How many people actually believe in psychic readings and mediums communicating with the dead? Statistics from a “1990 Gallup poll of 1,236 adult Americans” reveal the percentage of paranormal believers: 42% believe in “communication with the dead” and 67% actually having a “psychic experience” (Shermer 41). Results from a June 8, 2001, Gallup poll revealed “a significant increase in belief in a number of paranormal phenomena since 1990” (Shermer 285).
It was August 2004, closing in on the 23rd anniversary of my father’s suicide leading to his early demise at 36 years’ old, when I had my first-hand “psychic experience.” Science and medicine had both failed to relieve my emotional pain and provide answers so I searched for a “paranormal” solution, one not accepted or explained by science. No empirical scientific evidence exists backing up the legitimacy of psychic readings and mediumship yet this is a billion dollar business. Basic psychology, greed, emotions, irrational and illogical thinking, and willingness to believe are the culprits supporting why people believe in psychic readings and mediums. Anyone who has fundamental knowledge of psychology and a firm understanding of statistics can deceive others into believing that they are receiving a true psychic reading.
Psychic Readings and Mediums
Most people know what a psychic reading is and mediums communicating with the dead, either experiencing it for themselves or witnessing it on television, movies, or other media outlets. The reading usually begins with a “cold reading.” According to Robert T. Carroll of the Skeptic’s Dictionary, cold readings are performed by people including but not limited to manipulators, mentalists, mediums, and psychic readers working in the field of sales, psychic readings, astrology, hypnotherapy, and criminal profiling. The process of cold reading involves the reader asking or making very generalized statements or questions to a subject or audience in an effort to solicit feedback. Verbal feedback and nonverbal responses such as facial expressions and body language are monitored for validation. Once a statement or question has been validated to the reader based on the subject’s response, the reader can then probe deeper into the response. Cold readings are usually successful because people believe what they want to believe and remember things and events that are most significant especially when they are motivated to believe it and forget the misses. Ian Rowland acknowledges that the five basic techniques employed during a cold reading include “observation”, “body language”, “fishing for clues”, “vague generalizations”, and “gullible clients.”
Communicating with the dead, also known as mediumship, is facilitated by a medium. This belief has been around since “early human history” becoming quite popular in the 19th century (“mediumship”). Wikipedia offers a definition of medium: “A person believed to be in contact with the spirits of the dead and to communicate between the living and the dead.” “The role of the medium is to facilitate communication with spirits who have messages to share with non-mediums. Mediums claim to be able to listen to, relay messages from, and relate conversations with spirit, to go into a trance (it is not necessary to go into a trance, it all depends on the medium’s control and knowledge) and speak without knowledge of what is being said, to allow a spirit to control their body and speak through it, perhaps using a writing instrument (as in automatic writing or drawing).”
Can I talk to or see my dead relative? Kathryn Harwig, Intuitive Master (“internationally known psychic and medium”) believes you can and writes: “Usually, Spirits are very curious and anxious to see how their loved ones are doing and so, especially in the next few years after they die, they check in quite often. They also hear when you speak to them, either by thought or aloud.” A psychic being able to predict future events and communicate with spirits is a weird belief. How many people actually believe this and why do they believe it? What happens to our loved ones when they die? Harwig believes “Souls do not die, they have vivid, joyous and fulfilling lives in the realm beyond.” She describes her innate psychic abilities on her website, along with her impressive vocational background in psychology, sociology, and criminal justice. After she received her Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology and Sociology, she began work as a probation officer and then attended “a graduate program of Criminal Justice Studies, specializing in the prediction of dangerousness” (Harwig). She writes books and teaches classes on how to develop your own intuitive skills, and makes routine appearances on television and radio shows and “has been featured on the Arts & Entertainment network’s “The Unexplained”, and on Court TV’s “Psychic Detectives” (Harwig). Kathryn’s site offers an extensive corporate-client list broadly ranging from the MN Dept. of Corrections, to universities, hospitals and charities, and a testimonials’ page. D. Crandall writes about his experience in a testimonial: “Kathryn not only “knew” things about us that she could not have possibly known, she also made some “predictions” on possible future events, many of which have come true” (Harwig).
I was a “motivated” true believer of psychic abilities and mediumship. I was nearing the age of 36, and wondering if I was going to meet the same demise as my father and still seeking closure and an apology. My significant other at the time was watching WCCO news and news anchor, Randi Kaye, was speaking about her visit with psychic medium and intuitive reader, Kathryn Harwig. Randi had lost her father and was needing closure, and Kathryn helped her get the closure she needed. Randi Kaye’s testimonial states “After losing my dad, someone suggested I talk with Kathryn. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but Kathryn was so respectful of my privacy, and so helpful in finding some closure for me. Talking with Kathryn was like spending 2 hours with my father” (Harwig). I didn’t actually see this news clip, but my significant other told me about it thinking I might want to consult Kathryn. I contacted her via email first, then spoke with her on the phone to set up an appointment. I told her that my intention was to speak with my deceased father, and I believed this could happen with the help of someone gifted in the field of communicating with the spirit world. Not only did I want to communicate with my father, but I also had questions pertaining to my 10-year relationship, career transition, and insight into my overall future. The four reasons why people visit psychics are love, health, money, and career, and through the art of cold reading, “the psychic begins broad and works toward specifics” (Shermer 272).
The hour-long session was tape recorded but the audio quality is poor. The first 10-15 minutes was spent on providing basic background information such as my relationship status, how many children I have, what I do for a living, and “what brought you here.” I told her I was changing careers and asked her if she sees this as a good move. During her reading she reassured me that I was making the right decision and also pointed out my strengths and weakness by stating: “You’re right to get out of that field, the field itself feels to me that it is not going to be there. You know your stuff, you’re articulate and very attractive. I’m getting two things…I don’t know if you know enough people. You can do the work, write the paperwork but to get the actual clientele you actually have to get out and network. My guides are telling me you’re very confident in your ability but you’re not as confident about your ability to be with other people.” Having already believed this about myself I was more prone to believing in her because I felt she was right (confirmation bias). When talking about my family, children, and career she would repeat what I would say and just elaborate on my responses.
The communication with my father came later on in the reading. I had already given Kathryn the information that my dad killed himself, as I was concerned that his face would appear disfigured from the gunshot wound. She assured me that this would not be the case. The communication began by her saying “So let me tell you about your dad…he has been waiting quite patiently. He comes through as a very handsome man…probably 35 or 40 at the most…a fairly young-looking man.” She went on to say that my father said he felt betrayed, angry, and upset by what a friend had done, and he wants us to know that it had nothing to do with the family. He felt like he was worthless and like somebody he trusted had turned on him and did something behind his back, and he didn’t have anyone he could trust. He feels ashamed that he hurt everybody. At the time he felt that by killing himself he could make people feel worse and punish them. He wanted to be dramatic. He wants to make sure that we know it had nothing to do with us kids or mom. He just would get irrational. He says he watches over all of you. He doesn’t spend all of his spirit life watching over us because he fishes and takes long walks with his friends and his dad. He sits outside a lot and enjoys natures which is really important to him. When I asked if I or my children will share the same fate as him, the response was “He says not to worry about you or your kids becoming like him. He says behind and underneath everything you worry about that.”
I believed in this reading and communication because I wanted to believe, and of course there was more to my reading than what I wrote above. Listening to my father through Kathryn made me feel a sense of inner peace and closure that I had never felt before. Did she use her background in psychology to evaluate my personality, verbal and nonverbal feedback, and body language prior to and during the reading? Yes, without a doubt now! During the communication with my father I think she tapped many of the common causes of suicide, i.e., feeling worthless, betrayed by others, alone, angry, etc. She wanted to keep it positive by saying it had nothing to with the family and he feels ashamed for what he did. She knew that is what I needed and wanted to hear.
Rational Thinking: Psychic Pseudoscience
In 2003, Michael Shermer used his psychological knowledge rather than psychic abilities to perform his first psychic readings on a PBS series “Eye on Nye.” He used the five fundamentals of personality traits, “Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism” to assess the subjects’ personalities and performed readings related to “Love, Health, Money, Career, Travel, Education, Ambitions” (Shermer). Shermer’s success rate was impressive out of the five subjects he performed readings on. Does he think he is psychic? No! Instead Shermer draws the conclusion: “There is not a shred of evidence that any of this is real, and the fact that I could do it reasonably well with only one day of preparation shows just how vulnerable people are to these very effective nostrums. I can only imagine what I could do with more experience. Give me six hours a day of practice for a couple of months and I have no doubt that I could easily host a successful syndicated television series and increase by orders of magnitude my current bank balance.”
What makes psychic medium, author, and host of the television series Crossing Over, John Edward, so popular? Shari Waxman writes in her article Shooting Crap, that John Edward attributes “his self-professed ability to communicate with the dead is a simple application of the laws of probability. Basically, if you keep trying something whose results are independent, your odds of getting your desired result increase.” This is why a firm knowledge of statistics are important to psychics being successful. Success stories and testimonials of subjects are memorable and believable but “consider how many failed readings were excluded” (Waxman). The larger number of people the better the odds are. Waxman points out “the careful plucking of successes from a mass of attempts is a technique used in Edward’s television show as well. The creation of each half-hour episode requires six hours of taping.” This is an example of Shermer claiming that “Believers in psychic power tend to focus on the results of the most deviant subjects (in the statistical sense) and tout them as the proof of the power” (79). John Edward undoubtedly has done the math and knows how many readings he must do in order to hit on one or two good ones and claim his success on television and in books. The odds dictate that most adults have lost someone close to them, and that we all know someone who has died of cancer or heart disease, which are the largest killers out there. If you know about “average experiences,” you can predict almost anyone’s individual experiences.
John Edward is clearly a “mentalist who knows how to work a crowd” (Shermer 20). Michael Shermer makes reference to the word “work”, as “the time-proven technique of cold-reading, where the mentalist asks general questions until she or she finds someone who gives generous doses of feedback” (20). In the YouTube video, Edward had four women who he could monitor verbal and non-verbal feedback from by making the generalized statement such as “I’m being pulled down in this direction (pointing and waving his finger) and I have an older male coming through and I see it father-figure related.” It doesn’t get more generalized than this! Odds are in his favor that one out of the four women have an older male that may have passed on, whether it be a husband, father, or grandfather. The subject on the far right nodded her head slightly, which validated Edward’s father-figure-related statement. Skeptic’s Dictionary on Cold Reading indicates “The subject of the reading will usually convey important information to the reader: sometimes in words, and sometimes in bodily reactions to the reading.” This type of validation cues the reader to target that subject and “the reader will feed back to the subject what the latter wants to hear.” Edward made statements about the father’s death to make it seem like he didn’t suffer. Shermer writes that one of the principles of cold-reading is to “keep it positive” and this technique will cause the audience to “remember the hits and forget the misses” (20). He pays close attention to his audience, waiting for them to acknowledge a hit, he plays the odds, and he bludgeons his audience with guesses until he gets a response. No one remembers this misses, but everyone responds immediately to the hits! No psychic abilities here, just a clear grasp of statistics and a keen awareness of his audience’s reactions.
What Causes People to Believe in Psychics?
In the BBC news article “Why we want to believe psychics”, Richard Weisman, UK psychologist Professor provides his perspective of controlled psychic mediumship experiments. “Wiseman set up a controlled seance with five subjects and mediums and found no evidence of genuine psychic ability” (BBC). He also noted that people visit mediums when they are going through a particularly stressful time in their lives or are grief stricken from losing a loved one. These people are motivated to believe the information they are receiving because it takes away their emotional pain so they want to believe it. At somewhat of an unconscious level the medium can elicit responses by monitoring body language, verbal and nonverbal feedback. If the medium or reader says something that does not apply the “miss” is ignored and forgotten about because the “hits” are of greater significance.
Caffery comments on “Famed psychic Sally Morgan, who says she has spoken to Princess Diana in the spirit world, is now accused of using ‘suspicious’ techniques. So what does our panel of experts think of contact from beyond the grave?” In Cafferky’s article “Clairvoyant or Charlatan”, psychologist Philip Escoffey explains the warm and hot reading methods that some psychics employ: “A warm one is where the psychic uses stereotypes and pitches information based on the way a person is dressed, how they speak – basic psychology. A hot reading is where the information is loaded with details relevant to you. But how do mediums glean them? They plant listeners in the audience to eavesdrop and it’s relayed back. They get cloakroom attendants to raid handbags and coats for information and they track down your details using the net.” This sounds like a form of identity theft and fraudulent behavior!
One of Shermer’s fallacies in logical thinking is “effort inadequacies and the need for certainty, control and simplicity.” Our need for stability, control, and simple explanations for common problems overshadows our ability to think critically and rationally, and this leads us down the path of gullibility (Shermer 70). We are by nature emotionally driven creatures who will believe anything if it makes us feel happy and content in our daily routine. We sometimes have a tendency to create our own reality, sometimes rational or irrational. We want to feel in control, especially when it comes to our family and finances. When something goes wrong and we experience a lack of control, we are quick to find a scapegoat or some person or group to pin the blame on.
People have a tendency to believe what they hear or read if it comes from an authoritative or reliable source, thus the “overreliance on authorities fallacy” (Shermer 68). This was in an error in my thinking. Kathryn Harwig appearing on major news networks such as WCCO news in an interview with Randi Kaye prompted me to make the appointment, combined with her extensive corporate-client list ranging from the MN Dept. of Corrections, to universities, hospitals and charities.
Three more problems in pseudoscientific thinking: “Rumors Do Not Equal Reality” , “Anecdotes Do Not Make a Science”, and “Coincidence” (Shermer 61, 63): Starting at the age of 11, I can remember hearing and believing rumors from my friends of psychics performing psychic readings, communicating with the dead, the Ouija board, palm reading, and predicting future events. This strange and unexplained paranormal phenomena always captured my inquisitively intuitive and naive mind. When the rumors spread and were frequently heard, the tendency to believe them as a reality increased as well. Hence, the fallacy “Rumors Do Not Make a Reality” which is one of Shermer’s 25 fallacies that lead us to believe weird things.
Anecdotal evidence causes the rumors to become more real and believable. Over the years, I have come across many people who have their stories to tell about their visits to a psychic or medium to gain insight into their relationship, career, life, and speak with deceased loved ones in the spirit world. Anecdotal evidence in the form of testimonials are published on websites, news articles, and books. Psychic television shows feed the audience and viewers with anecdotal evidence, but there is no empirical evidence corroborating these anecdotes or claims made. The anecdotes are even more appealing and believable when they originate from popular and famous people speaking first-hand of their “profoundly life-changing experience.” Adding to this conjuncture and leading one to believe in psychic powers, is the “Coincidence” fallacy. Scientists research the laws of probability to explain mere coincidences and relationships between two events, but the intuitive mind believes “there is something mysterious at work” (Shermer). Another important mistake in thinking among true believers in psychics is the idea that “failures are rationalized.” Believers in psychics remember the hits, but ignore or rationalize away, the misses-and “after-the-fact reasoning” (Shermer 65).
Of Shermer’s five explanations, Credo Consolans, immediate gratification, and simplicity explain why people are so willing to believe in psychics and mediums. People choose to believe in psychic readings and mediumship because it makes them feel good and they want to believe in it, even when there is no scientific evidence to back up the claim. Shermer uses an example of Credo Consolans by writing: “If you have strong emotional reason for metaphysical belief and it’s not sharply contradicted by science or logical reasoning, you have a right to make a leap of faith if it provides sufficient satisfaction.” Along those same lines is immediate gratification. The inherent impatient, impulsive, emotional, curious, and sometimes depressed and obsessive nature of humans causes them to seek out immediate relief from unpleasant or uneasy feelings or questions related to health, money, life, death, and career. One visit or phone call to a psychic can be a quick and cheaper modality versus the alternative of setting up routine, expensive appointments with a therapist. Shermer notes “Traditional psychotherapy is formal, expensive, and time-consuming. Deep insight and improvement may take months or years.” There are always people out there looking to profit from other people’s misfortunes and feed off the vulnerable, which is what many of these claim-to-be psychics do. While that is the motive for many, there are people who believe they have the “psychic gift” to genuinely help people and seek no financial gain. Simplicity offers another explanation for this weird belief. The world is a scary and complicated place and we are faced with potentially life-changing decisions everyday. Believing that I have a guardian angel watching over me and protecting me and that my dad is with me whenever I think about him or talk to him somehow puts my mind at ease.
Although believing in psychics does not pose any threats to the human race, it can have devastating effects on your finances if you buy a ticket to a psychic television show, dial a 1-900 psychic hotline number, or make frequent appointments for a personal psychic reading. Incidentally, almost anyone can master the cold reading techniques in ten or fifteen minutes, and go on to amaze their friends and families and there is little harm in this. However, there is a considerable number of people roaming the earth in a grief-stricken state of mind ready and willing to believe anything that puts their mind at ease. People are prone to making decisions based off of emotions, sense or lack thereof, overall well being, and desperation for inner peace which interferes with rational thinking and decision-making abilities. There is no reliable empirical scientific evidence of people having true psychic abilities such as ESP, mediumship or clairvoyance, which makes this a pseudoscience. Psychology, subjective validation, and power of suggestion are the key components underlying what a subject considers to be a successful reading rather than true science.
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