How do psychics work?
December 11, 2004 8:42 PM   Subscribe

How do psychics work?
posted by moooshy to Society & Culture (39 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Not.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 8:55 PM on December 11, 2004


Do you mean, how they appear to work?

There's a Wikipedia article, too.
posted by eschatfische at 9:01 PM on December 11, 2004


By fooling you in many different ways, including cold reading.

There's always plenty of suckers to fall for them so they stay in business.
posted by madman at 9:02 PM on December 11, 2004


Fraud.

(But seriously, folks.)

I found this book in Barnes & Noble on 5th, a few years ago. No, it's not a joke. It's an interesting read, whether or not you think it's bunk. (I kinda do.)
posted by cribcage at 9:25 PM on December 11, 2004


There's a good episode from the first season of Penn & Teller: Bullshit (available on DVD at Merkin's and other fine stores) that does a good job of explaining the "psychic" con game.
posted by Danelope at 9:40 PM on December 11, 2004


Actually, if you're a behaviorist about the mind, I don't see why mind-reading psychics couldn't be legit, given enough observation time. Not that anyone should be a behaviorist...

Future-predicting or past-reading psychics just use general enough terms that their predictions or visions become very likely to be trivially true. (I sense.... a time of great joy! ....hard times ahead!)
posted by ontic at 10:43 PM on December 11, 2004


they don't. look at something long enough and you'll see it does no work at all.
posted by cell divide at 10:52 PM on December 11, 2004


Also, read the books of James Randi and his website. It is all fraud.
posted by McBain at 11:06 PM on December 11, 2004


Just today I read a transcript of the psychic Char Margolis appearing on Larry King ... in Greg Easterbrook's Tuesday Morning Quarterback column, of all places. By reprinting the transcript, Easterbrook does a pretty good job of showing how silly psychics appear to be outside of the context in which people see them. I think the answer to your question is, Psychics work by tricking you. Scroll down to where it says "Larry, I See -- Wait -- I See Calls to My 900 Number!"
posted by coelecanth at 11:12 PM on December 11, 2004


Ah, a back-patting convention. How fun for you all! ;)

Anyway, moooshy, I'm not sure exactly what you're looking for, here. That is, are you approaching this from a skeptical viewpoint, and you want to know how charlatan psychics trick people? Or are you honestly asking how psychics do what they do, assuming that they are legitimate?

If the latter, I have to say that it depends on what type of psychic you're talking about. There are channelers/mediums, aura readers, tarot readers, palm readers, automatic writers...it really just depends. Some people I know just happen to know what's going on in a person's head -- words or images just pop up. Other people rely on energy transfer via touch, still others communicate with a spirit who gives them answers. I met a voodoo woman in New Orleans who received startlingly accurate information about people via her lwa. With the legitimate psychics I've met, their methods tend to be very individual and personal to them.

Why do you ask? Are you thinking of seeing a psychic, or are you researching a project, or what?
posted by fricative at 12:23 AM on December 12, 2004


By drinking a tea made from the ground bones of skeptics.
posted by mikeybidness at 1:38 AM on December 12, 2004


With the legitimate psychics I've met

/me falls off chair laughing
posted by madman at 3:24 AM on December 12, 2004


Heehee.

Basically and accurately answered, moooshy: You're not going to find an answer here, with that phrasing. If you believe psychics are frauds, then asking about their methods will give you quite a few answers. If you believe they're real, we have a member or two who can give you answers. But without being explicit, you're more likely to get some poor psychic-believing soul enmeshed in a big ole roast. Which will be fun to watch, but not necessarily answer your question.
posted by Bugbread at 6:56 AM on December 12, 2004


Ah, a back-patting convention. How fun for you all! ;)

Condescension + credulousness = hilarity!
posted by coelecanth at 7:18 AM on December 12, 2004


some poor psychic-believing soul

Sigh, yes, poor little foolish me! How do I dress myself in the morning? However do I tie my shoes? If I believe that some people may be legitimate psychics, I also must believe in the Easter Bunny! And Santy Claus!

I do wish people on Metafilter could be a little more respectful about things like this. No, I don't think that all psychics are legitimate -- but I don't believe they're all frauds, either. I base this on the personal experience I've had with a few. But you don't see me responding to everyone else who's commented here saying, "Awww, poor souls. You don't believe in psychics. How silly of you."

I don't believe in hell, but when I find out someone does, I don't say, "Awww, what a cute widdle baby! Believing in a place of eternal damnation, awww! How can you get by from day to day with such an eensy widdle brain?" It's disrespectful, condescending, and distasteful. I guess I expected people to be a bit more helpful and respectful in this thread, whatever their beliefs -- especially considering that most Metafilter members seem to be far older and better educated than me. How disappointing.
posted by fricative at 7:20 AM on December 12, 2004 [3 favorites]


coelecanth: Yeah, I figured someone would probably jump on that. I just assumed from the start that moooshy was honestly seeking information, and I thought that an entire thread of, "FRAUDS FRAUDS FRAUDS" was supremely unhelpful. But as the phrasing was vague, I could've been misreading her. I was, in good faith, trying to be helpful in my answer. I guess perhaps I was a little condescending with my "back-patting" remark, but I was condescended to right back, so I guess it's even, yeah?

Eh. I don't want this to turn into a big flamewar over, "I do believe in psychics!" "Stoopid!" "Narrow-minded!" Etc. Truce?
posted by fricative at 7:23 AM on December 12, 2004


... if you're a behaviorist about the mind ...

I'm not sure exactly what you mean, but I think I agree with you.

I actually know a psychic. She she believes everything she says. And she's very good at what she does: Her observations are usually pretty close to the mark. It does not follow that she has any "psychic abilities" aside from an acute perceptiveness. I think she's basically a really effective, natural "cold reader".

Similarly, even if we assume that psychic abilities don't exist, it doesn't follow that psychics are frauds. There are some who are quite effective at what they see as their job: To help people understand their lives. AFAIAC, they are frauds only insofar as they consciously decieve people.

And AFAIAC, they are really no different in that regard from religious professionals. I'm an atheist, but I'd be the last person to tell you that all religious professionals are Bad People. I've known quite a fiew who had both good intentions and made a positive impact on the world. Certainly there are a lot of fraudulent psychics out there -- probably a lot more, proportionally, than there are fradulent religious professionals -- but simple concsious fraud does not explain the whole thing.
posted by lodurr at 7:32 AM on December 12, 2004


some poor psychic-believing soul

Sigh, yes, poor little foolish me!


I meant "poor" in the sense of "in an unfortunate and unenviable position of being about to be embroiled in an unfriendly discussion". If a skeptic had posted in a psychic forum, I would have said "a poor skeptical soul". The use of the word "poor" was not meant in any way to be disrespectful, condescending, or distasteful. If anything, I was trying to be empathetic.
posted by Bugbread at 8:15 AM on December 12, 2004


Fair enough, bugbread! Sorry I mistook your meaning, and I appreciate the empathy.
posted by fricative at 8:27 AM on December 12, 2004


No problem.
posted by Bugbread at 9:00 AM on December 12, 2004


especially considering that most Metafilter members seem to be far older and better educated than me

This may be a very important idea you've struck upon. Mayhaps you should meditate on it.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:38 AM on December 12, 2004


Is it 'crap' to believe the evidence of your own eyes?
You just didn't figure out how they did it yet. James Randi's million dollar prize remains the strongest testimony that these people are all full of shit. That's all there is to it. There are no 'real' psychics. EOD.

Really, go read the work of James Randi and his prize. His life work is the most authoritave and thorough examination of the paranormal there is.
posted by McBain at 1:13 PM on December 12, 2004


dirtynumbangelboy,
I will have a smoke of that: what a strange talent that lets someone find worthless childhood baubles for other people, but not lost treasure for yourself, as in indicated by having to make a living by charging people to find lost childhood baubles.
posted by 445supermag at 1:21 PM on December 12, 2004


dirtynumbangelboy, an entire profession -- thousands of years old -- exists to fool the "evidence of your eyes" for profit and entertainment. You're insisting that you've witnessed some concrete-yet-unproveable psychic force in action. Don't you think there's a simpler explanation?

As far as the question "How do psychics work," the only two answers I've really seen here are "They don't" and "I don't know." As I think about it these seem like the only two reasonable answers that anyone could give.
posted by coelecanth at 1:27 PM on December 12, 2004 [1 favorite]


I used to work for a psychic hotline as a customer service manager, so perhaps I can offer an industry answer, anyway.

According to the readers and the owners of the business, psychics worked by employing the metaphysical principal "All space is here; all time is now" and transcending human's self-imposed linear concepts of time and space to take a peak at what is, to the psychic, happening here and now, but to the caller, is happening later, somewhere else. The readers use whatever tools, if any, they need to achieve this state of transcendence, including the tarot, crystals, tea leaves, personal objects, whatever.

Now, I don't deny the existence of perception and empathy so keen as to make the person seem to know more than could be reasonably assumed from a given set of facts. And I'm not unconvinced that the whole concept of linear time and space isn't a human construct designed to condense reality in a way that enables our puny little brains to cope. And the majority of the readers employed by this company were very kind, loving people who believed in their heart of hearts that they were helping people in the way described above. However! My own personal theory on how it worked is based on the following observations.

Most callers to our hotline would give enough clues or details about their current situation that any common sense, objective observer could make a correct guess about the outcome. For example, the most common question asked by callers was "Is he coming back to me?" The answer is no. No, he's not. But the art lies in telling the caller "no" in such a way that she isn't pissed, and goes away feeling hopeful about the situation.

Now if the reader has this common sense objectivity and happens to be a genuinely empathetic person, he or she can easily pick up on clues from the callers to make what sounds, at least, like an accurate prediction. And may well be an accurate prediction, who knows. A reader with some education in human behavior (we had a few readers who had psych degrees) has an edge here, too. Jessamyn would make an excellent psychic reader, because she is knowledgeable, empathetic, objective, and observant, regardless of whether she can transcend time and space.

A reader with all the above qualities and a general knowledge about the subject matter the caller is asking about has a real advantage because he or she can apply listening and behavioral observation skills in an area about which he or she is already quite knowledgeable. For example, quite a few people would call to ask about their pets. One of our readers had worked at a vet's office and with animals in other sitautions, and had a fantastic approval rate with the callers on questions relating to animals. Kind of like Biscotti here, except she got paid for it. :)

Now what about all the times when someone calls and the psychic is wrong? According to the psychics, there are numerous reasons for that. One, the person was too "closed off" to be properly read. Being skeptical is one way to close oneself off. Two, telling someone what will happen doesn't make the prediction inevitable. The mere act of telling the person about it opens the door for the person to muck around with the situation and therefore change the outcome. Three, there just wasn't a good connection with the caller for some other reason. (The place where I worked gave everybody five minutes to figure out whether they connected with their reader (and the reader could end the call, too).)

Personally, I think it doesn't work sometimes because sometimes people are wrong! You can be the most empathetic, knowledgeable, objective person in the world and still guess wrong sometimes. You makes the call, you takes your chances.

So, in a nutshell, psychics work by either transcending the human-constructed boundaries of time and space in a way that most of us cannot to answer questions and make predictions, or they happen to be generally kind, empathetic people with a good understanding of human nature who are able to use their objectivity to help sort out other people's thorny problems.
posted by jennyb at 4:20 PM on December 12, 2004 [2 favorites]


I'm not unconvinced that the whole concept of linear time and space isn't a human construct designed to condense reality in a way that enables our puny little brains to cope.

That's what I say but no matter how I try to convince my cat that passing through walls is simply a matter of choosing a time and space that doesn't coincide with the wall's time and space, she never makes it through. It's odd how her behaviours and actions consistently demonstrate a concept of linear time and space that's so analogous to my own. And so she sits, stunned, while I wipe a bit of blood and fur off the wall, and set the catapult again.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:33 PM on December 12, 2004 [2 favorites]


c/analogous/congruent/. Opps.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:34 PM on December 12, 2004


If your cat continues to balk at proving your theories, someone is giving away a possibly smarter kitty a few questions up.
posted by jennyb at 5:18 PM on December 12, 2004


Actually, if you're a behaviorist about the mind, I don't see why mind-reading psychics couldn't be legit, given enough observation time. Not that anyone should be a behaviorist...

I saw some sort of debunking-psychics thing which talked about how psychics could tell stuff about you and how it was really just based on observation, since so many things about you (how you dress, speak, etc.) say stuff about you.

The other interesting thing was this guy who had a bunch of people give him their birthdate and he gave them all "personal psychic profiles" and everyone was very impressed at how accurate they were.... and then it turned out they were all exactly the same. It seems to me a lot of these personality things (astrology, numerology, etc.) succeed based on telling people things pretty much everyone feels but everyone feels like they're all alone in. Like "I hated Junior High" or "I often feel like people are looking down on me"
posted by dagnyscott at 5:45 PM on December 12, 2004


in a box that had never been unpacked after moving, of some treasured childhood bauble that had been presumed lost

I can think of many treasured childhood baubles that, at this very moment, are sitting in boxes waiting to be unpacked. I'm pretty sure most of us can do the same. Here, I'll check:

Yes, the only other person in the office has childhood possessions packed away in moving boxes.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:07 PM on December 12, 2004


Savants do exist. There are undoubtedly people who have intuition so keen that they notice things that nobody else notices, possibly without even consciously realizing what they are doing. It is common for long-married people to complete each others' sentences, for example, and perhaps some people are just really really good at developing this skill quickly with strangers.

I have had one or two experiences like that -- the most vivid was when (here I must blush) a lover and I were having a conversation in which she couldn't bring herself to come out and say what she wanted. After a little bit of this I just somehow knew that what she wanted was to be spanked, even though she'd never even hinted about anything of the sort, ever, and said so. I was right. She was pretty freaked out, especially since I'd sounded so sure of it, rather than phrasing it as a question. She was pretty sure, in fact, that I'd had a "psychic experience" -- we were "on the same wavelength" and I was beginning to be able to literally read her mind.

The mind is an amazing thing and we barely understand how it works yet. So I have no problem the idea that there are people whose minds allow them to do utterly uncanny things fairly consistently. However, I am also quite certain that there is nothing spiritual or mystical about it, just as there is nothing spiritual or mystical about anything else in the world. Why should all the world be rational, except for one little corner of it where the rules do not apply? You'll note that science can't explain how you recognize your grandmother, but that doesn't mean it's inexplicable.
posted by kindall at 6:12 PM on December 12, 2004


My mom and dad were at a dinner last night and they each had to write some things on a notecard. The psychic was able to tell my mom her fantasy was Nicolas Cage. She was pretty amazed, because she doesn't remember mentioning NC. That's why I was curious.
posted by moooshy at 9:04 PM on December 12, 2004


Is it 'crap' to believe the evidence of your own eyes?

David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear! I saw it with my own eyes! I believe he is a God.


You folks really need to read those links on cold reading. Sometimes, I freak people out by doing the "psychic" thing on them, but then I tell them that I have ZERO mystical ability, and it's just good observation skills coupled with believable generalisations.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the Forer effect.

(And you probably believe John Edwards has a gift too, even though anyone with half a brain can tell how he does his shit.)
posted by madman at 9:05 PM on December 12, 2004


I will have a smoke of that: what a strange talent that lets someone find worthless childhood baubles for other people, but not lost treasure for yourself, as in indicated by having to make a living by charging people to find lost childhood baubles

That psychic, actually, charges nothing whatsoever. She's very doubtful of what she does-- she admits that it's a difficult thing to understand, and she has no idea of the mechanism. For her, the idea of charging for something she can't guarantee is immoral. So.. no. In addition, there's a long occult tradition of doing things for people; the usual way this comes out is in Rosicrucian teachings: 'heal without any request nor expectation of recompense.' Some people in the occult world tend to interpret 'heal' as 'serve.'

You just didn't figure out how they did it yet. James Randi's million dollar prize remains the strongest testimony that these people are all full of shit. That's all there is to it. There are no 'real' psychics. EOD.

Alright, you explain to me how she did it, then.

1) She didn't know the person in question; they had never met before.
2) She had never been to that person's house.
3) She described where the object was, inside a box, including its location in that box.

Give me an explanation, please.

dirtynumbangelboy, an entire profession -- thousands of years old -- exists to fool the "evidence of your eyes" for profit and entertainment. You're insisting that you've witnessed some concrete-yet-unproveable psychic force in action. Don't you think there's a simpler explanation?

See above.

I can think of many treasured childhood baubles that, at this very moment, are sitting in boxes waiting to be unpacked. I'm pretty sure most of us can do the same. Here, I'll check:

Again, see above. This was a specific item (a teddy bear or a doll or something), which (yes) had been described to the psychic. What the psychic could not have possibly known was its location inside the box, and the other items surrounding it.



And before you all go off on me about cold readings and the like.. they're easy to do. I know how to do them. Hand me a deck of Tarot cards, and I can easily sit down with a total stranger for twenty minutes and give them a reading that would sound perfectly accurate. And yes, I know how much cognitive dissonance plays a factor in believing the work pf psychics.

Don't insult my intelligence, or that of others who happen to believe that there is rather more to the world than meets the eye.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 9:56 PM on December 12, 2004


Alright, you explain to me how she did it, then.

Without actually having been there, we only have your account of what happened. That's not enough to hazard a guess on how it worked.

However, can this experiment be repeated with consistent results? Set up many different such objects in unlikely places and see if she gets thems all (no, 51% success will not do.) Try a scientific test and see what happens. Otherwise it's all hooey.

And if she can, she should contact Randi to claim her million dollar prize.

There are people who genuinely believe they have some paranormal gift. Doesn't mean that they do.

(Hey, maybe your friend can find Osama Bin Laden!)

Don't insult my intelligence, or that of others who happen to believe that there is rather more to the world than meets the eye.

You're entitled to your opinion, and I respect that, but I have no obligation to respect your opinion.
posted by madman at 11:51 PM on December 12, 2004


Ah, right. I keep forgetting that we only have to respect the opinions of people we agree with. Thank you for reminding me.

As well, how do you explain the help that police often receive from psychics?
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 4:45 AM on December 13, 2004


Credulous police, coupled with underreporting of the overwhelming majority of negative results.

If a "psychic" has a success, that's noteworthy and gets discussed precisely because it is so weird and unusual.

You can demonstrate this effect yourself: get a friend to help you make a home video of you walking into a room, then sitting and flipping coins. Do it with a handheld camera and keep the camera on the coin at all times so you can see the flip results; show both sides of the coin before you do the first flip. Every time a coin comes up tails, rewind the tape and start again.

Do this diligently for a month or so and you will eventually end up with a tape that shows you walking into a room, showing a fair coin, and flipping heads on it ten times in a row. Release the video on the intarwebs, and enjoy your nascent reputation as the next Geller.
posted by flabdablet at 3:41 PM on December 13, 2004


It is unusual. At no point have I, nor anyone else, ever denied that.

But it does happen, in ways that are usually pretty hard to ascribe to coincidence, and often impossible to ascribe to prior collusion.

A closed mind is a closed mind, people, whatever side of the debate you're on.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:13 PM on December 13, 2004


What a disappointing thread. Someone asks a question that can be answered in a fairly straightforward manner (whichever side of the fence you're on, or even if you believe There Is No Fence), and for all the traffic, maybe three or four posts actually amount to anything besides psychic-bashing or psychic-defending.

So, kudos to jennyb for actually answering the question, and providing an account of relevant personal experience that covers both the psychics' own theories and the practical matter of how it might actually happen.
posted by lodurr at 11:56 AM on December 20, 2004


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