On SAGE Insight: It is magic! How can impossible solutions prevent the discovery of obvious ones?

From Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology

Our progress and evolution are closely linked to our ability to develop innovative ideas, and the best solutions are often found by stepping outside the box. It can be difficult to relinquish old ideas to discover new ones, and this study investigated whether a potential solution to a problem can prevent people from discovering the true solution, although, they know that the first solution is impossible and wrong. To do that, authors used an original type of insight problem: a magic trick. They showed that if observers were given an obvious solution about how the trick can be done, they were significantly less likely to discover the true solution, even after the first solution was shown to be impossible. Magic tricks provide us with a toolkit to explore powerful failures in cognition, and although the false solution is typically used in conjuring tricks, we believe that mind fixing effects play an important role in non-magical problems and everyday reasoning.

The results raise an important and potentially alarming issue on how we solve everyday problems: if the simple exposure to an idea that is unquestionably ruled out can actively influence the way we represent a simple problem, how do our everyday erroneous beliefs influence our reasoning capacity? It is likely that representations linked to maladaptive ideas that have been activated for years can have profound and detrimental impacts on our ability to find better solutions.


When confronted with an insight problem, some factors limit our capacity to discover the optimal solution. Previous research on problem solving has shown that the first idea that comes to participants’ minds can inhibit them from finding better alternative solutions. We used a magic trick to demonstrate that this mind fixing effect is more general than previously thought: a solution that participants knew to be incorrect and impossible inhibited the discovery of an easy alternative. We show that a simple exposure to an obvious false solution (e.g., the magician hides the card in the palm of his hand to secretly transfer it to his back pocket) can inhibit participants from finding the real secret of the trick (e.g., he used a duplicate card), even if the magician proves that this false solution is impossible (e.g., he shows his hand is empty). We discuss the psychological processes underlying this robust fixing effect.

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Article details
It is magic! How can impossible solutions prevent the discovery of obvious ones?
Cyril Thomas, André Didierjean and Gustav Kuhn
First Published 1 Jan 2018.
DOI: 10.1177/1747021817743439
From Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology




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