The Power of the Will to Believe: How psychics deceive us.
By Melanie Fraser Hay –
One of the most profound philosophical ideas of the 20th century is Nietzsche’s pronunciation that “God is dead.” He wasn’t referring to an actual physical or metaphysical god but an idea, a collective spirit, a forward momentum in a spiritually meaningful and cumulative direction. Since the Enlightenment, spirituality or belief in a higher power has ceased to be a monolithic idea on which to pin our hopes and worries and to help soothe the suffering of experiencing human consciousness. One might accuse Nietzsche of naiveté to claim it is so simple for humanity to shoo the idea of soul and spirit away in three chaste words. But one could argue that the real danger is not that God (in the abstract spiritual sense) is dead, but that good is dead; good meaning something more than just an abstract platonic value. Humanity has an unquenchable hunger for certainty aided by spiritual ideas and beliefs, religion and traditions. Part and parcel of this is a historically fervent interest in archetypal stories of woe and redemption which offer symbolic shoulder on which to rest a weary spirit. We have relied on such ideas to give us composure enough to carry on regardless of tragedy – something that empirical science struggles to match.
As Michael Gross suggests in his 2013 article Can Science Relate To Our Emotions, a reductionistic world view does not offer emotional and mental comfort. One could deduce that this void is where spiritual and emotional complexities reside. Still, the sciences do indeed offer comfort in other ways.
In today’s western world, most would not want to visit a Voodoo witch doctor to be given ominous homemade potions and have questionable lumps chanted over. It would be safe to assume that the vast majority would prefer to be handled with delicate care by the most stringent of medically trained, hippocratically oathed physicians in fastidiously sterile surroundings.
Why then, in modern western society, do we expect such strict rules for medicine but may be willing to put our emotional burdens, trust and money into a charlatan’s palm? Especially when the charlatan claims they can talk to our dead grandmother whose name may start with an S, an R, or maybe an L.
Human emotion is stubborn in its lack of ability to abide by the rules of logic and common sense. This has proven extremely useful – and lucrative – for those ready and willing to step in and exploit it. Even with official government-funded bereavement counselling resources readily available, there are those who will gravitate towards more questionable means to alleviate despair. Both counselling and other psychological talking therapies do not offer a complete certainty in the way one craves when having lost a loved one, left alone with the vicious sting of unfinished conversations and emotional strife. It is for this reason that those who claim to speak to the dead often boast that they offer “closure” and “peace of mind” to those who require their services.
But at what price?
Are these people doing as they say they do, offering relief to those who so desperately need it or is mediumship nothing more than a self-employed grief reliever tricking the vulnerable into engaging in some sort of emotional Ponzi scheme? An important question to ask is why do so many of us offer audience to those who claim to have psychic powers, especially when there is so little proof, and so many so-called mediums and psychics (and their methods for deception) have been found out to be frauds under the most basic of scrutinies?
Spiritualism and the supernatural has had a heavy presence in the media with films like Insidious and The Others (even glorifying the validity of such ideas). It’s probable that many have seen advertisements for medium and psychic shows on television such as Theresa Caputo’s Long Island Medium and Crossing Over with John Edward, or even the unintentionally comedic Most Haunted (the latter show having been ironically featured on Living TV where host Yvette Fielding and psychic medium Derek Accora star as ghost-botherers venturing into supposedly haunted buildings to “speak” with the dead). The ratings for these shows are monumental with many series being produced, large audience numbers in attendance during tours, and guest spots on hugely popular talk shows. The mediums and psychics featured are turned into celebrities acquiring cult-like followers often spending above their means to be able to connect to a dead loved one via said psychic medium. Fans are also known for leaving huge donations and sometimes entire family fortunes to said mediums (much to the detriment of grieving relatives).
As psychologist Karen Stollenznow discusses in her 2012 report on Tricks of the Psychic Trade, it is common knowledge that the main tool of mediumship is the use of cold reading. You can see high-profile mediums such as the previously mentioned Caputo utilise this method of seemingly being able to produce uncannily accurate information to convince a random individual – known as a sitter – in the audience. This happens, despite there being a plethora of information at the public’s fingertips showing how mediumship can be reduced to nothing but psychological tactics, trickery and verbal manipulation. In some instances (especially in hot reading where prior knowledge has been obtained on the sitter in order to give the illusion of a more accurate reading) collusion with an outside source feeds information back to the medium via a device or briefings before the act begins. The audience cheers, the sitter is left stunned and slightly confused, while everyone else is left with the feeling of amazement, emphatically hoping that they’re next on the supernatural list of those chosen to receive a message from their spiritual kin. Unsurprisingly, and rather disappointingly, literally anyone can learn how to cold read if they so wish. There are skeptic websites that will give you a concise ten-step process – free of charge – in cold reading, immediately turning you into a psychic superstar – if you can still live with yourself afterwards.
As Richard Wiseman suggests in his 2003 report on Belief in the Paranormal and Suggestion in the Séance Room, someone who has prior belief in the supernatural is more likely to trust the veridicality of supernatural experiences compared to those who lean more towards the sceptical side. After a study wherein a realistic mock séance was conducted (with participants believing it was real during the experiment), participants were asked if they had felt a table move when it had indeed remained stationary. One third of those involved reported movement even though nothing had happened, and it was found that those who believe in supernatural forces are more likely to report experiences of things that simply did not happen. More startlingly, one fifth of those who were involved, even when informed that the séance was fabricated and performed by actors, were adamant that genuine supernatural phenomena was still present and that they had experienced it.
The adaptive mechanism of self-deception may have a part to play in why people engage with psychics and mediums. B.P Mclaughlin’s 1988 addition of Perspectives on Self-Deception considers the psychological and emotional desperation a person may feel when freshly bereaved. Visiting a medium to connect to a lost loved one may be the only way they can find closure and Mediums are ready to offer said closure in order to validate their “craft”. Because of this feedback loop, the bereaved person is actively willing to be deceived, whether they may know it or not. It has also been found that those of us with a less developed sense of control over our lives prefer to explain chance as being the result of supernatural powers. In 1973, R.J. Scheidt penned a report proposing that belief in supernatural phenomena was linked to differences in an individual’s locus of control. Using Rotter’s infamous I-E scale (internal/external), a higher external locus of control correlated positively with higher paranormal belief. The more someone will leave something up to chance, believing outside forces are at play regarding an individual’s control of their life (feeling a lack of power and personal agency within), the more likely they are to believe. Conversely, an individual with a stronger internal locus of control showed a much lower belief correlation when results of the same test were analysed.
In 2006, American Scientific journal published an article by Jesse M. Bering on The Cognitive Psychology of Belief in the Supernatural in which he muses that even though he is a materialist (he believes that death is absolutely where our consciousness ends), when he thinks about his death he cannot fathom a true end. If a die-hard materialist struggles with this notion, how is anyone else meant to fare? He outlines that in the United States alone 95% of people believe in life after death, leaving us to wonder how many would be open to suggestibility depending on their circumstances; the right tragedy, the right opportunist – the wrong time for the grieving individual.
Case and point: Peter Popoff. Popoff was an extremely successful televangelist who scammed many ill, severely disabled and dying individuals out of money they could barely afford while pretending to have uncanny knowledge about them and their ailments. Popoff would put on wild displays of “healing” desperate members of the audience by slapping a hand on their foreheads, preaching loudly that God himself flowed through him and by a mere touch would dissolve every ailment and worry they had.
Needless to say, Popoff was found to be a complete fraud when it was discovered that it was his wife talking to him though an ear piece relaying previously collected information about each supposedly “cured” individual Popoff laid his healing hands on. Yet this happened after he had already made millions off of his victims, leaving horrific emotional, financial and psychological damage in his wake.
There have been countless reports of cases in which psychics and mediums have been found out to be frauds. Your more investigative – and proactive – skeptics of the paranormal tend to talk with deep irritation and disgust about the deception and psychological meddling that psychic mediums commit. Notable skeptic and illusionist extraordinaire James Randi is the leading figure in challenging the “Psychic fraud” of those who claim to be message carriers from the beyond. Randi, an adept magician in his own right, has been on a debunking mission for most of his lengthy career and even at 90 years of age, is still authoring books on the pitfalls and deceptions of belief in the supernatural. It was Randi who revealed Popoff to be a fraudster amongst many others. Randi’s targets have included psychic spoon-bender Uri Geller and extortionately priced telephone medium Sylvia Browne. Browne was known to charge $700 per brief phone call with grieving believers just to regurgitate predictable information about their recently deceased.
Randi was notorious for creating the One Million Dollar Paranormal challenge in which he offered a hefty lump sum to anyone who could demonstrate their supernatural abilities in straightforward, scientifically controlled conditions. Sylvia Brown glibly accepted the challenge at one point when put on the spot during a television appearance, but later said she could not partake due to not being able to get in contact with Randi or find his address. Randi mused on the situation “She can apparently talk to the dead and find other people’s loved ones but she can’t find my address and I’m alive”.
To this day, no one else has come forward to accept the challenge.
Another skeptic and one of the most iconic magicians in the world, Harry Houdini, was famously critical of mediums, referring to them as “human leeches” for taking advantage of people. This was possibly out of guilt because early in his early career, he and his brother pretended to be mediums. They did this only to provide support for their family. Later on when married, Houdini and his wife were not above turning to spiritualistic trickery to put bread on the table either. As noted in Lyn Gardner’s 2015 article Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle: a friendship split by spiritualism, when grieving for his late mother, Houdini was inspired to engage in a séance with a medium to gain closure regarding her death. The medium wrote fifteen pages of perfect English, supposedly channelled through the spirit of Houdini’s mother. Houdini found this impossible as his mother’s English had been indecipherable when she was alive.
From that point on, Houdini spent a considerable amount of his career debunking the realm of Mediumship, even willing to sever friendships because of it. His most famous example of deception was with avid spiritualist (and highly educated physician) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The irony must be noted here, given Doyle’s fame for creating Sherlock Holmes, who was synonymous with logic and deductive reasoning. The medium in question who conducted Houdini’s mother’s séance was Jean, Conan Doyle’s wife.
There are many different factors at play as to why one may be fooled by a psychic medium or supernatural ideas in general. Simple curiosity (and for entertainment purposes alone) can lead us to willingly observe a psychic medium at work, allowing oneself to be carried along for the ride in awe of the convincing showmanship displayed in front of us. Combine this with the often sensational portrayal of mediums via film and television and such things can become normalised and questionable ideas indirectly validated. Others will have more pointed reasons to seek out mediums: peace of mind, the inability to cope with death, the relief of sharing a burden, or preferring to trust a higher power to answer their questions. The previously suggested self-deception element may also have a role to play in explaining why people choose to seek the solace of a medium.
It is almost too easy to become psychologically dependent on such fantastical ideas in the face of chaos and uncertainty in life. But it is important to utilise a keen eye and vigilant awareness of those peddling magic tricks without hats, rabbits, or decks of cards. Unlike card magic, one’s own emotions and vulnerability are instead exploited with this particular slight of hand.
Humans are the only living beings to experience all-encompassing consciousness, and with that comes the burden of awareness, a burden which can be coupled with a blindness to the trappings of our own folly.
Anthropologically, we are risk-averse creatures seeking certainty and safety as much as possible. We want to acquire peace of mind in all areas of our lives. We will gladly immerse ourselves in self-deception, believing half-truths or outright lies, willingly, if it leads to the answers we so desperately want and need to hear.
We can ultimately hand our power over to those who may not wish to be as careful with it as we would ourselves. Whether it be tarot cards predicting the future, avoiding walking on the cracks in the pavement, or asking someone behind a velvet curtain to connect us to our long dead aunt to ask where she hid all the family valuables – it is important not to let our mind’s cognitive blind spots obstruct reality. It is good practice to intellectually arm ourselves with information to guard ourselves against those who would gladly take psychological and monetary advantage of us when we are experiencing our most trying times.
As Houdini said to his estranged friend Arthur, “…do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see are necessarily “supernatural,” or the work of “spirits,” just because you cannot explain them…” We should remember this thought for future reference if we are ever put in the position of being emotionally swayed away from reason and rationality.
We must be wary of those pretending to know how to grant us supernatural, spiritual, psychological and emotional relief both in mind and in heart, but not before we cross their palms with gold.
Bering, J. M. (2006). The cognitive psychology of belief in the supernatural: Belief in a deity or an afterlife could be an evolutionarily advantageous by-product of people’s ability to reason about the minds of others. American scientist, 94(2), 142-149.
McLaughlin, B. P. (1988). Exploring the possibility of self-deception in belief. Perspectives on self-deception, 29-62.
Gardner, Lyn (2015). Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle: a friendship split by spiritualism
Gross, M. (2013). Can science relate to our emotions? Current Biology, 23(12), R501-R504.
Scheidt, R. J. (1973). Belief in supernatural phenomena and locus of control. Psychological Reports, 32(3_suppl), 1159-1162.
Shermer, Michael (2011). Houdini’s Skeptical Advice: Just Because Something’s Unexplained Doesn’t Mean It’s Supernatural. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/houdinis-skeptical-advice/
Stollenznow, Karen (2012) “Psychic Tricks of the Trade. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/speaking-in-tongues/201201/tricks-the-psychic-trade
Wiseman, R., Greening, E., & Smith, M. (2003). Belief in the paranormal and suggestion in the seance room. British Journal of Psychology, 94(3), 285-297
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