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What magicians can teach us about foresight

Don't look where the magician wants you to

Magicians rely on tricking the eye and the mind to dazzle and puzzle us. How they do it offers cautions for exploring the future. We are easily tricked by the signals of change or blinded to them.

How do the things magicians do trick us?

Magician Teller of Penn and Teller (the silent one) explained ways a magician's tricks the audience in a recent article. Below are the tricks with my interpretation of parallel issues in exploring the future:

  • Exploit pattern recognition — Magicians make viewers trick themselves by relying on our pattern recognition. In foresight, we also interpret things from the known and the familiar. That obscures important unknown and unfamiliar change. 
  • Make the secret a lot more trouble than it seems worth — Magicians rely on their audiences not believing the magician would, for example, modify every card in an card deck to enable an illusion. Audiences assume something simpler must be going on. In foresight, we reach for the easier-to-understand implication or outcome. For example, we think the future will be a lot like today, with a few high-profile and highly-visible changes.
  • Make 'em laugh — Jokes distract audiences. In futures, we fall victim to 1). our own jokes about the future–"bet you're wondering where your flying car is" which make light of change or even foresight itself, or 2). others' sense that all this future stuff is a bit wild and crazy, so why look closely at it? 
  • Do the trick outside the frame — A magician get us to focus on their right hand while the left is "out of frame" hiding something in a pocket, for example. In futures, things that matter happen further afield than we think is relevant. What's right in front of us distracts us. 

So you risk being tricked when you set out to understand the future. The solution is to know that, acknowledge it, and fight it all you can. Don't look where the magician wants you to.

Image: By trialsanderrors [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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