How some 'psychics' use psychology to screw you cover image

How some 'psychics' use psychology to screw you

Dorian Minors • June 17, 2015

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

Let's cut to the chase. Most psychics are crooks. Most horoscopes are fluff. Most 'clairvoyants' are cheats. Now, 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. Why are there so many? Two reasons:

  1. partially due to our innate search for deeper meaning in this world; and
  2. partially because of the 'Forer Effect'.

The Forer effect is the bit that's screwing us (so much that it's also known as the Barnum effect)

What's the Forer effect and how is it screwing us?

The Forer effect essentially describes the phenomenon in which, given a generic enough profile, people will tend to rate it 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 them out and got them to rate it on 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. Needless to say, he didn't make note of what star sign it was originally intended for. The students were astounded by the accuracy of Bertram's analysis of their personality. The average rating (how accurate the 'individualised sketch' was) was 4.26 out of 5 (regardless of their star sign). Since then the effect has been tested and re-tested, not only here, but globally and in different cultures, with very similar results.

"I'm having a little trouble reading this star..."

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, 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. For example, when the psychic Sylvia Browne announced the death of 10-year-old Shawn, at the hands of a Hispanic, dreadlocked assailant. Shawn was found a few years later, having been kidnapped by a white guy.

But, it won't work all the time

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. Stop doing internet quizzes. If you really want to learn something about yourself, make sure that you totally trust the source it's coming from before assuming it's gospel. These days, people who believe in the paranormal are often beleaguered by skeptics. It can be hard when people gang up on us. In fact, we look at the research around one, particularly polarised group and see that not only is it hard, it can be deadly. Speaking of things we shouldn't be so gullible about, learn how you've probably been sucked in by a misleading statistic and why even scientific papers can fool you, here.  Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom, and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.