First, fool yourself: the sincerity of the psychic

Derren Brown gave us some interesting skeptical TV viewing this week, investigating the Liverpool based “psychic medium” Joe Power in a Channel 4 documentary. Brown has previously covered the topic of contacting the dead in a special called “Messiah”, which I highly recommend.

Power seemed convinced of his ability to contact the dead, although he obviously sees what he does as a “career”, hoping to be as big a star as Derek Acorah or Colin Fry.

It seemed pretty clear to me that Power was using a combination of “cold reading” (drawing out information from the sitter and feeding it back) and “hot reading” (using information obtained in advance): techniques that Brown and Richard Wiseman explained during the programme. In the heated final exchange, Brown tried to get Power to admit to being a “fake” and asked him “How do you sleep at night?” Power responded with righteous indignation.

If a so-called medium is using non-paranormal means to create effects or paranormal powers, does that mean they are consciously faking? Maybe not. I’m going to argue that a lot of psychics fall into the space between “genuine” and “knowing fake”.

It seems straightforward to interpret hot reading as outright fakery. It’s hard to imagine someone doing it without knowing that’s what they are doing (although it’s possible in the case of cryptomnesia). However, mediums such as Joe Power use hot reading only occasionally; it’s not the meat of their act. The psychologist Nicholas Humphrey addresses the idea of occasional fakery in Soul Searching (published in the USA as Leaps of Faith). He argues that proponents who are subjectively convinced they have a psychic power consider it justifiable to occasionally fake a demonstration when their powers fail them. From their perspective, they are using deception to convince someone of powers that definitely exist, so it’s a benign deception.

Okay, but what about cold reading? If someone claims to be getting messages from spirits, but is really just making it up, that’s fakery, right? They must know that they’re making it up? Not necessarily.

Here’s where I bring in bias research; specifically the Introspection Illusion. It turns out we human beings really haven’t got very good insight into where our ideas and feelings come from. The processes that bring a name, a number or an image into consciousness are hidden, so when we explain having those thoughts, we are using a theory about ourselves. The theory is often wrong, but the costs of being wrong aren’t usually very great. A medium who interprets these thoughts as messages from disembodied souls is doing the same as the rest of us, but applying an unusual theory.

So the active imagination of the medium throws up the number four. The medium interprets it as a message intended for the sitter; “I’m getting that there were four of you in your family.” The sitter interprets this the best they can, which might be:

  • “Yes, I have one brother, so with our parents that’s four,”
  • “Yes, I have one brother and two sisters, so there were four of us,”
  • “Yes, I have one brother and three sisters. There were four of us sisters,” or
  • “Yes, I was an only child and my best friend in the world was my dog. It was really a family of four.”

Thus a large proportion of the medium’s suggestions get a positive response, subjectively reinforcing their belief. From hundreds of these interactions, the medium builds up a certainty that something miraculous is going on. When a skeptic comes along and the powers suddenly “don’t work so well,” it makes sense (in a purely subjective way) to help the demonstration along with a little fakery.

Confirmation bias comes into play as well. The sitter who is evaluating the medium’s statements is probably recently bereaved, in need of some positive message and what’s more, they have paid a lot of money for their time with the medium. Thus we can expect they will have a very low standard of success.

The Introspection Illusion is a double-edged sword for psychics like Joe Power: it explains how despite all the evidence of fakery, he may well be really sincere. On the other edge, it implies that we should write off anyone’s claims to know that they are thinking of the name “Jane” or the number five because those are messages from departed souls.

Further reading: Tony Youens’ page “Before you see a psychic”
Timothy Wilson’s book Strangers to Ourselves (for more about introspection and the adaptive unconscious)
Ian Rowland’s book The Full Facts of Cold Reading

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