has a powerful effect on observation and, as the gorilla experiment proved, we are not good at spotting rare events. These include not seeing the cyclist alongside our car as we are about to turn a corner. Whether this is because we do not perceive the cyclist or are otherwise distracted is a moot point, but it brings to mind a very effective road safety campaign, called Eyes on the Road, that reminded cinema-goers in Hong Kong that a minor distraction can have life-changing consequences. In this campaign, a short film shot from the perspective of a driver is interrupted by simultaneously sending everyone in the cinema a text message. As the audience reach for their phones, the driver in the film crashes into a tree.

There are occupations, many of them critical, that depend on observation, and these provide rich areas of study for psychologists. In 2013, in an homage to Simons and Chabris, psychologists included the small photo of a gorilla in a series of CT (Computed Tomography) chest images when testing the observational powers of radiologists. Over 80% of radiologists failed to spot the gorilla. This despite the fact that eye-tracking software showed that over 50% of the radiologists who did not spot the gorilla had actually looked at it.

Before we sneer at those results we must remember that radiologists are not looking for gorillas in our scans. When the experiment was repeated with non-radiologists, 100% of them missed the gorilla:

But back to Kenneth Conley and the fight he said he didn’t see. It was journalist Dick Lehr, a reporter on the case, who introduced Conley to Dan Simons and Chris Chabris. He had heard about their gorilla experiment and wondered how Conley would fare on such a test. And so it was that in 2001 Conley took the gorilla video test. Conley spotted the gorilla immediately. Indeed, like the 50% who do spot the gorilla, he was surprised that anyone could miss it.

Conley went back to his life and Lehr wrote The Fence, the most comprehensive account of that fateful night. Psychologists worldwide, inspired by the gorilla video, continued to devise experiments that tested our attention. The debate about how much we notice went on.

Years later, in 2011, Simons and Chabris tried another approach to the problem. An experiment was staged in which subjects chased a researcher for three minutes. In an echo of the gorilla experiment they had to count how many times the researcher touched his head. This gave them something to concentrate their minds upon in much the same way that Conley would have been focussing on the suspect.

Somewhere along their route the subjects passed a simulated fight, with two people kicking and punching a third. The experiment was carried out during the night, when Conley’s pursuit took place. The surprising result was that over 60% of the subjects missed the fight. When the experiment was conducted during the day, 40% of subjects missed the fight.

‘We can’t say for certainty that Conley didn’t see the fight,’ said Simons, ‘But the study shows that even under less demanding conditions than he must have experienced, it’s possible to miss something as obvious as a fight.’ Author Dick Lehr wondered whether, if this study had been available at the trial, the science would have lead the jury to conclude that there was reasonable doubt as to what Conley could have seen that night.

While I can’t stage a fight for you, I can let you experience the work of another researcher into inattentional blindness and the limitations of observation. Dr Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire is not only a psychologist but also a magician, which is why you’re about to see him brandish a deck of cards as he invites you to watch his amazing Colour Changing Card Trick.

Remember — expectation is everything. Our brains are always choosing what we pay attention to, and because of this, we can miss things that are literally in front of our eyes.

Written by

I am a freelance writer and consultant specialising in all areas of deception including psychology, magic, the paranormal, con tricks and illusion.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store