We like the feeling of being in control of our thoughts and our actions, and yet many of our behaviours are systematically influenced by external and internal factors (Ariely, 2008; Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996; Loewenstein, 1996). Likewise, our thoughts are often less unique than we intuitively believe them to be, and research on population stereotypes illustrates that most people will choose or think about similar things or objects when asked to make a decision (French, 1992; Grimmer & White, 1986; Marks & Kammann, 1980). Understanding the external factors that influence our behaviours may help individuals make more informed and freer choices (Appourchaux, 2014).
Baumeister suggested that free will is predominantly associated with cognitive processes involving conscious and controlled activity (i.e. System 2), rather than the nonconscious and automatic processes associated with System 1 (Baer, Kaufman, & Baumeister, 2008; Kahneman et al., 2002). Accordingly, a more useful view of free will is to think in terms of autoregulation and self-control mechanisms, a perspective that allows us to take advantage of the parameters influencing our thoughts and actions during our day to day lives. Magicians are masters at deception and creating the illusion of conscious will, and they use a wide range of forcing techniques, to give spectators the illusion that they freely and consciously chose a card, which in reality is predetermined by the conjurer (Kuhn, Amlani, & Rensink, 2008). This paper uses a forcing technique to investigate whether explicitly informing people that they are making a decision leads to a more deliberate decision.
Forcing refers to conjuring techniques which allow magicians to covertly influence a spectator’s choice or its outcome (Pailhès & Kuhn, 2019; Pailhès & Kuhn, submitted). These techniques are often used to create the illusion of precognition or mind reading and magicians have extensive real-world experience in manipulating the decisions people make. Back in 1894, Alfred Binet investigated magicians’ deceptive craft scientifically, and he observed that conjurers exploit spectators’ “laziness” without them becoming aware of it (Binet, 1894). In other words, conjurers intuitively try to manipulate the spectator into using more automatic cognitive processes, which are easily exploited to trick the mind. He further noted that magicians often use circumstantial influences to push a person to act in a predictable way. Nowadays, we refer to these processes as automatic behaviours, which often rely on heuristics, or a System 1 type of thinking (Kahneman, 2011; Kahneman et al., 2002). By observing conjurers performing tricks, Binet noted that if you are presented with three different objects, one alongside the other, most people choose the middle one. He also points out that this is probably due to the ease by which people execute certain grasping actions. Likewise, he noted that when people are presented with a sheet of paper that has been divided into 16 equal size squares, and they are asked to draw a dot into one of them, most people will choose the middle squares. As he writes, “there is therefore a kind of attraction exerted by the centre of the figure. Probably also because they provide more convenience to the hand.” (Binet, 1894, p.150/151). Magicians frequently exploit these types of cognitive heuristics and population stereotypes to force a decision (Annemann, 1940; Banachek, 2002; Jones, 1994). Magicians’ real-world experience and expertise in performing these tricks for large audiences have allowed them to identify psychological factors that enhance the possibility of the spectator selecting the forced item.
Several other papers have investigated forces that rely on different techniques and it is likely that spectators simply choose the easiest option. The “Classic Force” relies on the timing in which the magician is handling the deck of cards while asking the spectator to pick a card (Shalom et al., 2013). Shalom et al. showed that most people pick the card which is subtly handled by the magician who physically restricts the choice. Olson, Amlani, Raz, & Rensink (2015) investigated the “Visual Riffle Force” in which spectators are asked to visually select a card when the magician flips through the deck in front of their eyes—most spectators choose the card which is the most visually salient. Both forces have high success rates and showed that participants felt free even when they chose the target card.
Magicians have developed a large assortment of forcing techniques that rely on a wide range of cognitive processes (Pailhès & Kuhn, 2019). In this paper, we examine a forcing technique that relies on population stereotypes: the Position Force. This technique is based on the observation that people’s choices for random objects are influenced by the object’s physical position. According to the magic literature, people will be inclined to select the card that is the easiest to reach in the row (Banachek, 2002; Binet, 1894). This force is most commonly used with five playing cards (Banachek, 2002), but we decided to investigate the force with four cards to compare the results to forcing from our research program: here, the magician places four cards on the table in a horizontal row, after which the spectator is asked to select a card, by physically touching it. Results from an online survey on 91 magicians showed that most of them (68%) think that when we present four cards in a row on a table to spectators, the majority will choose the third card from their left. Their mean estimation of the percentage of people who would choose this target card was 57% of the spectators (SD = 15.9). Indeed, a recently published study from our laboratory using the Position Force found that 60% of the participants select the third card from their left while feeling free for their choice and underestimating the proportion of people who would select the same card (Kuhn, Pailhès, & Lan, 2020) (Fig. 1).
Moreover, research in other domains suggests that people’s choices are influenced by the physical positioning of an object.
Nisbett and Wilson showed in 1977 that when presented with four identical pairs of stockings, people tend to prefer the far-right one (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). Nowadays, consumer psychology (Chae & Hoegg, 2013), and nudge techniques (Dayan & Bar-Hillel, 2011) often rely on manipulating an object’s physical positioning with the intention of influencing people’s behaviour and choices. For example, people are more likely to choose an item, such as food (Kim, Hwang, Park, Lee, & Park, 2019), if it is positioned in a specific location, and this can be used to lead people towards healthier choices (Bucher et al., 2016). There are however some discrepancies about the exact way in which positioning affect people’s choices, with studies showing both edge advantage and aversion. Bar-Hillel suggests that these inconsistencies result from different choice characteristics, such as whether it is interactive or not (Bar-Hillel, 2015a). Accordingly, a choice is interactive when the payoff for someone’s decision is affected by another interested person. For example, in a game such as rock, paper, scissors, each player’s choice payoff is determined by the joint choices of both players. A further factor involves the amount of cognitive processing a choice requires to figure it out. Situations in which all items are evidently identical (such as the back of playing cards) fall into the category of choices that neither require processing nor interaction. In this case, we observe that people present an edge aversion rather than edge advantage (Bar-Hillel, 2015a, b).
Indeed, when presented with a selection of similar options, or identical items, individuals tend to choose items located in the middle position rather than those located at the edges (Christenfeld, 1995). This effect has been found with a range of items. For example, participants prefer middle items and avoid items located at the extremes when choosing among a row of arbitrary symbols, a toilet paper roll within a stall, a bathroom stall, and when picking products from shelves in supermarkets. The principle ruling these effects is thought to be based on a minimal mental effort (Christenfeld, 1995; Shaw, Bergen, Brown, & Gallagher, 2000). Indeed, research showed that when participants are asked to choose between similar highlighters, survey papers, or seats, they reliably prefer the middle items (Shaw et al., 2000). Bar-Hillel (2015a, b) notes that in such situations, it is not necessarily mental effort, but also physical one which is at play. The author further suggests that in these type of tasks, middle items are more reachable than those at the ends, because they are closer to the participants. Indeed, her principle of reachability dovetails this idea in that when all things are equal, people prefer objects that can be reached more easily. Accordingly, when people are presented with a horizontal physical display, their choice will be biased by this reachability principle, which might explain why they favour central items.
This behaviour, using a principle of least effort, is linked to dual-system theories of cognition (Chaiken, Liberman, & Eagly, 1989; Chen, Duckworth, & Chaiken, 1999; Evans & Stanovich, 2013; Kahneman, 2011; Kahneman, Frederick, Kahneman, & Frederick, 2001; Petty & Cacioppo, 1986) which argue that most of the time we use automatic, rapid, stereotyped responses rather than controlled ones (Tomlin, Rand, Ludvig, & Cohen, 2015). Research on the psychology of the self suggests that one of the most important human characteristics is the ability to modify our responses and therefore remove ourselves from effects of situational stimuli (Baumeister & Heatherton, 1996). It has been shown that self-control requires attention and effort (Baumeister, 2002; Baumeister & Heatherton, 1996; Hagger, Wood, Stiff, & Chatzisarantis, 2010) and that one of the main functions of our reflective system is to control thoughts and actions suggested by our automatic, impulsive system (Kahneman, 2011). Our System 1 (automatic type of thinking) is associated with greater use of diverse biases and heuristics, rather than our deliberative, reflective processes (Kahneman et al., 2002). Therefore, encouraging people to reflect before making a decision is expected to lead to lesser use of impulsive behaviours. Although there is some research examining the psychological factors that activate our automatic type of thinking (e.g. cognitive load and time pressure, Baumeister & Heatherton, 1996; Hwang, 1994; Vohs & Heatherton, 2000), less is known about how to activate more deliberate decisions.
This paper seeks to document the Position Force, investigating its success rate and how free participants feel even when they are influenced by the trick. At the same time, we seek to investigate whether it is possible to encourage participants to make more deliberate choices, impairing the success of the force. In Experiment 1, we examine whether a simple change in phrasing, making the choice explicit, can lead to this effect.