By Dan Bennett, Senior Behavioural Strategist at Ogilvy Consulting’s Behavioural Science Practice


When magic really works you can practically hear minds racing in the room to figure out what they’ve just seen. Pupils dilate and heartbeats skip when the seemingly impossible happens in front of your face.

But the greatest illusions often use the smallest of methods.

Anyone interested in magical theory will tell you that magicians are in fact ‘guarding an empty safe’. Whether that be invisible thread, a marked deck of cards, or a special pen that transmits what’s written to a nearby iPad; there are only a limited number of methods and products available. The magic is all in the performance.

 And these same gizmo’s and devices will be used by everyone from an 8 year old child who has been gifted a kit from Hamley’s to a professional magician who can perform miracles right in front of your eyes. And what separates these two groups out is the creative thinking (some would say magical thinking) that goes into the presentation.

The child will dutifully read the instructions to the invisible thread and attach the spring to his collar and a playing card … all whilst urgently demanding his mum ensures she doesn’t let any natural light in the room that could expose the thread.

Whereas a magical thinker might usher an audience into a dark room, explain how in dark rooms static electricity can be generated by thoughts in the brain. After seconds of distress and straining from the performer they would manage to raise the card from the deck and have it fly out towards the nearest person in the audience to catch.

That same little bit of thread can go a long, long way if it’s used in the right way.

And although behavioural science isn’t magic and behavioural scientists certainly aren’t magicians the same can be said for the principles at the heart of the discipline.

There is no Magic Circle of behavioural science. Our methods are out there, open access … and easily learnt. What remains unique is the ability to apply them creatively, the magical thinking that happens with the principles to achieve the effect.

Sometimes these effects can be unbelievable.

Adding in slight friction to a scenario can dramatically alter behaviour. Simply transitioning paracetamol ‘pill bottles’ to ‘blister packets’ has been attributed for an approximate 43% reduction in overdoses in the UK. The principle of friction wasn’t new, but the application here was magical.

Neither is the principle of Chunking new, breaking down a task to make it easier to digest. But the idea of chunking up a course of pills, and turning the last chunk red so they seem like “finishing pills”, is a creative leap of genius which significantly increases the likelihood patients will finish the full course of tablets.

And the list really does go on.

The behavioural science industry needs magical thinking more than ever before. If we continue to execute the principles very literally people will start to see the mirrors and strings. We need magical thinking to innovate the way use our principles, so we continue to find new and effective ways to change behaviour.

Because after all, the next generation of magicians are inspired by the miracles … not the tricks.


There's more from Ogilvy Consulting's Behavioural Science Practice as Pete Dyson explains how it can be rational to think crazy here.