When I tell people that I am a clinical psychologist, people often ask, “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 be a better poker player, but they definitely don’t make me a psychic.
Do people get a psychologist and a psychic confused?
I want 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. So 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. 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 near this cube. Where is it?
With each response, an “hmm, interesting” was all we would say until the person answered all questions.
We would then give generic, generally positive responses such as:
- big cube = extraverted
- opaque = open and easy to get to know
- red = passionate
- the 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
It often perplexes me how horoscopes written in the newspaper are meant to apply to the 600 million+ people globally that have that star sign. But, of course, it’s also fascinating 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 an 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 described 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 character based on your horoscope. Let me know how accurate my description of you is from 0 = poor to 5 = excellent:
- You need other people to like and admire you.
- You tend to be critical of yourself.
- You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
- While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
- Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.
- At times you have serious doubts about 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 pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
- You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
- At times, you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while you are introverted, wary, and reserved at other times.
- Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
- 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. However, it turns out that we were all given the same explanation regardless of our horoscope, and if you haven’t guessed it yet, I have done the same with you.
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.
These findings have been duplicated several times since, with most results supporting the initial findings that these statements are rated at 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 astrology, fortune-telling, some personality tests and other forms of supposed mind-reading are so popular and perceived as valid.
Well, Then Explain To Me How..?
Whenever I tell people that I doubt these 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 could 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 genuinely amazed. I’d even be happy to utilise and recommend their services.
Until I see much scientific proof, however, I recommend this. If a clairvoyant, fortune teller, medium, aura reader, or anyone else helps you feel better or gain more clarity on the path you would like to take going forward, then that is great. However, 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, this would be equally as bad.
Tricks of the Trade
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 want people to be aware of the various tricks that certain people may use 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 favourites are:
Elements to extract information:
- ‘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 lives without realising that a question has been asked.
- ‘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 vanishes if they say they do work with kids — “yes, I thought so. A strong affinity with children is indicated….”
Elements about character:
- ‘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.
- ‘Jacques Statement’: Depending on their stage of life, 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:
- ‘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 transition. This could be your career, or it could be someone else’s career that affects you”).
- ‘Good chance guesses’: Ask a question that has a higher chance of being true than the other person would think, such as “I see a house with the number 2” or “I see 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 close to them or someone they knew, or even a neighbour, which makes it unlikely to be wrong.
- 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 childhood accident that included 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:
- ‘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!”
- ‘Self-fulfilling Predictions’: When making predictions about mood or personality, these have the 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!”
- ‘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 typically employed in the psychic industry.
Some 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 to understand and help people, I have to rely on how they present in session with me and 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 (if the client consents to this).
If you 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 how you want it to, if you are uncomfortable, or if the treatment isn’t as helpful as you’d like it to be.
I do not doubt that a client could successfully withhold or deceive me if they wanted to. Still, 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.
Many people assume that others should know precisely 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. So 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