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A fortuneteller's ability to read your future might seem magical, but those “psychic powers” have way more to do with psychology than the supernatural.

Hosted by: Brit Garner
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 Introduction (0:00)

Thanks to Babbel for sponsoring this episode. Check the link in the description to start learning a new language today. (♪SciShow Intro♪)

 Cognitive Biases (0:08)

Cognitive biases are everywhere. They're unconscious mental shortcuts we use all the time, and normally they help us dismiss unimportant details and reach quick conclusions. But these biases can also be used to hack our logic. And this is especially common when it comes to commercial clairvoyance, mediums, and psychics.

 Cold Reading (0:25)

To convince clients of their paranormal ability many psychics use cold reading techniques, which are clever ways of extracting information without explicitly asking for it. These techniques rely on cognitive biases. And if you know what you're looking for, you might be able to spot them. First, one major technique this industry uses is to just say something really general.

Something like "You do well when you work on your own but life has taught you that some things can only be accomplished as a team." This is an example of a Barnum statement and they're extremely common in psychic readings. A Barnum statement is a generic description of personality and character traits that seems to apply to almost everyone. Like, I know that I work well on my own but I'm also part of projects that couldn't happen without a team like SciShow Psych and I bet you have examples like this too.

That's kind of the point. Still, as early as the 1940s, cognitive psychologists discovered that if you give a room a set of Barnum statements something surprising happens. Pretty much everyone takes them as amazingly accurate profiles tailored specifically to themselves.

 Barnum effect (1:27)

This phenomenon is called the Barnum effect. And you may also recognise if from horoscopes or from popular personality tests. But commercial psychics have a lot more tricks beyond just this. And you're vulnerable to them even if you come into that dark incense-heavy room as a skeptic. 

 Subjective Validation (1:42)

For example, thanks to the cognitive bias subjective validation, if a statement holds some deep personal significance to you, your mind is really likely to also consider it factually true. Like, let's say you struggled to pick a job or a major in college and your late grandma was pretty harsh about it and that really hurt. Well, a psychic might say something like "Your late grandma is very proud of where you got with your career." And since that statement has such personal significance to you, subjective validation may tell you it's also true. So your jaw drops and your mind opens up a little bit to the possibility that this psychic may have supernatural powers.

Then, this is where your biases really take over.

 Confirmation Bias (2:20)

Once that belief locks in, you might be prey to confirmation bias, where you're likely to use new information to back up something you already believe. And your brain may literally not notice any conflicting evidence that comes up later. Like if your grandpa is still alive and well but the psychic later tells you that your grandfather also says hello and by the way likes to golf, you might dismiss that as an honest mistake.

 Selective Memory (2:44)

Or you may just forget that slip up all together, thanks to a little thing called selective memory. That's where we're not likely to recall something that doesn't fit our existing beliefs. In other words, you remember the hits and straight up discard the misses. Selective memory does wonders for this industry because it allows psychics to share not only generic Barnum statements, but also weirdly specific details they couldn't have guessed.

Like how did that psychic know about your late grandma and your up and down work life?

 Hot Reading (3:10)

Well, they might have gotten details through hot reading, a mystical process also known as googling your client ahead of time. But they also could have just repeated something you said a few minutes ago. You might have mentioned how you're happy with your new job because your family expected you to be an engineer and it took you a few years to figure out what you liked. Then, all the psychic had to do was wait a while and throw that information back at you with different phrasing.

Research has also shown that our memories tend to get even more selective over time, and that key events can feel more significant later. So after a psychic reading, their amazing insights will likely feel even more impactful than they did in the moment. So, it's not that you're foolish or super gullible, it's that someone is capitalizing on your brain's shortcuts.

Because while psychics may get a lot of info by analyzing our looks or body language, cold reading mainly feeds on our cognitive biases. And since these biases are so pervasive and run in the background, we don't often notice when someone is taking advantage of them. But we're not powerless against them either.

Learning how cognitive biases work and actively fighting them can help us avoid getting manipulated. And not just by expensive psychics. This also applies to sales people, marketing, and the wide world of scams.

So at the end of the day, our brains may allow us to be super smart, social, and thoughtful, but they can be tricked too.

 Conclusion (4:25)

Thanks to Babbel for sponsoring this episode of SciShow Psych. Babbel won't help you predict the future, but it can help you learn a new language and communicate with people all over the world. Their big thing is efficiency. Learning a new language takes time and commitment.

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But you can practice for when that day comes. As a SciShow viewer you'll also get 50% off a six-month subscription if you click the link in the description below. (♪SciShow Outro♪)