Magic tricks can help us better understand animal intelligence

orangutan laughs at magic trick screenshot youtube
Orangutan laughing at a magic trick. Credit: Dan Zaleski
[A]s a new Science: Perspectives article points out, it’s not just humans who get fooled by magic tricks. Many species of animals are likewise susceptible to these deceptions, which, as the authors of the article point out, is a good thing, as far as science is concerned. In fact, they’re outright encouraging scientists to use magic as a tool for studying animal thinking, behavior, and perception.

The idea is not as outlandish as it seems. The concept has been gaining traction over the past decade, as scientists increasingly experiment with various magical effects or tricks when working with animals. As noted by the authors, many researchers—whether knowingly or unknowingly—are using magic in the lab, such as the use of boxes with false bottoms when working with dogs and great apes, or the use of transparent string to confound New Caledonian crows with apparent acts of levitation.

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An overarching idea here is that, if a certain magic trick can fool both humans and animals, then we must share something in common in terms of our psychological, cognitive, and perceptual capacities. Such insights can lead to meaningful comparative analyses between humans and animals, but also between closely related nonhuman animal species. In addition to flagging the presence of certain abilities, magical effects can highlight cognitive gaps in the realms of perception, attention, and intelligence.

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