Stuart Scott – deception consultant (#78)


Stuart Scott is an Influence and Deception consultant. Stuart has worked as a theatre manager at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, been a professional stage magician in London, Germany and South Africa, and worked as a magic consultant. He spent 10 years at the British Council, the UK’s international education and cultural relations organisation. This work included time as a speechwriter, and 2 years posted at the British Embassy in Baghdad advising on the development of an Iraqi national education strategy, as well as a period supporting UK training in Afghanistan. Stuart also has extensive experience working with the British military and NATO on issues of cultural engagement, influence and information management. He now advises corporations on counter-deception.

Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?

As a magician, it’s quite unusual for magic tricks to truly amaze me these days. That isn’t to say I don’t enjoy good magic. I do, I just appreciate it differently. I found Eric Chien’s close-up routine amazing; combining world-class sleight of hand with a wide range of other techniques, strong internal logic, imagination and flair.

There is plenty that amazes me outside of magic. The Fletcher-Capstan table is something I recently saw and it blew me away with how clever and well engineered it is.

I’m amazed (or perhaps shocked?) by certain politicians and their ability to command support while saying things that are demonstrably untrue. In fact, I’m not sure if it’s the exploitative politicians I’m amazed by or the general public’s ability to respond positively to such obvious lies!

I remember being enthralled by the rescue of 12 boys from a cave system in Thailand last year. The situation seemed utterly impossible – the boys were trapped kilometres underground without food, the water was rising, they didn’t know how to dive. I found the combination of international cooperation, professionalism, planning, lateral thinking and sheer heroism to be quite amazing and awe inspiring. The incident held my attention for days. An emotional and intellectual conundrum for the international community to solve. The amazing achievement of bringing all the boys out alive made me feel elated.


How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?

I think there are parallels between diving and the sense of wonder that magicians attempt to achieve. Wonder is like that moment when you jump feet first into the ocean. There is a moment of surprise, a sense of discombobulation as you are suddenly in unknown territory, but this is accompanied by a feeling of being safe and secure.

Then there is the feeling of awe. Appreciating this new experience, trying to make sense of it, while not being in control of it.

And then comes curiosity – when you’re sufficiently comfortable, you start to explore what’s there, what it means, and what it could mean.

In the military you hear the term ‘shock and awe’. I think that shock is an experience with similarities to wonder. Both experiences involve surprise and both involve confusion, but with wonder we have a sense of security or calm. With shock we experience fear.


Can you tell me about your career and the journey you’ve been on? What projects are you currently working on?

I have had a very peculiar career. It occurred to me recently that I’ve only ever had two jobs I actually applied for – most of my work has come about through taking opportunities that have arisen or offers that have been made.

Magic and, more specifically, the ability to think like a magician has always been a passion. I used to watch magic tricks on TV and could often work out how they were done. Rather than just expose the methods, I thought it would be more fun to learn to perform the tricks. I’ve also had a strong interest in international relations and the notion of doing something meaningful with my life.

I realised that as a full time magician I couldn’t really work in international relations as a hobbyist, but if I worked in international relations I could still be a magician in my spare time. I think the reality is that I can’t stop being a magician. There is a wonderful quote from a book by Paul Curry called “Magician’s Magic”. He states that what sets a magician apart from a regular person is ‘a greater than normal sense of curiosity’ and that the magician is ‘usually a puzzle solver, an early-chapter guesser of murderers in mystery stories and generally, a prober into what makes things tick, click or buzz’.

Magicians often use an ‘effect-based’ approach to solving problems. We think about the end effect we want, no matter how impossible that might be, and then we edge back slowly to a point where we can make it possible – or at least appear possible. Conventional problem solving tends to work the other way – ‘method-based’; a person looks at the available resources to see how they might be applied to a problem and sees how close they can get to the solution.

After a decade working internationally with the British Council on educational issues, I did some consultancy work on engaging with communities in warzones. In one meeting a senior army officer asked ‘where are you getting these ideas from?’ I shrugged and said, ‘I used to be a professional magician’. That comment set me on a new path.

At present, much of my work is on deception, often advising corporations on issues of counter-deception. What types of deceptive attacks might be used against you? What steps can you take to avoid being deceived? How do you defend against conmen? I am also working on a couple of things around debunking fraudulent psychics and exploring the work of street gamblers.


There is a rich (and possibly embellished) history of magicians being involved with military deception. How much truth is there? Who has had the most impact?

There are numerous stories of magicians utilising magic in support of their country during wartime. Robert-Houdin, the famous French magician, was said to have averted an uprising in Algeria by showing tricks to the locals as a demonstration of France’s magical superiority; Houdini apparently trained the US navy in how to escape from sinking ships; and Britain’s Jasper Maskelyne, known as The War Magician, has been attributed with vanishing the city of Alexandria, amongst other things. All of these stories have one thing in common, if they are true, they are heavily exaggerated. It should be remembered that magicians, as well as being performers of magic, are showmen and good self-promoters.

Perhaps the real purveyors of magic principles in wartime are not known as magicians. Archibald Wavell, Dudley Clarke and Ewen Montagu are perhaps not well known names connected to magic, but their particular flavour of sneaky thinking used many of the principles of magic. Montagu for example played a key role in Operation Mincemeat, a ruse using a dead body off the coast of Spain to disguise the 1943 invasion of Sicily. A magician may seek to misdirect your attention from one hand to the other, this ruse aimed to do the same thing, just on a continental level. (Of course magicians don’t tend to use real dead bodies!)

Prisoner of War escapes are another area where allied soldiers applied performance magic techniques. Michael Sinclair’s so-called Franz Josef escape attempt from the famous POW camp Colditz Castle, while unsuccessful, made use of disguise, simulation, transposition, split second timing and audacity – all tools in the magician’s toolbox.


Has magic ever saved your life?

I’m not sure about saving my life, but I have certainly used magic in a wide range of ways that I hope have helped other people. When I was in Indonesia, a homeless man approached me and offered to show me a magic trick in return for some money. I watched, he wasn’t bad, but his cards were old and worn out. I produced a pack of cards, showed him a couple of tricks, and then taught him a couple of moves that I hoped would help him – and I gifted him the cards.

I’ve used magic to defuse potentially confrontational situations. Magic tricks are a good icebreaker and can help switch aggression for interest. While at university, I had to talk someone down from committing suicide. Without going into too much detail I used a complicated ruse that involved vanishing a razorblade and having it reappear elsewhere. Needless to say it worked and they didn’t self harm.


What makes someone or something suspicious?

This is a complicated question! Suspicion, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. There are two broad types of suspicion – there is what I call Confidence Suspicion and there is Consequential Suspicion.

Confidence Suspicion relates to what you believe to be true and what you believe to be false. There are multiple things that will mislead you to suspect something to be true when it is false, or to suspect something to be false when it is true. These might include who told you, your previous experience or simply the way something looks.

Consequential Suspicion relates to what you believe to be relevant or irrelevant. This is the realm of suspicious behaviour. Some things tend to attract our psychological attention, whereas other things do not. Our suspicion tends to be attracted by things that are unusual, unexplained, incomplete, or don’t readily make sense to us. Human beings have a tendency to want to understand things and to scrutinise the novel. If something doesn’t conform to the norms of our environment, or contravenes our expectations, then it arouses suspicion – we think about it, we question it and we might want to scrutinise it.


In a recent talk I heard you say that a key part to allaying suspicion is “Providing the answers to questions someone hasn’t asked yet”. Could you tell me more about this?

If aroused Consequential Suspicion is about the unknown, unexplained or unexpected, one approach to allaying this suspicion is to ensure that an upcoming behaviour is pre-emptively explained so the audience expect it. If a lady on a train gets up and leaves her bag next to you, you might understandably be suspicious – what’s happening? Where is she going? Does this bag represent a risk to me? The lady might choose to allay your suspicions before they arise by saying, ‘excuse me, I’m just going to get a cup of coffee, would you mind just watching my bag?’

If a magician wants to palm a coin from his pocket he needs to reach into his pocket. This may raise a question in his audience’s minds, ‘why is he putting his hand in his pocket?’ This action would arouse suspicion. Knowing that his audience are likely to think this question, the magician might wish to pick up a packet of cards and put it into his pocket, and then palm the coin. The audience no longer think, ‘why is he putting his hand in his pocket?,’ instead they are thinking, ‘he put his hand in his pocket to put the cards there’. Instead of a question, the audience have an answer – albeit the wrong answer.


How does a ladder or a pint of milk give you freedom to move in a secure area? Is it true about the grand piano being stolen from Harrods?

Office workers may notice a stranger walking around their office. It may not be clear what that stranger is doing, or whether they even belong there. By virtue of being a stranger this arouses suspicion. A conman may opt to wear overalls and carry a ladder when he is moving around the office. He is still a stranger, but his clothing and the ladder tell a story – he must be a maintenance man of some sort. These props answer the office workers’ question – who is this stranger and what is he doing? The real answer might be: he is a conman and he is reconnoitring the office; the inferred answer is: he is a workman and he is doing maintenance. Similarly, if the conman is carrying a bottle of milk it implies that he must be going to the coffee break area. Props like these can allay suspicion and give conmen free reign to move about a space unquestioned.

I was once told a story about how a grand piano was stolen from Harrods. The thieves came into the store dressed in overalls and carrying workmen’s equipment. They carefully lifted the piano up in full view of staff and shoppers, put wheels under it, and slowly wheeled it out – apparently the security guards even held the doors open for them. The openness and audacity with which the thieves operated meant that no one questioned their actions. Everyone just assumed that they were taking the piano to be tuned, rather than just stealing it. I suspect that this story is apocryphal, but thieves have certainly used this approach elsewhere – a former general manager for the Starwood Hotel Group told the story of how a piano was stolen from the lobby of a hotel, and there was a report of three thieves stealing a baby Steinway grand piano from a Toronto hospital in the same way in 2013.


How do you like the term anti-curiosity for allaying or diverting suspicion?

I like the term anti-curiosity a lot, but it may be best to think of it as an aspect of allaying suspicion. Sometimes a deceiver wants to prevent suspicion from arising, other times a deceiver may allow suspicion to arise and then allay it afterwards.

A magician might divert suspicion without reducing someone’s curiosity. Magicians often use ‘sucker tricks’ where the audience is allowed to believe that one explanation is true when it isn’t. A magician may let an audience believe that a ball is palmed in his hand. The audience has elevated suspicion about the hand, which diverts psychological attention from what might really be happening. When the magician casually opens his hand revealing it is empty, the audience’s suspicion of the hand is allayed, but may have no where else to go. In this case, allaying of suspicion and reduced curiosity are not the same.

Anti-curiosity would mean preventing curiosity from arising in the first place. This might work on one level by the deceiver providing justifications for different actions and events. If a deceiver provides a clear reason why things happen before events occur this reason may be accepted at face value, so curiosity isn’t piqued.

A more insidious form of anti-curiosity would be an approach I call Cognitive Constriction. This is a drawn-out process that requires the deceiver to impose rules, laws or ethical restrictions on a target, preventing them from conceiving of a particular concept. This is the sort of approach a cult might use. A cult leader may have sufficient sway over his congregation that he can instruct them to give certain thoughts no mind, and anyone who asks awkward questions is branded an enemy. While unusual, this is the territory of Thoughtcrimes that George Orwell talks about in 1984.

It puts me in mind of a scene from the Jim Carrey movie, The Truman Show. Truman tells his teacher that he wants to be an explorer like the great Magellen, only to be told, “oh, you’re too late, there’s really nothing left to explore.


It strikes me as someone who works in education that often inexperienced teachers provide answers to questions the students aren’t asking (or don’t see as relevant). In doing so the students aren’t interested or engaged. Is there a parallel here to your work?

I think there is. If a friend gives you a murder mystery book and tells you that “it’s a cracking read and a really good mystery”, you might start reading. If they give you the book and say, “it’s a cracking read and a really good mystery, and at the end it turns out it was the butler all along and he used the African blowpipe through the window – who would have thought it!” then maybe you’d be less inclined to read it. I think there are occasions when being given too much information inhibits your sense of curiosity.

People tend to struggle with multivariate causality – what this means is that we’re pretty good at understanding a single cause for an action, but pretty bad when it comes to understanding the right combination of causes for an action. If we’re told that X happened because of Y we might accept it on face value and not ask any more questions. We think we know the extent of the answer. The reality may well be more complicated. This tendency is great for magicians – they can provide a supposed reason for something, but actually there are two reasons. The hand goes in the pocket to put the pack of card in, but crucially, also to palm the coin. Normally, once we think we have the answer, we stop looking. If you’ve ever searched for your keys, you stop looking when you find them.

If a teacher tells the students, ‘World War Two started because Germany invaded Poland’ this provides an overly simple explanation. It may serve the purpose of giving an easy answer, but it may also hinder further enquiry. Enquiry often leads to deeper learning too. If we have put effort into learning we tend to value that knowledge more and it stays with us.

It makes sense to me that a teacher might be able to keep students engaged but not providing all the information at once, or by avoiding providing an over-simplified account of events. A good teacher should be able to stimulate curiosity and questions, rather than provide simple answers with insufficient depth. I think it was the Indian educationalist Sugata Mitra who suggested that future exams should not ask ‘what is the answer’ but instead ask ‘what should be the next question?’

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