How some 'psychics' use psychology to screw you

June 17, 2015

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Let's cut to the chase. Most psychics are crooks. Most horoscopes are fluff. Most 'clairvoyants' are cheats. Whatever truth there is to be known is obscured by legions of charlatans and the Forer effect is one reason why.

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This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.

Let's cut to the chase. Most psychics are crooks. Most horoscopes are fluff. Most 'clairvoyants' are cheats. I would never be so bold as to suggest that the entire enterprise built around the mystical understanding of the world is a sham, but certainly whatever truth there is to be known is obscured by legions of charlatans.

There are two reasons why these industries thrive:

  • our innate search for deeper meaning in this world is often most compelling when we're at our most vulnerable; and
  • because of the 'Forer Effect'.

The Forer effect is the bit we can do something about—an effect so commonly abused that it's also known as the Barnum effect.

The Forer effect

The Forer effect essentially describes the phenomenon in which, given a generic enough profile, people will tend to rate that profile as highly specific and relevant to them.

In 1949, Bertram Forer administered a test to his psychology students. A week later, he produced a 'individualised sketch' describing the personality of each student. He handed the sketches out and got the students to rate how accurate it was. What they didn't know was that each 'individualised sketch' was, in fact, the same sketch. Not only that, but the sketch was actually just a repurposed horoscope he pulled out of the local news stand.

The students were astounded by the accuracy of Bertram's analysis of their personality. The average rating of how accurate the 'individualised sketch' was came out at 4.26 out of 5. Since then the effect has been tested and re-tested both across the world and across different cultures with very similar results.

We're gullible, and here's why:

Wishful thinking. Or, as psychologists call it 'subjective validation'. When we encounter statements or signs that hold personal meaning for us, or align to our beliefs and values, we tend to assign it importance and thus 'validate' it as true regardless of its actual merit.

This isn't a bad thing. It makes us attentive to those things that reinforce our self. But when used against us, it can be quite harmful.

But, it won't work all the time

The Forer effect is certainly more effective on those who have stronger beliefs in the paranormal. There's also some evidence to show that those who have a looser cognitive state (i.e. higher on a scale of schizotypy) are more vulnerable. That is, if you're more prone to what might be considered 'unusual' perceptions or have a more tangential thought process, you might be more likely to fall victim.

But, if the ratio between positive elements and negative elements aren't just right, the Forer effect will disappear. This is probably because of our ever protective self-serving bias. And, since the effect has only really been tested substantially on university students, it may well work differently on different populations. But let's be honest—probably not that differently.

So, don't just believe things that sound like they might be true. Don't fall victim to generic personality scales and tests. Look a little harder than the newspaper's 'astrology' section for insights about your life. And stop doing internet quizzes. If you really want to learn something about yourself, it's worth spending the time to learn the actual precursors to growth and success or spiritual fulfilment. It's also kind of generic, but it's far more free and it'll actually help.

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