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Perceptual elements in Penn & Teller's "Cups and Balls" magic trick.


Magic illusions provide the perceptual and cognitive scientist with a toolbox of experimental manipulations and testable hypotheses about the building blocks of conscious experience. Here we studied several sleight-of-hand manipulations in the performance of the classic "Cups and Balls" magic trick (where balls appear and disappear inside upside-down opaque cups). We examined a version inspired by the entertainment duo Penn & Teller, conducted with three opaque and subsequently with three transparent cups. Magician Teller used his right hand to load (i.e. introduce surreptitiously) a small ball inside each of two upside-down cups, one at a time, while using his left hand to remove a different ball from the upside-down bottom of the cup. The sleight at the third cup involved one of six manipulations: (a) standard maneuver, (b) standard maneuver without a third ball, (c) ball placed on the table, (d) ball lifted, (e) ball dropped to the floor, and (f) ball stuck to the cup. Seven subjects watched the videos of the performances while reporting, via button press, whenever balls were removed from the cups/table (button "1") or placed inside the cups/on the table (button "2"). Subjects' perception was more accurate with transparent than with opaque cups. Perceptual performance was worse for the conditions where the ball was placed on the table, or stuck to the cup, than for the standard maneuver. The condition in which the ball was lifted displaced the subjects' gaze position the most, whereas the condition in which there was no ball caused the smallest gaze displacement. Training improved the subjects' perceptual performance. Occlusion of the magician's face did not affect the subjects' perception, suggesting that gaze misdirection does not play a strong role in the Cups and Balls illusion. Our results have implications for how to optimize the performance of this classic magic trick, and for the types of hand and object motion that maximize magic misdirection.


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    PeerJ 1: 2013 pg e19

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    Journal Article



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