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.

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social sciences

In defense of Psychology: reading your mind?

Unfortunately, psychology is sometimes associated with mind-reading or fortune-telling. However as a psych student I’m still waiting for the part of the curriculum that contains courses on how to successfully read your mind and speculate on your future. These kinds of assumptions often make it difficult to get taken seriously as a science. But I can guarantee you that psychology fits the current science paradigm, we conduct experiments and, yes, we use statistics. 

Matchbox trick
Though there are some ‘tricks’ that can make people seem like mind readers. One of the oldest is the matchbox trick. You can go ahead and write the following numbers on the white surface of a match box.

1234

Ask people to pick a number, displayed on the match box. People are very likely to pick ‘3’.  So write a ‘3’ on the back of the matchbox, so you can show people afterward that you knew which number they were going to pick.
Now I have to disappoint you, no mind-reading goes into this ‘trick’. People behave according to patterns, and that is what psychologists want to figure out. Because it is incredibly imperative to be able to predict human behavior. Because as physical diseases are still seen as more serious, mental disorders are very real. And what is often forgotten is that physical diseases have a psychological side to them. This is due to the fact that a myriad of diseases can take a toll on our mental health as well.

Horoscopes
But back to the ‘mind-reading’ skills. Another trick is used by people in daily lives, horoscopes. Statements made in horoscopes are great because they could be applicable to anyone. Also, the wording used is very interesting as well. Using words or phrases such as ‘could happen’ or  ‘it might be a good idea’ indicate uncertainty, your horoscope doesn’t state things that are going to happen for sure. And statements including could and might are not falsifiable, which means they cannot be seen as theories. So you can go ahead a random horoscope and it will still be applicable to you. However we get attached to the horoscope were supposedly born with, therefore we can come up with a million reasons why only our own horoscope fits. A description that can fit almost anyone is also referred to as a ‘Barnum statement’ (Forer, 1949).
The following three statements are examples of this effect:

  1. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
  2. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
  3. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.

Most people will feel like these could accurately describe them, in fact, this has been tested in an experiment. And as it turns out, people will reason that these do apply to them.

Priming
Just like the matchbox trick there are more ways to ‘mind read’. For example, if I ask you to name a construction tool or a color, you’re more likely to say hammer and red (or blue). That is because our mind is a semantic network, it has been built up by associations. This is where priming becomes important, which can also help guess what others are thinking of. Priming is when I remind you of chairs, so now you think about chairs. The concept of chairs is now ‘activated’ in your semantic network. This could make you quicker at naming other pieces of furniture, such as tables or couches. All of these concepts are associated in our minds.

So in conclusion, no psychologists do not read your mind, people are sometimes predictable. If you’re currently receiving psychological help, or maybe a tip for the future, please tell your psychologist everything that is relevant — because they cannot read your mind.

Forer, B.R. (1949). “The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility”(PDF). Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. American Psychological Association. 44 (1): 118–123.