Can Psychologists and Psychics Read Minds?

phil-coffman-161251.jpgA question that I often get asked when I tell people that I am a Clinical Psychologist is “Are you reading my mind, right now?

The interesting thing about the question is that it really isn’t what psychologists do.

Sure, I can pick up on other people’s emotions much more than I could before I started clinical work. I’ve also become more skilled at reading people’s body language and tone of voice and what this might mean. These skills could help me to be a better poker player, but they definitely don’t make me a psychic.

Do people get a psychologist and a psychic confused?

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I’d like to hope not, but I’m also sure that I’ve never met another psychologist who has claimed to be a mind reader.

Well, maybe some of my friends and I used to during our undergraduate studies, but we weren’t psychologists yet, and we definitely weren’t psychics. Just using some silly tricks that we had read in the book ‘The Game’ by Neil Strauss, an exposé on the pick-up-artist community. When anyone asked us if we could read their minds we would say one of two things:

1. Think of a number between 1 and 10.

Go ahead, think of it.

It turns out that a surprisingly high number of people say 7. Not sure why, but when people guessed this and we got it right, they confirmed their beliefs that we were mind readers.

2. Imagine you are driving along a road in the desert, and in the distance you see a cube up ahead on the side of the road. What size is the cube (small, medium, big)? Is the cube opaque (see-through) or solid? What colour is the cube? Now imagine that there is a ladder in relation to this cube. Where is it? 

With each response, a “hmm, interesting” was all that we would say until all questions were answered.

We would then give generic, generally positive responses such as:

  • big cube = extraverted
  • opaque = open and easy to get to know
  • red = passionate
  • ladder on top of cube = high achiever

The funny thing was that people were generally pretty happy with their analysis, and were sufficiently impressed with our mind reading skills.

The Problem With Horoscopes

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It often perplexes me that horoscopes written in the newspaper claim to apply to the 625 million people in the world that have that star sign. It’s also fascinating to me how many people read them each day and believe in what they say. But maybe that is typical of me as a Sagittarius to be a doubter and a unbeliever. Who knows.

In my year 11 Psychology class, I remember a little experiment that our teacher did with us. To begin with, we were all given a description of our personality based on our horoscope. To give you a sense of how accurate it was, I have programmed my website to  figure out your personality based on your horoscope. Let me know how accurate my description of you is from 0 = poor to 5 = excellent:

  1. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. 
  2. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. 
  3. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. 
  4. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. 
  5. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. 
  6. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. 
  7. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. 
  8. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. 
  9. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
  10. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. 
  11. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. 
  12. Security is one of your major goals in life.

How accurate was my assessment?

When we were given this description in class, most of us rated it a 4 out of 5. It turns out that we were all given the same description regardless of our horoscope, and if you haven’t guessed it yet I have done the same with you.

All of these 12 items are all known as Barnum statements, which Psychologist Bertram Forer first used in his 1948 study to observe this phenomenon. He found that people tend to believe that general and mostly positive personality descriptions apply specifically to them without realising that they could also apply to many others too.

These findings have been duplicated several times since, with most results supporting the initial findings that these statements are rated as about 85% accurate at describing an individual’s personality. Now commonly known as the Forer effect, it is thought to be one of the main reasons why astrology, fortune telling, some personality tests and other forms of supposed mind reading are so popular and perceived as effective.

Well Then Explain To Me How..?

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Whenever I tell people that I doubt these types of things, most believers will come back to me with a testimony, either from one of their experiences or that of a family member or friend. They’ll tell me about a time when someone they saw was able to accurately know or predict something that they believe could not have been possibly known in any other way.

Just because I don’t believe in mind reading or fortune telling or communicating with spirits does not mean that I can know with 100% certainty that they do not exist. If anyone could prove their gifts scientifically, I would be truly amazed. I’d even be happy to utilise and recommend their services.

Until I see considerable scientific proof however, I recommend this. If a clairvoyant, fortune teller, medium, aura reader or anyone else helps you to feel better or gain more clarity on the path that you would like to take going forward, then that is great. If they cause you to worry more about a horrible fate or not take control or action in your life, then that is not good. Especially if they are charging you a lot of money. If a psychologist is doing the same thing to you, then this would be equally as bad too.

Tricks of the Trade

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It doesn’t matter what field it is. Some people are generally warm, intuitive and empathetic, and genuinely want to help the people that they see. Other people may have less altruistic intentions and motivations for doing what they do.

I just want people to be aware of the various tricks that may be used by certain people to convince others that they have the power to read people’s minds, communicate with spirits, or predict the future.

In ‘The Full Facts book of Cold Reading’, Ian Rowland lists 38 persuasion techniques (including Barnum statements). Known as elements, they are used to extract information from clients, convince them that they know something about their character, about the facts and events of their life, and about the future. Some of my favourite are:

Elements to extract information:

  1. ‘Jargon Blitz’ with a ‘Veiled Question’: Explain the traditional meaning of a tarot card “the five of swords indicates a struggle in the affairs of the heart” then make a statement about the client’s life “I sense your personal goals are taking priority over romance at this time”, followed by “is this making sense to you?” If it is, you’ve got a hit. If not, they give you more information about their life without realising that a question has been asked.
  2. ‘Vanishing Negative: State a negative question with ambiguous tone and phrasing, such as “you don’t work with kids, do you?“. It can be a hit whether they agree or disagree, as the negative part of the question simply vanishes if they say they do work with kids – “yes, I thought so. A strong affinity with children is indicated…

Elements about character:

  1. ‘Rainbow Ruse’: Credit the client with both a personality trait and its opposite: “sometimes you are very outgoing and confident, even the life of the party when the mood strikes you, and yet there are other times when you can retreat into your shell, preferring to keep quiet or distance yourself from others.” It sounds perceptive, but literally covers the whole scope of the personality trait.
  2. ‘Jacques Statement’: Depending on what stage of life they are at, talk about the usual crises that tend to occur around their age. Rowland shares his one for someone in their mid-thirties to early forties: “if you are honest about it, you often get to wondering about what happened to all those dreams you had when you were younger, and all those wonderful ambitions you once held dear. I suspect that deep down, there is a part of you that sometimes wants to scrap everything, get out of the rut, and start again, but this time do things YOUR way.”

Elements about facts and events:

  1. ‘Fuzzy Fact’: Ask them an apparently factual statement that is quite likely to be accepted initially, and leaves space to become something more specific with additional prompting. This can be related to geography (“I see a connection with Europe, possibly Britain, or it could be the warmer Mediterranean part”), medical (“the gentleman with me now is telling me about a problem around the chest area”), or an event (“There’s an indication here of a career in progress, or in transition. This could be your career, or it could be someone else’s career that affects you”).
  2. ‘Good chance guess’: Ask a question that has a higher chance of being true than the other person would think, such as “I’m seeing a house with the number 2” or “I’m seeing a blue car”. If they have lived in a house with a number 2 or owned a blue car at any point in their life, it’s a hit. If not, it could be someone that was close to them or someone that they knew, or even a neighbour, which makes it unlikely to be wrong.
  3. Trivia stat: Most people have a box of old photos around their house that haven’t been sorted, or medical supplies that are years out of date, or a key that is now redundant, or books associated with a hobby or interest that is no longer pursued. Most people will have had a scar on their left knee, been involved in some sort or childhood accident that involved water, have an item of clothing in their wardrobe that they can no longer fit into, and tried to learn a musical instrument as a child that they later gave up. Of course people are not likely to realise how common these traits are, so they are also good chance guesses.

Elements about the future:

  1. ‘Pollyanna Pearls’: State that whatever has been difficult lately is likely to improve: “It’s been a bit of a bumpy ride romantically these last few years for you, but the next year or so will be a lot easier!”
  2. ‘Self-fulfilling Predictions’: When making predictions about mood or personality, these have the added bonus of potentially becoming self-fulfilling: “You will begin to adopt a more confident and optimistic disposition. You will let go of old regrets, and start being more compassionate to yourself and others. You will soon have a greater sense of connection and belonging with others!”
  3. ‘Unverifiable Predictions: These can never be verified either way, so no chance of them being wrong. Here is Rowland’s example again: “Someone you know will harbour a secret grudge against you. They will plan to put obstacles in your way, but you will overcome their plans without even realising it.”

I’ve shared my 10 favourite elements with you, but there are still another 28 in ‘The Full Facts book of Cold Reading’. Check it out if you are interested in learning more about the persuasion techniques that are typically employed in the psychic industry.

Conclusion

jonathan-simcoe-88013Some people may be able to convince you that they can read your mind. But from my experience in life so far, I have never come across any substantial scientific evidence that suggests that this is the case.

The truth is that in order to understand and help people, I generally have to rely on how they present in session with me, as well as what they say to me and how they say it. Communication with their partner, family members, friends or other treating doctors can also help at times too (if the client consents to this).

If you are going to see a psychologist, please do not assume that they can read your mind. If you’d like to speak about something, make sure that you say it. Especially if the session isn’t going in the way that you want it to, if you are uncomfortable, or if the treatment isn’t as helpful as you’d like it to be.

I have no doubt that a client could successfully withhold or deceive me if they wanted to, but all this would do is create a barrier in the therapeutic relationship that would then prevent me from being able to help them in the best way possible.

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A lot of people assume that others should know exactly what they need and how to give it to them. But if both psychologists and psychics can’t even read your mind, then it is unlikely that someone else will be able to either. The reality is that it is okay to ask for what you need and to teach others to support you in the ways that you find most helpful.

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

 

 

18 thoughts on “Can Psychologists and Psychics Read Minds?

  1. Hi there ! I never normally do this but I had to comment and tell you how much I adore your blog! I just came across it now and I am so happy I have, it is so wonderful and you truly have a great blog. I am going to follow you so I can keep up to date with all of your latest posts. Keep up the great work!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read your article from start to finish. I loved it. I’ve always had my doubts about psychic readings, thus, I have never been to one. Neither have I been to see a psychologist. Ever. Though I’d like to befriend one.
    But I do believe that people with 6th and 7th sense EXIST. I am not one of them.
    It was an enjoyable read. Thank you. Selma.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So much of these ideas of psychics and such come down to the fact that the vast majority of people are pretty much blind to 98% of non-verbal communication. So those of us who are far more skilled at understanding that (myself due to a learning disability), can freak people out or con them, depending on the goal.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great article. I, too, have been asked many times over decades as a psychologist if I could read the person’s mind. I think in social settings it often is simply anxiety that I might be able to see their secrets or flaws. Unfortunately, many people have misconceptions and misgivings about mental health professionals in general.

    I also agree that far too many people are naive and gullible about con artists. I’m still amazed at intelligent, well-educated friends who believe in astrology, fortune telling, etc. The more dangerous side of that gullibility is our recent presidential election in America. President Trump is definitely a con artist, and he still has many ardent acolytes (bscritic.com). We need to teach skepticism and critical thinking much more than we do. Your information on well known tricks of the con artist trade can never be said too often.

    Thanks for the article.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is the most interesting blog post I’ve read recently! Thank you for “liking” my post. I might not have discovered you otherwise, and that would have been quite a loss!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh this post reminded me of my college days. ☺ When someone learns that I graduated BS Psychology, I was always asked if I could read their minds!
    I don’t necessarily believe in horoscopes, although I am fascinated how seemingly accurate they describe the characteristic of the person having that specific zodiac sign. But then again, the explanation could be found on this post. Thank you for sharing. It’s a very insightful read! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You seem to be so scientific that you are missing the joys of some of those things that are not black and white. I will look forward to reading more of your thoughts about the world. JessieMay

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi JessieMay,
      I don’t believe so, but thank you for your opinion. Whilst it is true that my current opinion on these things is a position of disbelief that is grounded in science, I am also aware that what we think of as facts are often identified as incorrect in time, whereas other things that may seem absurd (such as quantum theory) are later shown to be correct. If the evidence changes, I am open to and happy to change my opinion. Until then, I just want people to be aware of some of the tricks that may be used against them so they are less susceptible to harm. I would never want them to miss out on anything that gives them joy, and if they find it personally helpful then that is a great thing, regardless of the scientific evidence.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I don’t believe in psychics because there is no future and no past. They are inventions. “The past” exists in the present as memories. “The future” are sets of expectations and the like. I do work as an alternative healer or shaman and people still come to me for “readings” where I look at future possibilities. Some of my readings have been very accurate, but I don’t know how. I try to discourage “looking into the future” because I believe we make or own future based on what we do now. Much of how I work is by receiving and interpreting visual metaphors for the purpose of healing.

    Scientific inquiry is often reductionistic and so it is antithetical to matters of Spirit. Emotions are often discounted in scientific inquiry especially the emotional states of experimenters on the experiment mainly in hard science such as physics. I read a piece about astrology written by a physicist who claimed that astrology is an interpretation of EM – electromagnetic fields around planets, stars and solar systems, and galaxies.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I just have to let you know how much I am enjoying your blog. I love the tone of your writing. I’ve noticed that a lot of psychology blogs feel condescending and I do not get that feeling from yours. Your topics are interesting and you lend a personal touch. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. hi! I noticed all your post are so good… I’d like to ask a favor to help me to improve my skills in blogging. You can visit my blog charliekeinth.wordpress.com , I accept any suggestions and comments. I started blogging a few days ago, I appreciate any help. thanks!

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  11. Absolutely, only you know what you are and what you want? We seek for help because not every person is capable. But we should always try. The other person can’t completely give you a rescue … but they can help until you figure out who you are and what you want.

    Like

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