How Psychics Fool Themselves
by Noah Lugeons
The question seems to arise a lot in conversations among skeptics. The subject of some charlatan faith-healer or soothsayer will come up and someone will inevitably wonder aloud whether or not this person actually believes the bullshit they’re selling. Does the woo-merchant actually believe that the bracelet works? Does the astrologer actually consult the stars or do they just formulate their nonsense freehand? Does the preacher actually believe the sermon?
Clearly there can be no one right answer in all of these instances, which is why the question comes up so often. But I feel that I bring a certain amount of first hand knowledge to the subject and thought it worth sharing.
I was once dangerously close to being convinced that I was a psychic. My drug of choice were the Tarot Cards and I was a full blown, blow-jobs-in-bathroom-stalls addict. I got my first set as a gift from a friend shortly after I’d rejected my families preferred brand of bullshit but before I’d sworn off bullshit altogether. It was a well worn set of cards that my friend had owned for some time and had tired of. He gave them to me along with a small book of about 200 pages that explained how to unlock all their mystical powers.
Under direction of the book, I spent a few minutes each day contemplating one of the cards and getting lost in the beautiful mythological artwork that adorned them. I read up on the meanings of each card and spend several months devoting a single day to study and meditation on each card in turn.
I can’t really say why I did all that. I don’t know why the idea of fortune telling with playing cards seemed any less nonsensical than all the Christian crap I’d so recently shrugged off. I suppose that I must have felt like I was learning something or I wouldn’t have kept it up so long, but I don’t recall any moments of epiphany along the way that would suggest that there was any validity to the whole enterprise.
But eventually I felt like I had them all worked out and set about reading people’s future. It was remarkable to me even then how easy it was to find potential querents. I could simply break my Tarot deck out in a public place and within a few minutes I would have a ready guinea pig completely ready to credulously accept my authority on mystic revelations.
My first few readings were to my forgiving friends and they were disasters, but I likened it to any other talent. The first time you try to play the guitar you’re not going to sound that good no matter how much you’ve studied the theory. So I kept at it and refined my technique. Within another year I’d read several books on the subject and I felt like I really had a hold of the “art”. I was confident enough with them to do readings for total strangers. And what’s more, the strangers would come back for more. By the end of a ten card reading, they’d be asking for my phone number in case they needed to borrow my clairvoyance again.
At first I wrote it off to gullibility. Like a musician listening to a recording of her own performance, I was keenly aware of the mistakes and misses that my subjects were so ready to overlook. I realized that I was batting .500 in a 50/50 game but I just wrote that off as another step toward perfecting the art.
And along the way I started to learn what kind of statements worked and which ones didn’t. I started to learn ways to cloak my language in ever vaguer terms and to broaden the ways of interpreting everything I’d just said. I’d learned to ask questions rather than to make statements. Most importantly, I’d learned to tell people what they wanted to hear. Offering them a damn good future is the easiest way to get somebody on your side.
Keep in mind that I’d never read a book about cold reading. I’d never read anything about faking my way through a psychic reading. I’d simply learned the meaning of the individual cards and the format of the readings. The rest I picked up along the way in a Darwinian process of trial and error. I was conscious of the fact that I my hit rate was only increasing because I was making statements that were more likely to be valid. I learned that when I used a term like “young man” I should never specify an age range, but rather let that mean child or young adult to you. I learned to steer the reading based on what the querent was saying. And I knew that there was nothing clairvoyant about any of it.
But despite that, I was slowly becoming coming to question my lack of psychic powers. Was this simply how the ancient art manifested itself? Did one simply adopt a “fake it ’til you make it” attitude? And, preeminent among the questions, was I getting out more than I was putting in? Sure, I wasn’t all that impressed with my psychic powers, but the people I was doing these readings for sure were. Was I just too modest to recognize my obvious super-human abilities?
So large were my attempts to justify it that I began questioning whether it was arrogance that was holding me back from embracing my telepathic propensity. After all, was I really so much smarter than all these people who I was doing readings for? I thought it was just a bunch of tricks of phrasing, but perhaps I was just denying the Tarot their due. Perhaps there was something to them after all. Perhaps the reason I never had any real insight was that Tarot didn’t work that way. Perhaps the real power was in teasing the insight out of the questioner.
In truth, the answer was always clear to me. These people wanted me to be psychic so if I offered them the slightest glimmer of hope, they were happy to overlook whatever they had to in order to embrace it. I wanted me to be psychic too, but I was never able to make the leap I would have had to before I could charge for my “service” without feeling like a fraud.
That being said, I can see how even a very rational person in my position might have started to believe their own bullshit. There is a frightening symbiotic relationship between the bullshiter and the bullshitee. If the victim of the fraud wants to be victimized bad enough, it is damned tempting to give it to them. And as I sat with a querent long after the reading and listened to them try to find elaborate ways of turning my misses into hits (“Maybe that bit was about my brother’s kids…”) I really wanted to throw away my rational doubts and take the meal that was in front of me. Sorry if I hurt my credibility by saying this, but I was good enough at reading Tarot to make a living at it and had a number of ready customers willing to pay for my service. And this was a damned tempting lifestyle, especially if I could justify even the smallest sliver of belief in what I was doing.
Again, all I can comment on is my own personal experience, but I tend to start with the hypothesis that anyone making money with their bullshit knows exactly what they’re selling. The mere fact that they’re successful serves as potent evidence of that fact; if they didn’t know the “tricks”, they’d be a lot less likely to consistently fool their customers and get the kind of repeat business one needs to make a service like that profitable. I’m sure that there are some people out there making a living selling their herbal remedies and pseudo-science that actually believe everything they say, but the more extravagant the claim, the less inclined I am to give them the benefit of the doubt.