Teller Tells All: How Magicians (and Others) Manipulate the Mind


Like just about everyone else on the planet, I’m a big fan of Penn and Teller. Indeed, I’ve probably been a fan longer than most – since I first saw them in 1980, long before they became global superstars. That was literally before they were Penn and Teller; in those days, they were a three-person troupe billed as Asparagus Valley Cultural Society.  The third member, a geeky-looking fellow called Weir Chrisemer, reportedly left the act because he objected to some of the risqué material the other two came up with.


Years later, when I spoke to Teller after catching one of their performances in Las Vegas, I asked him whatever happened to Weir.  Without missing a beat he replied, perfectly deadpan, “we killed him and took his clothes.”  It was a characteristically quick-witted response. Though Teller doesn’t speak onstage, he was once a high school Latin teacher; and he’s always been, like his longtime partner, highly articulate and highly intellectual.

I recently read an article he wrote for Smithsonian magazine outlining the techniques magicians use to fool their viewers. It’s worth reading the original article, because he goes into more detail and illustrates with some specific tricks. But here in a nutshell are the 7 principles:

  1. Exploit pattern recognition.
  2. Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth.
  3. It’s hard to think critically when you’re laughing.
  4. Keep the trickery outside the frame.
  5. To fool the mind, combine at least two tricks.
  6. Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself.
  7. If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely.

All of these are interesting to anyone who appreciates a good magic trick – and who doesn’t? But some of them (especially 1, 6 and 7) are quite relevant to other forms of mental manipulation as well.  In fact, one of the most illuminating things about magic is that it helps underscore a fact about human nature that, depending on the context, can be either delightful or disturbing: people enjoy, and quite often crave, being deceived — even many people who are quite intelligent and well-educated. Witness the enormous success of Fox “News”. And many, many cases of the public willingly offering its eyes for the wool to be pulled over.

In the last post, we discussed a deceptively edited video distributed by “pro-life” manipulators that supposedly proved Planned Parenthood sells “body parts” from aborted fetuses. This was unquestioningly distributed by millions of shocked individuals who apparently never stopped to think that “pro-life” radicals might be able and willing to tamper with videos, even though they’d already done so not too long before. The video showed people what they wanted to see, so they assumed they were seeing it.

An even more vibrant example involved a video that wasn’t even tampered with. It was attached to a viral blog post claiming that the clip depicted a lawyer for President Obama admitting his birth certificate was a forgery. The video, of course, showed no such thing; yet millions of people passed it on, believing they actually had heard the lawyer say this, because that was what they really, really wanted to hear.

Or take the Second Amendment. Please. Anyone literate in the Mother Tongue need only read it to see that it absolutely does not unequivocally state that American citizens have a right to own firearms. Yet many Americans are willing to live and even die for such a nonexistent “constitutional right”.  Five prestidigitators on the Supreme Court told them it was there, and they believe that settles it. Not that they needed convincing; they’d already long insisted very loudly that they saw such a right clearly enshrined in the Constitution, no matter how much it wasn’t really there. The fakirs of the gun lobby had already been telling them, long before the Court got around to it.

When a magician fools us, we get something useful out of it – namely, diversion and delight. When a propagandist deceives us, other people get something out of it, to our detriment. Keeping an eye out for the techniques magicians use can enrich our appreciation of being taken in by a trick. Keeping an eye out for the techniques propagandists use can help prevent us from being taken in.


  1. Granted, there is a debate about whether the 2nd amendment refers to a “well regulated Militia,”bearing arms, versus what appears after the comma—mention of the rights of “the people” to bear arm, but knowing the hostile frontier which existed very near the original colonies, and the lack of a police force to enforce the laws there, I don’t see why assuming that the individual amendment directly applied to the rights of a well regulated militia AND the rights of individuals to bear arms as well, is such a deception. Whether or not such rights apply only to a well regulated militia, or also to individuals, still seems like a very logical and understandable debate to me.

    What I think is definitely not implied in the 2nd, is the question of whether gun rights are meant to apply without limits i.e. why should we assume that very dangerous weapons that could frequently used against citizens, be given an unconditional green light. Obviously no one needs to own a machine gun or a flamethrower in order to attend to his or her own self-defense, but the ownership of less devastating handguns and rifles does not seem quite as unreasonable.

    I generally don’t find Scalia’s rulings to be as persuasive as he think they are, but, according to the rules of grammar in the English language, can’t what is listed after a comma, be assumed to be a continuation of a list which includes other rights, or other examples of similar rights?

    As far as the state of our current society is concerned, there is no doubt about the importance of questioning just who is allowed to own guns, and what kinds of guns should be regulated, as being completely relevant, but simply granting Americans the right to self defense in some capacity through gun ownership, does not seem at all unreasonable to me, nor does Scalia’s reasoning seem analogous to that of a magician using sleight of hand. Even though his reasoning may be debatable and even though his rationale often seems to be the loose cannon kind, the man still can make some pertinent points. So I would call the idea that no regulations should be portrayed as being acceptable, as being a greater illusion than simply including the rights of militias to include individual citizens who also have a reasonable right to self defense as well.

    • There is some room for debate about what the framers of the Constitution intended, and even about what they actually said in the Second Amendment. But that’s just the point: because there is ambiguity, there cannot be an absolute constitutional right to own a gun.

      • And because there is ambiguity that is no reason to conclude that citizens don’t have the right to own certain types of firearms either. To me this freedom must be subjected to proper regulations but not denied or permitted without limits.

        The car analogy still seems like a good one to me. Most of us are granted the freedom to own and drive motor vehicles but only after proper registration with the DMV, and after meeting payment, insurance, registration, and licence renewal requirements—after all when someone pilots a three ton hunk of metal on a strip of highway at speeds in excess of 60 MPH, there is a definite risk to the public. And whenever there is a risk to public or individual safety it should be altogether appropriate for the government to step in.

        So the point is that nothing in the constitution is meant to apply without boundaries or rules, Although many people seem to think it is their god given right to own weapons of any kind, without limitations, it makes sense to me that certain regulations and background checks are appropriate limitations to place on gun ownership.

        You may be right to say that individual ownership is not a certainty in the 2nd, but the fact that there is room for doubt, certainly does not exclude that interpretation entirely either.

      • The point is, that it IS mere interpretation, and not explicitly stated, that there is a right to own guns outside of military usage. Courts always interpret how constitutional amendments are APPLIED,, but that is a different thing from interpreting what it SAYS, and proclaiming that interpretation to be absolute truth.

      • It seems to me that if the courts are to determine how any law is applied that first entails interpreting what the law says. To suggest that the 2nd amendment or any other amendment is the absolute truth as defined by any court is an “iffy” situation, but haven’t there been many differing opinions about the meanings of other parts of the constitution as well, and since that meaning may be re-interpreted by future courts, or those future courts have the option of changing their ruling, that seems to diminish the significance of any one interpretation being the absolute truth in the first place. Still we must all abide by what the SCOTUS says, even if we disagree, so in that sense what the court says becomes the absolute truth even though its meaning may be changed by future courts or by current justices themselves.

        Sorry but the entire issue seems like kind of a mute point to me.

      • Whatever else one might say about the gun culture’s Second Amendment arguments, the overriding fatal flaw is that ultimately they depend on an effort to use ambiguity to establish absolute certainty.

      • I agree about the gun cultures use of the 2nd amendment and its ambiguity. But are you saying that there is absolutely no questioning the idea that its real intent is absolutely and only to preserve the colonies rights to maintain an armed militia?

        I am assuming that at least four justices agreed with Scalia that the wording actually refers to both a militia’s establishment and the rights of individuals to own weapons. So how are so many fine legal minds able to agree on that interpretation if it is completely erroneous? I know that despite claims of complete objectivity, Justices are only human and prone to harbor their own biased opinions. So was the ruling on the 2nd one of those occasions where a conservative majority actually hijacked the Court’s opinion?

      • I can’t tell you what the intent was. And unlike the justices, I don’t try to — I’m not that accomplished a historian or psychic. What I can tell you is what the Second Amendment actually says. And arguments that it means something else or that something else was intended are self-defeating, because they introduce ambiguity; and if there is ambiguity there is no absolute certainty. Moreover, I submit that the founding fathers were probably competent enough to have stipulated a right to bear arms for any purpose if indeed that had been what they intended.

      • But the presence of ambiguity invites interpretations to affirm both an armed militia as well as the rights of individual citizens—so just to play devil’s advocate, if the true meaning is not made clear, then what is wrong with the current interpretation? If it is also unknown whether the founders wanted individuals to own weapons, doesn’t that give The Supreme Court permission ignore that assertion as well?

        I do feel that unregulated use of weapons should not be inferred from the wording of the amendment, but I don’t understand why both individuals and militias can’t both be included in the decisions of an informed Court?

      • The First Amendment guarantees your right to free expression, and it doesn’t specifically exclude exercising it by pissing on the White House lawn. So do you have a constitutional right to do that? It could well be that you could find some historical context for thinking the founders intended so.

      • Granted, no Amendment guarantees complete freedom to exercise rights without limitations, but is pissing on the white house lawn really the same kind of offense, as merely being an individual who owns a gun? What about the option that both a well armed militia and an armed individual may both rightly claim the right to use and own weapons, as that amendment is currently interpreted?

        I think the only excuse not to extend gun ownership to individuals, would be if it were absolutely clear that the 2nd does NOT apply to individual ownership, and since the Court’s interpretation has been controversial for a long time, it doesn’t seem that such an absolute certainty exists—or at least not one that has ever been affirmed by a majority of the Court.

        I think gun ownership is a grave responsibility and should be subject to prudent regulations, but not abolished entirely. Even though individuals who own weapons do not prevent crime in the way that the NRA claims, it seems acceptable to me that responsible individuals have the right to own a weapon for defense—not one that can fire many rounds in a short period of time, and not one that comes with magazines containing more than a hundred rounds, but weapons that are much less deadly than the weapons so often chosen by mass shooters.

        Its also my hope that eventually the Courts will be able to prohibit ownership unless ownership becomes contingent on obeying somes common sense regulations. I have had a driver’s licence for more than 40 years, which requires me to meet many requirements before actually being granted the privilege to drive, but even though my ownership is well regulated, the government has never taken away my licence, and can’t, unless I break established laws or defy proper regulation. So considering that the 2nd Amendment is NOT absolutely clear in its meaning, I see no reason why gun ownership should not be extended to individuals who meet similar requirements.

  2. I’ve really said all there is to say about this at the moment. But I’ll be doing more about the Second Amendment in the future.

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