Academic journal article The Journal of Parapsychology

Clients' Influence in the Selection of Elements of a Psychic Reading

Academic journal article The Journal of Parapsychology

Clients' Influence in the Selection of Elements of a Psychic Reading

Article excerpt


Readers Who Successfully Select Reading Elements

Informal feedback from subjects during a recent study of the ways in which psychic readings are processed by clients (Roe, 1994) suggests that they can recognize that readings they have solicited have been of a form which allowed them to be true for many people. Yet they remain convinced that some elements of the reading were especially true of them or their circumstances in a manner that made the reading particularly or even uniquely pertinent to them.

It is not easy to reconcile this impression with the findings of experimental studies of psychic readers (most notably Boerenkamp, 1985, 1986) which argue that psychics draw from a pre-formed array of "things to say." This impression is buttressed by the extensive pseudopsychic literature (e.g., Hobrin, 1990; Jones, 1989) which serves to provide just such a set of reading elements. The array needs to be large and comprehensive enough in range to cover most eventualities (in terms of personality, concerns, or events) in clients' lives, but nevertheless must be brief enough to be memorized and recalled by the reader with only limited aides memoires to hand.(1) Indeed, the demands made on the reader's memory are likely to lead to a tendency for the same topics to recur quite frequently, subject to the preferential biases of the reader. Boerenkamp's (1988) account of the behavior of the claimants that he tested may be seen as describing such a tendency:

[The] psychics appeared to be very consistent in their behavior. Each psychic had a preference for a session of a certain duration . . . . The psychics appeared also to be consistent in most characteristics of the structural analysis. Each of them had a personal preference for certain topics . . . . The target person and his or her specific circumstances in life hardly affects the structure of the verbal behavior of the psychics. (pp. 146-147)

According to this interpretation, the readings generated do not depend upon the reader sensing unique aspects of the client's life and concerns, but rather upon the client's willingness to interpret and elaborate upon the limited information mechanically generated by the reader.(2) Explanations of this process typically invoke the Barnum Effect (Hyman, 1977; Roe, 1991), described by Dickson and Kelly (1985, p. 367) as "the psychological phenomenon whereby people accept general personality interpretations as accurate descriptions of their own unique personalities." The effect emphasizes the vague or general nature of the statements in allowing the client to read her(3) own meaning into them, as well as focusing upon characteristics of the client that leave her especially vulnerable to such deception (e.g., Tyson, 1982). The client's erroneous impression that others would not fit her given description can be accounted for in terms of her limited access to a comparable array of the life experiences of other people against which to match the information (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973, term this the availability heuristic). There can be little doubt that this proposed solution in terms of conventional psychology is coherent and somewhat persuasive.

However, if we consider what kind of information we should expect were the reader to be genuine - that is, if his material was derived paranormally - it seems likely that he would be strait-jacketed by many of the same factors that underscore the conventional account. Despite being convinced of their own uniqueness, people are actually very similar to one another;(4) they tend to experience comparable events at the same stages in their lives, to focus on similar current problems, and to hold similar aspirations for the future (see Sugarman, 1986, for an overview). Perhaps it should not be surprising, then, that after one has investigated a reader for an extended period of time, the readings start to appear formulaic. We cannot take this as evidence of conscious deception any more than we can assume that a general practitioner is diagnosing patients through the application of some probabilistic algorithm rather than in response to their needs, simply because many of the diagnoses reappear with great regularity. …

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