My 12-year old son, Benjamin, recently tried out a new joke on me: “Hey dad, did you hear they removed the word ‘gullible’ from the dictionary?” (To spare the rest of you unnecessary embarrassment, I should forewarn you that the correct response to such a statement is not “Really? Why?”). The world is full of trickery and deceit, and none is more vulnerable to chicanery than the naive and uncritical believer. Our tendency to be curious and wish to explore the mysteries of life is universal, but I believe a healthy dose of skepticism is needed for the journey. Research shows that, among the psychological principles underlying trickery, none is more powerful than expectancy. A widely cited study found that the extent to which a person believes a source of knowledge to be credible determines their degree of “deceivability”.
Subjects in this study completed a personality questionnaire, and were led to believe that their responses would generate descriptions of their personalities. However, the questionnaires were actually never scored. Rather, profile descriptions were all identical, created by the experimenter before the study began. In other words, all subjects were given the same pre-constructed description.
Despite the bogus nature of the feedback, subjects rated the “individualized” personality descriptions as highly accurate (4.5 on a five-point scale). To be fair to the duped participants, they were the victims of their own expectations. Moreover, the descriptors used were ones that would be true of most people.
A number of years ago I was teaching an introductory Psychology course at Utah State University and we came upon the topic of Psychic phenomena. Several days prior to my lecture, I was listening to the radio and heard a Salt Lake psychic offering some outlandish conclusions and recommendations to a listener. This prompted me to stage my own “psychic reading” for my class.
Similar to the research study I cited, I began by formulating a bunch of statements that would be true of most people, like: “You love people, but there are times when you’d just rather be by yourself”; “You tend to worry about how others perceive you, but outwardly you deny this”; “You have regrets about mistakes you have made, but are confident that you’ll do better in the future”; “While you generally enjoy life, there are times you wish you could run away from it all.”
As I began my presentation, I sought to increase my audience’s confidence in me by asking the young female volunteer to give me one of her earrings so I could get “in touch” with her psychic energy. I then hid behind a partition in the room and began reading from my list of statements. The results of my psychic reading? She rated me as “highly accurate”, giving me a ‘6′ on a five-point scale! Several students then shouted out, “Can I be next?”. Fortunately, a number of students were skeptical – even critical – of my ruse, and exposed me for the quack I really was.
I recently saw a PBS program, “The Secrets of the Psychics”, in which a man investigated a number of purported psychic phenomena. As part of his investigation, he, too, replicated the “Barnum Effect” (the name given to the previously mentioned research phenomenon) with a roomful of college students. Moreover, he traveled throughout the United States and to faraway places like Russia and Australia to investigate the veracity of psychic claims. In most cases he found no evidence for psychic phenomena, and when there was evidence of something going on, he showed how psychic powers are merely an application of psychological principles.
For instance, the average person who seeks out a psychic is likely to trust in the “process” . . . is vulnerable in that (s)he usually has a specific “need” and is seeking answers . . . a psychological principle known as “cognitive dissonance” even argues that an individual spending money and time to seek out psychic help is all the more motivated to benefit from it.
Furthermore, people tend to ignore statistical realities regarding psychic phenomena. For instance, they may have a dream that “foretells” some event, but ignore the fact that they’ve had thousands of other dreams that never came true. Such people tend to remember experiences or statements that confirm their beliefs/fears and ignore or dismiss those that refute them.
I believe in the power of the human mind, and that there is much within it that remains untapped and unused. I also believe there are genuine instances of psychic phenomena that our current knowledge cannot explain. But like many other skeptics, I don’t believe truth is found on the other end of a 1-900 number or in a bunch of Tarot cards, any more than it’s found in smoking Marijuana or at the bottom of a bottle of booze.
So what do you call a person who makes money using their “psychic powers”? Pslick. And what do you call a person who pays good money for such services, believing they’re getting supernatural answers? That word, according to Benjamin, is no longer in the dictionary.