10 May 13 1:27 pm
Award-winning research paper
The Psychology of Psychics: Why We Believe
Psychics and mediums have always intrigued us. They appear in books, films, and contemporary media, and their popularity is on the rise. This trade of fortune-telling and spirit-contact has been around since time immemorial, but it became well-known with the advent of Spiritualism in the mid-1800s (Hines 43). Despite its repeated exposure as fraud and parlor tricks, it has only gained popularity since. According to a poll conducted by CBS, roughly every other person believes in psychic abilities (Cosgrove-Mather), while one in four believes specifically in clairvoyance, according to another (Moore), and in both cases these people come from all walks of life. There have even been TV shows dedicated to contacting the dead, bringing the medium out of a darkened séance and into the television studio. There are a number of reasons why this phenomenon has taken off, and all of them are relatively simple psychology. Basically, people believe in psychics because not only are they susceptible to mentalist tricks, but they have a deep-seated psychological desire to believe.
In 1848, two sisters in upper New York shocked the world with their seeming ability to contact spirits of the dead (Hines 43-44). Leah and Margaret Fox first shocked their mother by tying an apple to a string and bouncing it along the floor, creating a strange rapping sound. Their mother, convinced that the girls could not be perpetuating a trick, believed it was a ghost, as they claimed. They then developed a method wherein they would pretend to be communicating with a spirit, which would respond with a snapping noise, later revealed by Margaret in an 1888 interview to have been the result of the girls cracking their knuckles (Houdini 5). The Fox sisters traveled the country, demonstrating their “talent” and despite their admission that it was nothing but a trick, the seeds had already been sown. The Spiritualist movement had begun and, almost immediately, so had the quest for skeptical inquiry into these phenomena.
The first person to make this skepticism popular was well-known Harry Houdini. This world-renowned magician was the first, but certainly not the last professional conjuror to make a second career out of debunking psychic fraud. This trend of “magicians-turned-skeptics” is no coincidence. According to magician/skeptic Jamy Ian Swiss, “Any magician worth his salt will tell you that the smarter an audience, the more easily fooled they are. That’s a very counterintuitive idea. But it’s why scientists, for example, get in trouble with psychics and such types. Scientists aren’t trained to study something that’s deceptive” (Randi, Wired Science). A study published in 1990 found that otherwise well-educated people are susceptible to belief in unsubstantiated phenomena because “their critical ability skills [are] relatively domain specific” (Gray 1). Other skeptics of note include Las Vegas duo Penn and Teller, mentalist Derren Brown and, most importantly, James “The Amazing” Randi, who offers a one million-dollar prize for anyone who can demonstrate psychic ability under proper test conditions.
Randi has personally exposed dozens of frauds, some of whom still make a living plying the same trade.The most famous example of this is Peter Popoff, a faith healer who used similar techniques as employed by other frauds like Sylvia Browne and James Van Praagh to accurately state the name and medical condition of people who attended his conventions. In the 1980’s, Randi attended a convention to test a hypothesis that Popoff was using a concealed radio receiver to receive messages from somewhere backstage. Armed with a radio scanner, Randi discovered the frequency Popoff was using and was able to listen as Popoff’s wife read from cards the attendees had written beforehand, stating their name and condition and directing him to them in the audience (Randi, The Faith Healers 147). Video of this convention was later aired on a NOVA special with the radio message dubbed in. Popoff’s popularity sharply waned, which eventually resulted in his declaring bankruptcy, but he was back on tour a few years later, performing the same tricks with similar success (Rosin A1). Much like the Fox sisters, his audience was too willing to believe what he preached.
Not all famous psychics use such technologically advanced techniques, and consequently few, if any, give readings that are as accurate. This is of little importance to their audience, however. On his show “Crossing Over,” TV medium John Edward was well-known for his purported ability to speak to the spirits of the audience’s deceased relatives. In an article for Skeptical Inquirer Magazine, Jim Underdown describes how Edwards sends letters to his audience members prior to taping, giving them advice on what to expect. Before taping, the audience signs release forms which forbid them from discussing the show with the media after the fact. Then, during the show, audience members are encouraged to give up their seat if they are not interested in being “read.” Finally, after the show is taped, significant portions of the readings are edited out in post-production to make them appear more accurate than they were (Underdown, Skeptical Enquirer). This preconditioning ensures that the audience is there with the desire for Edwards to contact their deceased loved ones, making them vulnerable to confirmation bias, where a person tends to seek only evidence to support their predetermined conclusion, ignoring all contrary evidence. The editing and release forms ensure that the TV audience is none the wiser as to how well any of the readings actually went. These serve as a safeguard against attack by skeptics.
What so-called “psychics” like Edwards actually use is a technique called “cold reading.” According to world-renowned mentalist and magician Ian Rowland, “Cold reading is a deceptive psychological strategy… [It is] the collective term for a set of techniques which can be used… to deliver a convincing psychic reading to a complete stranger” (5). Cold reading uses a number of steps, but simply put, the reader typically gives vague statements, carefully worded, that actually fish for information from the person being read. By reading subtle clues (or sometimes obvious ones), the reader can determine whether or not they are on the right track. A person who is read with this technique often comes away oblivious to the fact that they supplied most of the detailed information. Mentalist Derren Brown has demonstrated how this works in many of his TV specials.
The reason people are so often fooled by a cold read is the result of a number of psychological traits. First and foremost is a response known as “personal validation,” so-named by Bertram Forer in his famed 1949 experiment. As he put it, “A universally valid personality description is of the type most likely to be accepted by a client as a truth about himself, a truth which he considers unique in him. Many, if not most, individuals are able to recognize the characteristics in themselves—when it is not to their disadvantage—while oblivious to their presence in others” (Forer 1). This effect works whether or not the subject is under the false pretense that the statement is actually specific to them, as in Forer’s study, or if it is a general universally valid statement presented for the purpose of analysis (Johnson 1-2), and regardless of the source of the statement, whether “psychic” or psychologist (Rosen 1). What this means is that even when presented with extremely general statements that are applicable to entire groups of people, if not everyone, people tend to interpret them as specific to themselves and less applicable to others. This gives a cold reader the advantage of being able to feed vague statements to the subject and the subject in turn interprets the statements as uncannily specific to them personally while ignoring the fact that they can apply to everyone around them. But this isn’t the only reason people believe in psychics; there are more general psychological factors that account for it as well.
We all want control in our lives. It is a fundamental factor in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Koltko-Rivera 302), and has been shown to directly affect our belief in the paranormal as a whole (Greenaway, UQ Study). We want to feel like we have some control over our destiny, and if we can’t achieve this, we have a strong tendency to convince ourselves we do, whether this feeling is true or not (Greenaway, Psychological Strategies 1). This sense of control is what makes certain people more prone to belief in psychics, as they want to feel like they can have some metaphysical control that they are unable to realize physically. In the case of audience members grieving over the loss of a loved one, this need for control manifests as the desire to speak with the deceased again. This simple yet powerful desire not only causes them to cater to “demand characteristics” (i.e. telling the reader what they want to hear) (Orne 110) but also contributes to the well-known confirmation bias. It the case of psychic readings, this translates into the subject remembering all of the “hits,” or guesses the psychic got right, and ignoring the misses, which often outnumber the hits themselves.
Psychics and similar charlatans have been around for millennia, dating as far back as the Oracle at Delphi and her ethylene-induced prophecy (Etiope 1). While this is far from a new phenomenon, psychics and spiritual mediums have only formed a large-scale profitable enterprise since the Spiritualist movement took off in the mid-1800’s. Though they have used a number of mediums to ply their trade, their techniques and their veracity have been largely the same. That is, they take advantage of the gullibility of the public and use manipulative tricks like cold reading and preconditioning to convince their subjects that they have powers which they clearly don’t. The public, in turn, is all too willing to accept their claims because the idea of paranormal abilities and psychic powers is alluring to a populace who are desperate for control over their lives and are poor at detecting these subtle deceptions. This is only exacerbated by the fact that the people who seek mediums are people who specifically want them to succeed, and are the least likely people to investigate the psychic’s claims.
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