social sciences

How psychics know: cold reading phenomenon

A myriad of channels exists that broadcast psychics being able to read people’s minds and possibly talk to deceased relatives. In this day and age, where the emphasis has shifted towards critical thinking and falsification, there are still fervent believers of astrology and psychic mediums. In the current scientific paradigm, it is difficult to attain empirical evidence for the existence of the ability to talk to the deceased. Yet, individuals are present in media that have a platform to showcase these supposed abilities. For instance, there is Theresa Caputo who has her own show on mainstream TV, she claims to “connect with loved ones who have passed away”. There is also Derek Ogilvie who insists that he has these abilities as well.

There have been many skeptics disproving this ability to talk to deceased loved ones. These ‘mediums’ are said to engage in a technique called cold reading. Through this technique, mediums are able to create the illusion that, for instance, they are able to tell an individual what happened in their past. However, this technique relies on using characteristics of people to ask them about generalizations based on these. These characteristics include gender, age, appearance (e.g. clothes, makeup, hairstyle).

In order to guess something about the person in front of you, you can use statistics. For instance, according to this source, 25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. Therefore, when talking to a woman of a certain age, you can guess that she must have experienced a miscarriage at some point in her life. In many countries, the divorce rate is higher than 50%. So, again, when talking to someone of a certain age, you have a 50% chance of being right when guessing whether they are divorced. Another statistic found that roughly 70% of the elderly report to experience loneliness. Therefore, this is another notion psychics can talk about when ‘reading’ their clients.

Apart from using general statistics, one can also rely on Barnum statements. These are statements that can be applicable to anyone. Example: you have a great need for people to like or admire you. Most people have this need, you can trace this back to how we are shaped and wired. Humans are social species and living in groups greatly increases our survival chances. Furthermore, we experience a nice hormone cocktail whenever we receive positive reinforcements from others. Thus, most people have the psychological need to be liked. And of course, there are more statements like these that are applicable to the majority of people that psychics can successfully use.

Lastly, what makes a psychic ‘successful’ is the susceptibility of the client. The trick is the remain vague so that the client fills in much of the information, without them realizing that they’re doing so. This is where the availability heuristic is of importance. Heuristics are rules of thumbs we use when recalling or considering information. For instance, the psychic could tell you: ‘you’re always giving to people, you have to start looking after yourself more’. In that moment, it will be easy to imagine all the situations in which this happened to be the case. Every situation in which this wasn’t the case, you will not think of. Therefore, it suddenly seems as if the psychic is speaking the truth. Moreover, people like to hold positive views regarding themselves. The previous statement highlights selflessness, which is considered to be an attractive trait. Thus, we like to believe that the statement is true and it is, therefore, easier to think of cases where we considered ourselves to be selfless as opposed to situations when we were not.

All-in-all, using these techniques and with a lot of practice, anyone can be a psychic.

Image source.

social sciences

Psychological tricks of the mind #1: recalling information

Unfortunately, we can’t objectively experience our environment. You’ll quickly notice this when talking to several people who went through the same thing, everyone filters the world around them differently. We also remember things differently. But we’re all susceptible to the same fallacies. Some of these fallacies shape the way we think about thinks. This can make us see and believe supernatural things or make us fall for superstitions. This is because we tend to recall things according to the availability heuristic.

We’re constantly filtering all the information we receive: sounds, words, visuals, images, etc. For instance, when we look at a skyline for awhile, most of us can’t perfectly recreate the image by drawing. You’ll probably end up with the most ‘important’ features, such as the outlines of the buildings. Each clouds’ positions or the small windows you won’t be able to remember. This is because the brain wants to be efficient in its information storing. It’s imperative, from an evolutionary standpoint, that we remember all the important stimuli. Often these are negative things. Negative things, such as losing money or getting insulted hurt us more than the joy we experience from getting the opposite. This is because we want to avoid negative outcomes as much as possible.

We tend to remember information that we think is important to us. But this doesn’t always give us an accurate representation what is happening in our lives. The selective way we recall and remember things are explained by the availability bias or heuristic. This is easily demonstrated by an example of visiting a medium. A medium can say a hundred things and half of them might be wrong. But the other half that is sort of applicable to use we remember. We quickly disregard everything that isn’t applicable. We might leave the medium feeling like they knew exactly what they were talking about, even if their hit rate was only 50%.

This bias shapes our lives in a lot of other different ways. It influences what we’re afraid of. The media can show us a lot of shocking imagery of events that are quite rare. But because we think it’s shocking and such events are so extensively covered we assume it’s very common. Thus the available information stored in our memories is filled with scary imagery of all the dangers that can happen to us. Think about a number of people that die in a fire every year. Almost every day we’re confronted with news of buildings catching fire and people dying as a result. But it turns out 0.55 out of 100,000 people died in a fire according to the mortality rates of 2002. People are more likely to die because of diseases like measles. Slowly, people are also starting to realize that you’re more likely to die as a result of being in a car crash as opposed to dying in a plane crash. But the imagery of planes crashing are more shocking and therefore are much easier to remember,

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive psychology5(2), 207-232.