Psychologists, Psychics and Mind Reading

Often when I tell people that I am a clinical psychologist, they ask, “Can you read my mind?” I’ve always been fascinated by that question. Mind-reading just isn’t in psychologists’ job description!

I certainly can read other peoples’ feelings more than I could before I began my studies in psychology. I’ve also become more adept at taking cues from peoples’ body language and tone of voice. But neither means that I can read peoples’ minds!

It’s possible that people are confusing psychologists with psychics. I wish they didn’t. I don’t know of any psychologists who say they can read peoples’ minds. Further, even though psychics, astrologists and others claim that they can read minds, I don’t think they can, either.

Mind-Reading Tricks

When my friends and I were in college and weren’t psychologists quite yet, we came up with some silly tricks we used to answer when people asked if we could read their minds.

One trick was to tell the person to pick a number between 1 and 10. Nobody knows exactly why, but it turns out that a majority of people choose the number 7. And when we guessed it right, it served as confirmation to the people that we could read their minds. It was easy to trick them into that belief!

Another trick was this exercise. We’d say to the person, “Imagine you’re driving on a desert road. Up ahead in the distance, you see a cube on the side of the road.” Then we’d ask a series of questions about the cube. “How big is it? Is it solid or transparent? What color is it? Imagine a ladder in relation to it. Where is the ladder?”

With each answer, we’d thoughtfully murmur, “Hmm, yes. Fascinating…” We’d then devise a generic, generally optimistic interpretation of their answers, such as: “The big cube that you visualized tells me that you’re an extrovert. Your transparent cube means that you’re an open person who’s easy to befriend. The red color of your cube means that you’re a passionate person. Visualizing the ladder on top of cube means that you set high expectations for yourself.”

Funnily enough, people were usually fairly satisfied with the analysis we offered, again confirming their belief but easily fooling them that we could read their minds.

Horoscopes and the Forer Effect

Every horoscope claims to apply specifically to each of the 633 million people in the world that share a particular zodiac sign. I find it baffling that so many people read horoscopes on a daily basis, and actually believe what they read there. How can those affirming little tidbits of pablum actually apply specifically to each and every one of them?

I remember an experiment that a professor did in one of my college psychology classes. She gave each student what she said was a personalized, computer-generated description of our own specific personality, based on our zodiac sign. The description she gave me that was specifically generated for me was this:

  1. You need other people to like and admire you.
  2. You tend to be self-critical.
  3. You have a great deal of unused potential which you haven’t turned to your advantage.
  4. While you have some weaknesses in your personality, you can generally compensate for them.
  5. You appear disciplined and self-controlled, but you’re worrisome and insecure on the inside.
  6. You sometimes question whether you’ve made the right decision or done the right thing.
  7. You prefer some variety in life, and feel restless when restricted by limits.
  8. You’re proud to be an independent thinker, and don’t accept others’ statements without proof.
  9. You’ve found it to be foolish to be too frank when revealing yourself to others.
  10. Sometimes you’re extroverted and sociable, but other times you’re introverted and reserved.
  11. Some of your aspirations are unrealistic.
  12. One of your major goals in life is security.

After we each read our description, the professor asked us to rate how accurate we felt our description was using a scale of 0 to 5, with 0 being “poor” and 5 being “excellent.” I thought mine sounded pretty good. The average score from our class was a 4 out of 5. But as it turned out, she’d given us all the very same list, regardless of what our zodiac sign was! The statements were so vague and so general that they could readily be applied to anyone from across a wide range of people.

The 12 items on that list are called Barnum statements. Psychologist Bertram Forer first used them in his studies in 1948, when he learned that people have the tendency to believe that vague but generally positive personality descriptions apply specifically to them, but they usually don’t realize that those descriptions also aptly fit many other people, too.

Similar studies have since found similar results. Most people rate those statements at about 85 percent accurate when describing their own personality. This phenomenon has come to be known as the Forer Effect. It’s the prominent reason why people generally accept mind reading, fortune telling, astrology, and personality tests as accurate.

Anecdotal Evidence

When I tell someone that I doubt astrology, psychics and so on, it’s inevitable that they’ll find someone else to share their testimony, either from their own experience or from that of a family member or friend. They’ll tell me about a time when a reader was able to accurately know or predict something that could not have possibly been known in any other way.

I don’t believe in mind-reading, or fortune telling, or communicating with spirits. But that doesn’t mean that I’m 100 percent certain that they don’t exist. If someone could scientifically prove that they have those gifts, I’d be happy to both recommend their services and use them myself.

But until I see scientific proof, this is my take on the situation: if a psychic, fortune teller, medium, clairvoyant or anyone else helps you feel better about yourself or helps you see your path forward more clearly, that’s fine with me. I don’t want you to miss out on something positive that brings you joy. If you find it helpful, that’s wonderful, regardless of scientific evidence.

But if what they’re telling you causes you to dread your future or to give up control of your life, that’s just wrong. This is especially true if they’re making you pay good money for what they’re telling you. Note that I think it would be equally as bad for a psychologist to treat you this way.

Tricks of the Trade

No matter the field, you’ll find some people who genuinely want to help people, and others who have more selfish intentions and motivations. I really just want people to know about the common tricks that people can use to convince others that they can read people’s minds and predict their futures.

In his book “The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading,” Ian Rowland explores 38 of the most common persuasive psychological manipulation techniques. Also called elements, these techniques can be used by people to extract information, or persuade someone that something is known about their character, the facts and events of their life, and about their future. Here are examples of some of the most common techniques.

  1. Rainbow Ruse. Credit the client with both a personality trait and its opposite: “Sometimes you are very outgoing and confident… 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 statements like this literally cover the whole spectrum of a personality trait.
  2. Jacques Statement. Talk about the usual issues and crises that tend to occur around the person’s age. This example would fit a person in their mid-30s to early 40s: “If you’re 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’s a part of you that sometimes wants to scrap everything, get out of the rut and start over, but next time do things YOUR way.”
  3. Fuzzy Fact. Ask an apparently factual statement that is likely to be accepted initially, but leaves space to become something more specific, when further prompted. This can be related to geography, as in, “I see a connection with Europe, possibly Britain, or it could be the warmer Mediterranean part…” Or it could be physical: “The gentleman with me now is telling me about a problem around the chest area…” Or it could be related to 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…”
  4. Good Chance Guess. Make a statement that has a higher probability of being true than the person might 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, that’s a hit. If not, it could be applied someone that was close to them or someone that they knew, which makes it unlikely that the statement could be wrong.
  5. Trivia Stat. Most people have an unsorted box of old photos, or out-of date medication, or an old key they don’t use anymore, or supplies related to a hobby or interest they no longer pursue. Most people have a scar on their left knee, were involved in a childhood accident that included water, have clothing in their wardrobe that no longer fits, and tried to learn a musical instrument as a child and later gave up. Of course, it’s likely that most people don’t realize how common these trivial traits are!
  6. Jargon Blitz. Bury the person in an avalanche of official-sounding language. For example, a tarot card reader could explain the traditional meaning of a card by saying, “The five of swords indicates a struggle in the affairs of the heart.”
  7. 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 the person agrees or disagrees. The negative part of the question can simply vanish if they say they do work with kids. “Yes, I thought so. A strong affinity with children is indicated…”
  8. Pollyanna Pearls. State that whatever has been difficult lately is likely to improve. “You’ve had a bit of a bumpy ride romantically these last few years, but the next year or so will be a lot easier…”
  9. Self-fulfilling Predictions. When making predictions about mood or personality, this type of statement has the added bonus of 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!”
  10. Unverifiable Predictions. These can’t be verified either way, so there’s no chance of them being wrong. “Someone you know harbors a secret grudge against you. They will put obstacles in your way, but you’ll overcome their plans without realizing it.”

In conclusion, some people may try want you to believe that they can read your mind. I’ve not encountered significant scientific evidence that suggests that anyone really can to that. If the evidence emerges, I’d be open and happy to change my opinion.

But until that happens, I want people to be aware of some of the tricks that may be used against them, so they’re less susceptible to harm.

As a psychologist, my desire is to truly understand and to help people. I want people to feel empowered with the knowledge they need to develop a greater awareness of who they are, why they do things, and how they can improve themselves. To do this, I generally rely on what they say to me and how they say it in their sessions with me. If the client consents, it may also help me to meet with their significant other, family members, or friends.

If you’re seeing a psychologist, don’t assume they have the ability to read your mind. If there’s something you want to talk about, be sure to communicate about it. This is especially true if the treatment isn’t unfolding the way that you thought it would, if you’re uncomfortable in any way, or if the session isn’t as helpful as you’d hoped.

I’m certain that a client could withhold information from me or purposely deceive me if they wanted to. Unfortunately, all this would do is ruin our relationship and prevent us from working together to help the person in the best possible way.

Lots of people assume that others should know precisely what they need, and that they should how to give it to them. But nobody can read your mind. The reality is, it’s necessary to communicate about what you need, and to teach others to support you in the ways that you find most helpful.

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