The Fake Thumb

National Public Radio conducted an interview this week with a magician who talked about how he does one of his magic tricks and why it’s easier to fool adults than children. As you know, many magic tricks involve misdirection, which is getting the audience to pay attention to one thing while setting up and executing the trick.

The magician on NPR talked about using a fake thumb tip. To make a handkerchief disappear, he slips on the hollow plastic thumb, then pulls objects out of it to make them appear or stuffs them in to make them disappear. He conceals the thumb tip while wearing it and does the trick before the audience thinks the trick is being done. For example, the magician slips on the thumb tip while displaying a handkerchief. The fake thumb makes his thumb look longer, so he hides it behind his fingers and the handkerchief. Then he covers the fake thumb with his other hand and cups the fake thumb in his curled fingers. Now he stuffs the handkerchief into what the audience thinks is an empty hand, but one that actually contains the hollow thumb tip. During one stuff, he uses his real thumb, which is when he puts back on the fake thumb tip that contains the handkerchief. To keep people from noticing, he continues to “stuff” the handkerchief using his fingers into the now empty hand. He stops. Voila. He opens his curled fingers revealing that the handkerchief has disappeared.

What was interesting about the story was that children often notice the fake thumb. Adults are fooled more often because they focus their limited attention where the magician directs it. The kids’ attention wanders or perhaps they have the ability to focus their attention on more than one thing at a time.

Kids don’t have as much experience reading nonverbal cues as adults, but they may be better at taking in more cues at once. They may also be harder to fool. Children will probably realize you are upset even if you say you are not. You may be able to put on a good face and fool your friends, but that good face may not be as effective with children or with those who have seen your tricks before. We can hide our emotions to an extent. We can smile when we are angry, for example. But, some nonverbal signals may leak out. Some forms of nonverbal communication are harder to control. You have to know what to look for, discount the misdirection, and pay attention to more than one cue. The fake thumb is larger and the color is not quite right. The smile is not quite genuine and the voice sounds upset.

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