The Conjurer by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1502
(note the pickpocket behind the spectator)

A raggedy-man crawled through a desert and came upon a well, guarded by a well-keeper. ‘Water,’ gasped the raggedy-man. The well-keeper looked at the raggedy-man. ‘This is my well,’ he said, ‘If you want water, you must pay me.’ He looked down at the raggedy-man in his raggedy clothes. ‘What can you pay me?’ he said. ‘I can teach you something,’ said the raggedy-man. The well-keeper smiled. ‘What use is knowledge in this desert?’ he asked. ‘This knowledge is very useful,’ said the raggedy-man. The well-keeper narrowed his eyes at the raggedy-man and then drew water from the well and gave it to him. ‘Now,’ said the well-keeper, ‘what can you teach me?’ ‘How to bluff,’ said the raggedy-man.

We think we know what deception is. Deception is lying, and if we are sharp enough to spot a lie, we will avoid deception. And yet there is more to deception than lying; what is more, deception plays a much greater part in life than is generally imagined.

The progress of the modern era is based on the assumption that we are no longer governed by superstition or ignorance. And yet for all the progress of the modern era, deception remains a part of everything we do. It informs all aspects of life, from the personal to the political. It plays  a central role in the media, public relations, suggestive selling, business negotiations and military propaganda. It is employed in the curriculum vitae, personal relationships, public behaviour, reputation, morality and even law.

Rather than eradicating deception, we have incorporated it into modern life by calling it tact, diplomacy, tactics, manners or discretion; indeed, by anything other than its proper name. When Friedrich Nietzsche said ‘the lie is a condition of life’, he was not wrong.

In spite of the part played in life by deception this we know very little about it. It is not taught in school; we do not study deception as we might study language or mathematics, and so we know little about its function or its mechanics. We leave school largely blind to its nature and we learn how to cope with it in life much as we learn how to cope with relationships and marriage; by trial and by error, by drawing information from often doubtful sources, and by figuring it out as we go. Yet deception can be studied just as any other subject can be studied. What is more, those who understand its mechanics have a distinct advantage over those who don’t.

American and Soviet War propaganda posters

There are those who not only understand deception, but practice it in a very deliberate manner, from stage-magicians to pick-pockets, confidence-tricksters, commissioned salesmen and public relations advisors. Indeed, it can be said that the most useful material for any study of deception comes from those who employ it for profit. The need to earn a living means there is little in the way of theory, or at least little which does not produce a practical outcome.

The moral stigma accompanying deception means that few who practice it will admit it openly. The exception being stage magicians, who by virtue of the entertaining way the skill is employed, are most able to speak most frankly about its mechanics, its practice and its methods. What is more, the stage magician must practice their skill to perfection, whereas even a shoddy thief can steal a wallet.

(The word ‘of’ is used twice above)

The most commonly used method in stage magic is known as ‘misdirection’, whereby the attention of the audience is directed away from where the actual trick is occurring into an area of no particular importance. While other aspects of the stage magician’s art – equipment, timing, presentation and conviction – are all worthy of study, for the most part they serve the purpose of misdirection.

The author and stage magician, Henning Nelms (1900 – 1986), who wrote Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers (1969), made the distinction between two types of misdirection, optical and mental. Of the two, optical misdirection is the easiest to define:

‘We use optical misdirection when we fix the eyes of the spectators on one point in order to keep them from watching some other point.’ [1]

Optical misdirection works because there is a difference between information and attention. ‘Information’ is the words on the page and ‘attention’ is the mind as it passes over them. The stage magician will direct the attention of the audience into an area where nothing particularly is happening, and – if done skillfully – will make the area indicated look highly interesting. To do this successfully, it is necessary to control the attention of the audience and – most importantly – to do it effortlessly, so the audience doesn’t suspect they are being manipulated.

Another example of misdirection can be found in the ‘whodunit’ or murder mystery novel, the author will introduce a ‘red-herring’ character early on in the story. The red-herring will bear all the hallmarks of being the real culprit, and all evidence will seem to point to this. Once the red- herring has been firmly established in the mind of the reader, the true culprit will be introduced, usually as an unremarkable character and of no particular consequence. The more the reader focuses on the red-herring, the less they see the real culprit, whose identity is then revealed in the penultimate chapter, more often standing behind the detective, holding a knife.

We might assume that misdirection is only employed in the context of the theatre or the penny crime novel, and yet the practice is actually quite widespread. A commissioned salesman will speak first of the benefits and the costs second, and if a slot machine did not display images of gold and wealth so brightly, no one would play it.

The slot machine or ‘one-armed bandit’

An example of this can be found when the practice is employed by pick-pockets. A busy train station is a useful venue. The victim, or ‘mark’, will be singled out when they are buying a ticket. Once the mark has been chosen, an attractive woman, or a ‘shill’, will place herself just in front of the man as they queue to board the train. While they queue, she will begin to engage him in flirtatious conversation. As the queue moves forward, she will choose the right moment to stop abruptly, causing the man to bump into her. She will then giggle seductively, and at that moment the man’s wallet will be picked by her accomplice, who will be standing just behind him.

The second form of misdirection outlined by Nelms, known as ‘mental misdirection’, has many of the same features, but it relies on psychology rather than spatial awareness. With mental misdirection, the expectations of the audience are primed so they interpret what they see wrongly. If a stage magician wants to produce a rabbit from an empty hat, they first have to convince the audience the hat is empty. Nelms describes mental misdirection in the following manner:

‘Logic requires a ‘frame of reference’ or ‘context’. A successful conjuring theme baffles logic by providing a false frame of reference.’ [2]

A false frame of reference means we do not see the situation for what it is, but rather as it is presented to us. A false frame of reference can convince us that a woman can be sawn in half and then reassembled back into a single whole again. What matters is not what is happening, but how it is perceived.

The sawing illusion by Horace Goldin (1921)

An example of mental misdirection in life can be found in the method employed by the confidence trickster, or ‘conman’, who will actively take steps to win the confidence of the victim before robbing them. This works by the conman presenting themselves as a ‘Good Samaritan’ in order to establish a bond of trust between them and the victim.

Another example of mental misdirection can be found in the field of public relations, whereby what is known as the ‘first story’ plays an important part in the way an event is perceived by the public. If a politician is about to be exposed by a newspaper for having an affair, he will be advised to come forward first, before the newspaper publishes it, admit it openly and apologize without reservation. If he does so, then any further revelations will appear like heaping blame on a humbled man. If he does not do so, then any attempt to justify or explain his actions will look like the denials of a guilty man. In this way, the ‘first story’ sets the frame of reference.

The headline as frame of reference

There is often a degree of overlap between the two forms of misdirection. If a forged banknote is passed off by a rough-looking man, it will be scrutinized and probably discovered. If the same note is passed off by a well-dressed and attractive woman, flustered that she is about to miss her train, it will go unchecked and unnoticed. With mental misdirection, what matters most is that what is presented is not questioned. This form of misdirection plays an essential role in propaganda, politics, spin, public relations and advertising.

We rarely get to witness the ‘behind the scenes’ activity that informs what is presented publicly; what is presented is – for the unquestioning at least – the whole of the truth. In the public arena, image is everything, and the success of a deception depends very much on the unquestioning nature of the audience. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527), the Renaissance thinker noted for his moral relativism, offered the following advice to Lorenzo de Medici in his book The Prince:

‘Men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because everybody can see you, but few come in touch with you. Everyone sees what you appear to be, but few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose the opinion of the many, who have the power of the state to defend them.’ [3]

Niccolo Machiavelli by Santi di Tito

Walter Lippmann (1889 – 1974), an influential figure in the field of public relations, coined the term ‘pseudo environment’ to describe the phenomenon of a false frame of reference in the media. He had the following to say about the use of authority for creating a suitable context in his book Public Opinion.

‘The established leaders of any organization have great natural advantages. They are believed to have better sources of information. The books and papers are in their offices. They took part in the important conferences. They met the important people. They have responsibility. It is, therefore, easier for them to secure attention and to speak in a convincing tone.’ [4]

Deception works because, for all our logic and reason, no amount of evidence will cause us to question what is presented if we are not willing to do so. What causes us to question what is presented is not logic or reason, but something commonly referred to as intuition or ‘gut-feeling’. Gut-feeling is generally regarded as something vague and undefinable and therefore not wholly reliable. With logic we can say with confidence what is right and wrong – a dog is an animal and not a vegetable – but intuition is like a whispering voice, like Echo to Narcissus, who speaks to us from somewhere beyond our direct attention. Gut- feeling appears ephemeral because it picks up on what is vague and ephemeral in the environment, and so draws our attention to what we do not see directly. Deception, by its very nature, is hidden from direct inspection, which is why we have to use gut-feeling and not logic to see a deception.

For all the rationalism of the modern era, the fundamentals of human nature have changed very little. Rather than freeing us from a superstitious past, technology has merely misdirected our attention away from something which should be central to any form of education, which is self-knowledge. What is required is not more technology, but more insight, and this can only come from developed intuition.

Seeing deception in life does not automatically turn us into cynics – unless of course we choose to become so. A white lie is not the same as a spiteful one, and we do know the difference. Once we see the part played by deception in life we can no longer live as children do, in the bosom of a trusted authority. The hallmark of a fool is not that they are stupid, but that they do not see their stupidity. To be wise is to see the world as it is, and to see the world as it is, it is necessary to see its blemishes as well as its beauty.

From the Autumn 2020 edition of Nascent State magazine


  1. Henning Nelms, Magic and Showmanship (New  York: Dover Publications, 1969) p.204
  2.  Nelms p.196
  3.  Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (London: Penguin Books, 2009) Chapter 18, p.38
  4. Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (New York: Macmillan, 1929) p.248