Subjective validation is the process of validating words, initials, statements, or signs as accurate because one is able to find them personally meaningful and significant. Subjective validation explains why many people are seduced by the apparent accuracy of pseudoscientific personality profiles. Subjective validation deludes everyone from the housewife who thinks her happiness depends on her blood type or horoscope, to the FBI agent who thinks criminal profiles are spot on, to the therapist who thinks her Rorschach readings are penetrating portraits of psychological disorders.
Subjective validation is an essential element of any successful cold reading done by astrologers, palm readers, tarot readers, mediums, and the like. The sitter in such readings must cooperate. Fortunately for the medium, most sitters are usually eager for the reader to succeed and are willing to work hard to find personal meaning in whatever the reader throws out. In a successful cold reading, the sitter will be convinced that the accuracy of the reading was not due to her ability and willingness to cooperate but rather to the powers of astrology, palmistry, tarot, or mediumship.
Sitters are often very compliant. A medium will say he senses a father figure trying to contact him from the spirit world and the sitter has only to find someone to fit the bill. It need not be the sitter’s father. So, when the sitter identifies this father figure as her deceased husband, the medium is validated by the subject. The medium is validated by the subject when the medium says she is getting the message “I do not walk alone” and the sitter makes sense out of this by seeing it as a communication from a departed soul who was in a wheelchair before she died. There may be thousands of ways to make sense out of an ambiguous stimulus like the name ‘Michael’ or the expression ‘broken wheel’ but all it takes is for the sitter to find one and the medium is validated.
Selective memory is also involved in subjective validation because it is very unlikely that any sitter will be able to find meaning in every utterance the medium makes. Fortunately for the reader, the sitter will usually forget the misses and remember only the hits. That is, the sitter will remember what she was able to make sense out of and forget the stuff that made no sense to her. Also, it rarely occurs that anyone makes an independent check of the accuracy of the sitter’s rating of the reader.* So, if a sitter is satisfied that a reading is very accurate that is usually taken as sufficient evidence by the medium – and by experimenters who test mediums such as Gary Schwartz – as proof of the accuracy of the reading.
The stronger the desire to make contact, the harder the sitter will work to find meaning and connections in the medium’s items. This fact should impact the design of experiments that are supposed to test a medium’s ability to get messages from spirits. Experimenters should always checks factual claims made by sitters. But even though the concern with factual accuracy is important in verifying the success of the medium, one should not lose sight of the importance of the studies that have been done on how the human mind works when it comes to making sense out of and giving significance to disparate data presented to it. The overall effect of subjective validation should show up in the way sitters rate the accuracy of the mediums’ claims.
I’ve discussed here and here how practitioners of paranormal piffle wish to look scientific. They fail under actual scientific scrutiny but, we have to admit, they are pretty effective at bamboozling the public with a sciencey show.
I came across a news story in Business Insider about an astrologer who was doing mighty well for herself. In times of uncertainty, society tends to turn to anything that will give them a sense of control. Astrologic and psychic advisors seem to fill that role for some people, even professional businesspeople. This astrologer, who thinks quite highly of her craft, had these things to say:
“What I do is scientific. Astrology involves careful methods learned over years and years of training and experience.”
“There are so many things we don’t understand in the world. What if 200 years ago someone had said that these metal barrels in the sky would get us around the world in a few hours? Or that we’d inject ourselves with mold to treat illnesses? People are so skeptical.”
And then I laughed.
Few examples of pseudoscience are more perfect than astrology, which has been studied A LOT, and whose practitioners still cannot demonstrate a root in reality.