The idea of summoning the spirits took thrilling hold of the Victorian imagination – and has its adherents now. But the psychology behind spiritualism is more intriguing
As the evenings get darker and the first hint of winter hangs in the air, the western world enters the season of the dead. It begins with Halloween, continues with All Saints’ and All Souls’ days, runs through Bonfire Night – the evening where the English burn effigies of historical terrorists – and ends with Remembrance Day. And through it all, Britain’s mediums enjoy one of their busiest times of the year.
People who claim to contact the spirit world provoke extreme reactions. For some, mediums offer comfort and mystery in a dull world. For others they are fraudsters or unwitting fakes, exploiting the vulnerable and bereaved. But to a small group of psychologists, the rituals of the seance and the medium are opening up insights into the mind, shedding light on the power of suggestion and even questioning the nature of free will.
Humanity has been attempting to commune with the dead since ancient times. As far back as Leviticus, the Old Testament God actively forbade people to seek out mediums. Interest peaked in the 19th century, a time when religion and rationality were clashing like never before. In an era of unprecedented scientific discovery, some churchgoers began to seek evidence for their beliefs.
Salvation came from two American sisters, 11-year-old Kate and 14-year-old Margaret Fox. On 31 March 1848, the girls announced they were going to contact the spirit world. To the astonishment of their parents they got a reply. That night, the Fox sisters chatted to a ghost haunting their New York State home, using a code of one tap for yes, two gaps for no. Word spread and soon the girls were demonstrating their skills to 400 locals in the town hall.
Within months a new religion had emerged – spiritualism – a mixture of liberal, nonconformist values and fireside chats with dead people. Spiritualism attracted some of the great thinkers of the day – including biologist Alfred Russel Wallace and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who spent his latter years promoting spiritualism in between knocking out Sherlock Holmes stories. Even the admission of the Fox sisters in 1888 that they had faked it all failed to crush the movement. Today spiritualism thrives in more than 350 churches in Britain.
Last week I spent 40 minutes with a telephone spiritualist who passed on messages from four dead people. Like all mediums, she was skilled at cold reading – the use of probable guesses and picking up of cues to steer her in the right direction. If she hit a dud – the suggestion that she was in the presence of a 40-year-old uncle of mine – she quickly widened it out. The 40-year-old became an older person who felt young at heart. And then someone who was more of an uncle figure. She was also skilled at the Barnum effect – the use of statements that tend to be true for everyone.
Among dozens of guesses and misses, there was just one hit – the correct name of a dead relative. Their relation to me was utterly wrong, as were details of their health. But the name was right and, even though it was a common name among that person’s generation, it was a briefly chilling moment.
Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist and magician, says my response to this lucky guess is typical. People tend to remember the correct details in a seance but overlook statements or events that provide no evidence of paranormal powers.
Wiseman’s work has also shown that we are all extremely susceptible to the power of suggestion.
- The psychology of spiritualism: science and seances | Science | The Observer (theguardian.com)
- The World’s First Recorded Séance (sunstarxpress.wordpress.com)
- The ‘Levitating In The Face Of Science’ Séance (sunstarxpress.wordpress.com)
- Derren Brown …. Mind control! (hrexach.wordpress.com)
The Forer effect refers to the tendency of people to rate sets of statements as highly accurate for them personally even though the statements were not made about them personally and could apply to many people.
Psychologist Bertram R. Forer (1914-2000) found that people tend to accept vague and general personality descriptions as uniquely applicable to themselves without realizing that the same description could be applied to many people. Consider the following as if it were given to you as an evaluation of your personality.
You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.
Forer gave a personality test to his students, ignored their answers, and gave each student the above evaluation (taken from a newsstand astrology column). He asked them to evaluate the evaluation from 0 to 5, with “5” meaning the recipient felt the evaluation was an “excellent” assessment and “4” meaning the assessment was “good.” The class average evaluation was 4.26. That was in 1948. The test has been repeated hundreds of time with psychology students and the average is still around 4.2 out of 5, or 84% accurate.
In short, Forer convinced people he could successfully read their character. His accuracy amazed his subjects, though his personality analysis was taken from a newsstand astrology column and was presented to people without regard to their sun sign. The Forer effect seems to explain, in part at least, why so many people think that pseudosciences “work”. Astrology, astrotherapy, biorhythms, cartomancy, chiromancy, the enneagram, fortune telling, graphology, rumpology, etc., seem to work because they seem to provide accurate personality analyses. Scientific studies of these pseudosciences demonstrate that they are not valid personality assessment tools, yet each has many satisfied customers who are convinced they are accurate.
The most common explanations given to account for the Forer effect are in terms of hope, wishful thinking, vanity, and the tendency to try to make sense out of experience. Forer’s own explanation was in terms of human gullibility. People tend to accept claims about themselves in proportion to their desire that the claims be true rather than in proportion to the empirical accuracy of the claims as measured by some non-subjective standard. We tend to accept questionable, even false statements about ourselves, if we deem them positive or flattering enough. We will often give very liberal interpretations to vague or inconsistent claims about ourselves in order to make sense out of the claims. Subjects who seek counseling from psychics, mediums, fortune tellers, mind readers, graphologists, etc., will often ignore false or questionable claims and, in many cases, by their own words or actions, will provide most of the information they erroneously attribute to a pseudoscientific counselor. Many such subjects often feel their counselors have provided them with profound and personal information. Such subjective validation, however, is of little scientific value.
MORE . . .
James Randi‘s fiery takedown of psychic fraud
Legendary skeptic James Randi takes a fatal dose of homeopathic sleeping pills onstage, kicking off a searing 18-minute indictment of irrational beliefs. He throws out a challenge to the world’s psychics: Prove what you do is real, and I’ll give you a million dollars. (No takers yet.)
via Project Barnum
• Cold Reading
Making vague statements that will fit most people if they want them to
Cold reading is a series of techniques employed by psychics, mediums and mentalists that are used to manipulate the customer (sitter) into believing that the psychic can read their mind, or that the medium is in contact with a dead relative or friend.
A cold reading will involved things that are called ‘Forer Statements’ (or or Barnum statements) which are designed to encourage the sitter to fill in the gaps in the information being given. Though these statements may appear to be specific they are really very open-ended and vague and could really apply to anyone. Experiments have shown how similar statements can be taken personally when issued to dozens of people at the same time!
Some examples of such statements would be:
- “I sense that you are sometimes insecure, especially with people you don’t know very well.”
- “You work with computers”
- “You’re having problems with a friend or relative”
Here is ‘psychic’ James Van Prag demonstrating what appears to be a very embarrassing cold reading:
• Rainbow Ruse
Ticking all potential boxes by making all-encompassing descriptions
Similar to Forer statements is the “rainbow ruse” which involves a statement that covers all possibilities and often describe somebody as being two completely different types of person at the same time. Here are some examples:
- “Most of the time you are positive and cheerful, but there has been a time in the past when you were very upset.”
- “You are a very kind and considerate person, but occasionally you feel deep-seated anger.”
- “I would say that you are mostly shy and quiet, but when the mood strikes you, you can easily become the centre of attention.”
• Hot/warm Reading
Using information gained before the show about the audience
- The Enduring Fallacy Of Astrology And Why Your Sign Actually Isn’t Your Sign (good.is)
- Psychic Sued for Police Hoax About Massacre (illuminutti.com)
- Long Island Medium – The Learning Channel (illuminutti.com)
- Indigo Kids: What a Complete Joke. (lunaticoutpost.com)
- You’re not as clever as you think you are so here’s….why horoscopes are all just a fad? (dailymail.co.uk)