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Magicians and the military

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  January 15, 2013 02:00 PM

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Buried inside the New Yorker’s incredible profile of the pickpocket magician Apollo Robbins, which has been bouncing around the internet all week, is an intriguing detail: the Department of Defense is working with Robbins to teach military personnel about deception.

Curious to know more about what this unlikely collaboration might involve, I began looking into the connections between magicians and the military – and found there’s a rich affinity between what magicians like Robbins do and the military practice of “counterdeception,” figuring out when and how you’re being deceived.

For the military, effective counterdeception is critical; it means the difference between falling for a ruse and perceiving the real intentions of its foes. Magicians know about it too, of course, because they deceive people for a living—and as a result they turn out to be some of the best teachers of a skill that is really hard to learn.

There are two primary challenges that make counterdeception difficult. The first is psychological—we’re generally overconfident in our ability to perceive what’s happening around us and once we think we know what’s going on, we stop considering alternative explanations. As a 1981 manual on counterdeception put it, “deception seldom fails when it exploits a target’s preconceptions.”

The second challenge is analytic: Even once you’ve acknowledged you’re being deceived, it’s still very hard to identify the truth amid the many forms the deception could be taking. The book “Strategic Denial and Deception” quotes Montaigne to this effect:

If, like the truth, falsehood had only one face, we should know better where we are, for we should then take the opposite of what a liar said to be the truth. But the opposite of a truth has a hundred thousand shapes and a limitless field…There are a thousand ways of missing the bull’s eye, only one of hitting it.

On our own we lack the instincts and the processing power to uncovering deception consistently. To address this problem, the not-for-profit military consulting firm Mitre has developed a system called Analysis of Competing Hypotheses that formalizes counterdeception. You collect data on a situation, look for data points that seem anomalous, and then work through alternative scenarios that could explain these anomalies.

One of the best-known techniques for this type of anomaly-centered counterdeception comes from magician Jeff Busby, who devised what he calls the “Ombudsman’s Method” for searching for discrepant information. In 1984 he gave a lecture at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in which he had a group of seasoned intelligence officers watch a video of a magic trick called the Sucker Sliding Die Box. He instructed them to document all the gestures and movements in the magician's performance that seemed unrelated or anomalous to the final effect. And after several viewings – in which they stripped down the performance to everything the magician didn't want them to be looking at - most were able to figure out how the illusion was achieved.

For a related read, take a look at this Ideas story from a few years ago, about how during the Cold War magicians taught CIA operatives sleight-of-hand techniques like how to drop poison into the drink of an unsuspecting Soviet.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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